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It's time to normalize fatherhood

What does it actually mean to "normalize" something? Usually, normalizing involves becoming so accepted that it is a part of what we say, do or think. Take the television. Once a novelty, it now exists in the vast majority of American homes. In the same way, we must begin to normalize fathering.

That's not to say that it's not normal now to have a father. But there isn't a universal definition for a father's role in the life of his child. Boys are growing into men and becoming fathers with entirely different ideas about their roles. Is it to be soft, sensitive and nurturing? Is it to be demanding or aloof? Is today's father any more in touch with the expectations of his role than his father may have been? Does he even have any experience with a father of his own or a significant man who played that role?

While these may be serious questions to some and trivial concerns to others, the fact is that children need their fathers. Research has shown that when a biological father is absent, children will grow into people with voids in their lives. Maybe it will manifest itself in different ways, but for the most part the girls will be sad and heartbroken, the boys will be heartbroken and angry, and both boys and girls will spend a good portion of their lives trying to figure out how to fill the void.

That is not to say that children don't need their mothers; just that they absolutely have to have both. Many people have said that men can't mother and women can't father, no matter how hard we try to prove otherwise.

So how does it change? Here's where it gets interesting.

First, men need to step up. Today's society should no longer tolerate men not participating in more of the child-rearing responsibility. We enable men to skate out of much of the work and consequently cheat them out of a lot of the joy that typically leads to higher participation. That's not to say that we aren't seeing a dramatic shift already, but it should be less the exception and more the rule. Our expectations as a society must change so that we view child-rearing in less stereotypical roles.

Second, we need to let men step up. Faced with the stark reality of overburdened mothering and underutilized fathering, society should confront the bias that exists in early parenthood. I say early parenthood because we recognize that children grow and develop, yet we fail to appreciate that so do their parents.

We should address parental biases in stages. The biases are most glaring in early childhood (and parenthood) and subside somewhat as the children progress through the school-age years. Yet, just as with children, those early years are the most critical to long-term welfare for parents, too.

Bernie Dorsey is founder and coordinator of the Conscious Fathering Program -- www.consciousfathering.org -- which hosts infant-care classes for fathers at Puget Sound-area hospitals, birthing centers and early parenthood education centers.

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