Providers, protectors, patriarchs—these dad archetypes have set some of our expectations for fathers, but such a notion of fatherhood hasn’t kept up with the times. As we lurch toward a more just society, the role of fathers needs to fundamentally shift.
Lately, it seems like few of the dads who have supposedly exemplified fatherhood could rise to the moment we are in. Many of the fictional ones are deeply problematic: Atticus Finch turned out to be racist, and Cliff Huxtable turned out to be Bill Cosby.
So what should a father be, here and now? I imagine that if my toddler could understand the question, she would answer it fairly simply: My role is to make things OK.
As a relatively new parent, that mostly seems to be about meeting immediate needs like conjuring a snack or making a frustrating puzzle piece fit. But as we zoom out, what does making things OK as parents actually look like, and how do we do it?
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First, we have to reject what’s not working. The power structure in place—the white patriarchy—has benefitted many fathers, but it is actually standing in the way of things being OK for our children.
Patriarchy, due to the consolidation of power, means my family might be OK, but only insofar as I can protect them or provide for them. It actually doesn’t create a safe and thriving atmosphere for my wife or my daughter, independent of me, nor anyone else. The outcome is not a civilized society. Unchecked, it starts to feel like a dystopian hellscape where violent white men hold onto resources and power for themselves and their own families, oblivious to the larger threat and fearful of change or progress. That never ends well.
White men, many of them fathers, have viciously held onto power but have not used it to make things OK for most people. It is time to dismantle that structure. And to borrow from Audre Lorde, we need new tools to do that.
New tools means new people, but also new paradigms of power. It is not just about having women serve in office in the patriarchy; we have to dismantle and rebuild.
And we need a new plan for what we should build.
Fortunately, the Black women behind the reproductive justice framework already figured out how to talk about this back in 1994 when they gathered in Chicago. SisterSong defines reproductive justice as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”
This is a foundational set of rights. It goes beyond limiting the reach of government and sets forth expectations of safety and sustainability. As a father, it’s a world I want my kid living in.
Here’s the catch. To get there, we fathers, especially we cisgender, straight, white fathers, have to give up our privileged position in society and the fruits of patriarchy. Most male privileges are invisible to us and they come at the expense of others. For example, as a white man, I can speak without being interrupted and my words carry more weight, but my ideas aren’t necessarily better. And even before I speak, I have been assured that my input is valuable and I’m encouraged to share it.
If mediocre ideas from white guys are more valuable than good ideas from Black women, we can assume society isn’t living up to its potential. White men must start to see and be conscious of their privilege and recognize the unearned power it grants them, and how that is ultimately doing everyone (even us) a disservice. By giving up that power, we ensure a more equitable society.
Disassembling the patriarchy and realizing reproductive justice may seem like long-term goals, but there are plenty of places to start today. Some of them have been framed as “women’s issues,” but we have to reject any attempts to silo or sideline an issue that affects all people. Because our lives are interconnected—all issues are all of our issues.
Take abortion. Abortion is health care, a critical part of reproductive health. With nearly 1 in 4 cis women getting an abortion in their lifetime, we know many men have benefitted from their partners having access to abortion care. I know I have.
The restrictions on abortion are a political problem, mostly created by men. It is time for fathers to stand up alongside leaders in the reproductive rights and justice movements to fight for abortion—not as “fathers of daughters” or “husbands of wives,” but as beneficiaries of access to abortion care themselves.
Paid family leave is another one. Taking the time to care for your family shouldn’t be a luxury. Comprehensive paid family leave policies that cover all industries would ensure people can sustainably grow their families and care for loved ones. Single-parent and dual-earner households are on the rise, and the need for paid family leave continues to increase. This is also a critical piece to making sure women stay connected to the workforce and can be full participants in building the future.
Equal pay is similar in terms of securing that equal participation. The gendered pay gap in this country is an indicator, a measurement in a capitalist society of the value we place on people. Ours illustrates how far we have to go. If men do not join women in fighting for pay equity, we are complicit in the status quo.
And maternal mortality rates in this country, and health inequities in general, reveal deep veins of injustice, particularly against Black women, in a culture that idolizes mothers rather than actually supporting them. There are plenty of policy proposals now that start to address this issue, but ultimately the maternal health crisis lies at the intersection of what it means to be Black and a woman in this system. Fathers, and not just those in mourning, should step up and support the advocates who are working on this issue.
And of course, patriarchy has made the world less safe in so many other ways. It created a political system that allowed climate change, an incredible threat to our children, to be something we are arguing about rather than fixing. Where Black men, assuming they survive their arrest, are funneled into a for-profit carceral system while white men start weed dispensaries. It has led to a culture where people have guns but not access to health care. Where women should expect to be sexually assaulted but not expect justice when it happens.
In general, men have to stop sitting on the sidelines (or on the other team) and get involved in creating a more just society.
It’s true that many fathers today deserved better role models. But instead of looking at old men who have shaped an unjust society, I think we need to take our cue from the women standing next to us.
Parenthood is more than providing for and protecting the family under your roof. We have a duty to challenge the unjust systems that have shaped our society and threaten our children’s future. Our role as a parent in today’s world needs to be about helping to build the “safe and sustainable communities” we want our kids to live in.