What Does It Mean to be a Hands on Dad?

November 15, 2011  |  Fatherhood

The kindly lady at the register called me a “hands-on Dad.” I was waiting to check-out with a box of diapers and a chattering eighteen month old when she smiled and said, “It’s good to see such a hands-on Dad.” It was a compliment and I liked…a lot. I was already swimming in a sea of smiles, nods and “ohhhhhs” from just about every woman I passed. Not much will make a guy feel like Superman more than a slow stroll around Target with his baby daughter in his arms. Honestly, right after she was born, I volunteered to take Pebbles everywhere I went. On a regular day at the grocery store I’m just some idiot who ran out of milk. But strap an infant to my chest and I’m that sweet, young Dad with his precious little daughter. The unshaven, ball cap, sweatshirt look suddenly tells the story of a loving father who has put parenthood before personal grooming, rather than the story of a slacker who really needs to hit the gym. I’m a “hands-on Dad,” I get a free pass.

I’d already had a taste of this with my son who’s a couple of years older. We’d be in the middle of a ferocious round of “chase Daddy, catch Daddy, knock Daddy over” at the library park when I would start sensing the approving eyes of Moms and Nannies lighting on us as we tumbled across the grass. The truth is, given my insecurities, I reveled in all the unsolicited attention and the feeling that people thought I was a good Dad. There’s nothing quite as intoxicating as the approval of strangers.

I’m not entirely sure when I first noticed that my wife wasn’t on the receiving end of the same admiration that I was getting, but it was pretty clear that a trip to Target didn’t include people telling her how great it was to see a mother spending time with her child. Likewise the grocery store, where cruising the aisles with two young children has never involved deferential smiles and I have certainly never in my life heard the phrase “hands-on Mom.”

It occurred to me that the reason behind the disparity is both obvious and disappointing. As much as we’d like to believe that we’ve evolved past gender stereotypes, when it comes to parenting, most people still fall back on millennia old ideas of what Mommies and Daddies are expected to do. Sure, we all understand the concept of stay-at-home Dads and these days the word “Mannie” refers to more than a diminutive Latino cartoon character. But for most folks, these are novel concepts that barely rise about the level of quaint anecdote. “Oh, look at Tim! He quit his job to raise his kids, how progressive!”

That these trends are noteworthy at all tells us that there still needs to be a genuine shift in mindset; a reimaging of parenting as a true, equal partnership. The fact is, we shouldn’t see anything unique or charming about a capable, dedicated, involved father. Men are not genetically predisposed indifference or absence and we’re certainly not interested in being cast as “well meaning helper.” The concept of the nine-to-five Provider/Father, absorbed in his work while the wife labors with raising his children, is equal parts obsolete and insulting. And though we pay lip service to being well past this mid-twentieth century vision of the nuclear family, every special pat on the back I get for simply showing up and being a parent tells us otherwise.

I aspire to be a great father, but I’m not interested in being graded on a sliding scale or getting credit for mundane parenting tasks simply because I’m a guy. I don’t need a parade every time I execute a flawless, one-handed diaper change (which I do regularly) and I don’t need to hear about how great it is that I can do pigtails for my little girl (my piggies rock, by the way). I know these accolades are meant in the best possible way but when you compliment a father for doing something a mother does without notice or praise, you diminish both of us.


  1. I love when people notice how hands on my husband is, but no doubt, I wouldn’t mind people noticing what I do. Some do though and I appreciate it.

  2. I’m happy to see a blog discussing fatherhood, but I am going to disagree with you about the motives behind the smiles you are getting.
    After 30 years of childcare and observing families up close, and getting to see the changing roles fathers have played in 3 decades, I do understand your observations and the point that you are making about the definition of fatherhood in our culture. But you’re not actually getting comments that are sexist or even expressing surprise or shock that you are parenting. You’re getting compliments.
    That’s because women find watching men taking care of children attractive. There is something primally driven within us to find that a turn on. Notice you’re not getting those remarks from men, you’re getting them from women. Just as men may find a short skirt attractive, women find men who are nurturing to be attractive.
    Be careful when you assume motives! You got this one wrong, but I look forward to reading more blogs about fatherhood.

    • That’s a smart and fair take on this, Kirsten. I think there’s a difference between the “Wow he’s a catch” smile and the “Awwww isn’t that precious, a man with his kids!” smile. I feel like some men (not all, obviously) struggle to feel like full partners in parenting and part of that struggle is the feeling like they aren’t expected to be good at it in the first place.

      Still, I appreciate your input…I’ll have to think on this one for a bit (which, for me, is the point of having a blog in the 1st place)


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