For our dads' generation, the rules were clear-cut: A man would work to provide for his family and wait until he retired to enjoy their company. But it didn't always play out that way, says Stephanie Coontz, author of A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. "Often they came home and found they were strangers to their wife and their children," she says. "Several of the guys I talked to actually wept during the interview."
In my generation the sorrow comes not from what we never had, but what we had and lost. Take my friend Jeff Oster, 56. When he and his wife traveled to Colorado to visit their daughter Ari a few years ago, he assumed, as usual, that the three of them would hang out. But Ari's new boyfriend — that guy, as Oster viewed him — was always around, never giving Dad a chance to see his daughter alone. It hurt, deeply. "I know it's a natural step, but I didn't see it coming," he recalls. "There is no reference manual for that."
Maybe it's some comfort that many younger men are following our lead. The New York Times recently reported on a significant increase in the number of fathers attending school parent meetings in the past decade. And a report by the Pew Research Center also found that fathers of children under 18 who live with their kids "have become more intensely involved in their lives, spending more time with them and taking part in a greater variety of activities." In an unfortunate paradox, however, that same Pew study found that the number of children under 18 living apart from their fathers grew from 11 percent in 1960 to 27 percent in 2010 — and that nonresident dads spend less time with their kids. More than one quarter of nonresident fathers of minors told Pew they had not seen their kids in the past year. Instead of the steady, if somewhat removed, fatherly presence most of us remember from our childhoods — or our own search for a more active role for ourselves — it seems as if the next generation of dads will fall into one of two camps: either all in or hardly in at all. (The paradox, according to the Pew report, is explained in part by increases in out-of-wedlock births. Forty-six percent of all fathers report that at least one of their children was born out of wedlock.)
So where does that leave the middle generation? Do we fade gracefully into a traditional, secondary role with our kids or continue to be parental trailblazers? We may have to figure it out as we go, just as we did with hands-on fatherhood.