Local view: Fathers with narrow view still had love to give
By: J.P. Rennquist, For the News Tribune
You know those obnoxious “smell like a man” Old Spice commercials with the muscular, improbably masculine spokesmen? I think I’m responsible for them. I might be, anyway. About five years ago I got roped into doing some online consumer research surveys. One of them asked why I wore Old Spice, and I told them it was because it reminded me of my grandpa. That took me back to a memory and a scent frozen in my mind from half a world away.
The truth is, when I was growing up, it seemed like all of the men were either remote or remote control. Everyone’s dad was away at work all day, and in their leisure time, they did “manly” activities like woodworking or golf or bowling — stuff that could be done with kids, but most of the time, kids weren’t invited. More often than not when I was growing up in Duluth in the ’70s and ’80s, men didn’t mix with kids all that much.
The other dads I grew up with, the remote-control dads that everyone in America shared via ’80s sitcoms such as the “Cosby Show,” “Family Ties” and “Growing Pains,” actually taught me a lot about the ideal of fatherhood. But they were limited to 30-minute segments cut even shorter by commercials.
Men today are spending far more time with their kids than the dads of the World War II “greatest” generation or the baby-boom “me” generation. Both by choice and by circumstance, fathers are working fewer hours, and our leisure time tends to be more child-
focused than it was for our own fathers. If you don’t believe me, go to Playfront Park in Duluth or to Pinehurst Beach in Cloquet or anywhere kids want to be on a weekday afternoon, and look at all the dads mixed in with the moms. That was a rare sight 20 years ago. Now it’s common.
Sure, there’s still a serious problem of father absence in America today. The National Fatherhood Initiative estimates that 24 million children, one in three, live without their biological dad in the household; it’s a problem that costs Americans $100 billion annually in expenses ranging from welfare payments to increased incarceration rates to health-care costs. Live-away dads were a relatively rare phenomenon in my little pocket of the 1980s; the ones who checked out mentally or spiritually were much more common back then.
We also have dads who, for lack of a better word, should be absent. No child should be exposed to the terrors of abuse and domestic violence, for example.
In the past decade, since I became a father, and since I began working with fathers as a professional, I have seen more and more dads committed to staying involved with their kids, regardless of life circumstances. That commitment starts with a strong foundation, early on. Before my 2-year-old son was born, I noticed what seemed to be a lot of dads attending the prenatal appointments, compared to before my older kids were born. I asked the doctor, and he told me that 10 years ago, dads in prenatal appointments were pretty rare, and that now, it’s common. Today, he said, the overwhelming majority of dads attend the first ultrasound appointments to get a first glimpse of their child, and nearly all of them are in the delivery room to welcome their babies and to support the child’s mother. The doctor said that when he delivered his first babies right out of medical school, a father’s presence was frowned upon, and dads were certainly not allowed in the birthing area itself.
I’m convinced that the more remote fathers of previous generations loved their kids as much as the hands-on, Snugli-wearing, diaper-changing dads of today. Maybe they were locked into a narrower idea of what their role was. Of what a man was. Of what a father was.
Which brings me back to my grandfather. He was retired from carpentry and spent his days in an old flannel work shirt sitting in his damp house, tying flies, playing solitaire and reading. If the weather was right, he’d go fishing. He’s the only man who always had time for me from the time I was an infant till the day he died. When I was 22 years old, I studied abroad near Chongqing, China, or “Chung King,” China’s World War II capital, as my grandpa remembered it. There I was, about as far from his tiny house near Otter Creek in Carlton as I could be, when, for a split second, I caught a whiff of him. Of course, it was my musty dorm room, my flannel shirt, and, yes, my Old Spice that smelled like a man that day. Not his.
So I told the story to those market-research people and the next thing I know, we’ve got an ad campaign based on my sentiments exactly. Only, I’m probably not the only man who grew up with that scent, and I know I’m not the only one who associates the scent with what it means to be a man.
I had to chuckle when I saw on the back of my current Old Spice stick; it reads, “If your grandfather hadn’t worn it, you wouldn’t exist.”
J.P. Rennquist is a community organizer and professional fatherhood coach. He lives with his wife and three (soon to be four) kids in Duluth’s Central Hillside.