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Embracing a More Nuanced Role for Dads

My son's wedding made me ponder the importance of breaking out of traditional roles

By Lauren Stiller Rikleen

A few weeks ago, my husband and I had the joy of walking our son, Alex, down the aisle, one of those life-cycle moments that has profound meaning.

As I watched my husband hug Alex before we moved to our designated location in the ceremony, I was struck by the generational shift taking place. My son was about to gain the title of husband, which also meant a change in his role as son. I was also struck by how navigating these roles at work and at home will be significantly different from what was expected of the generations that preceded his.

As the wedding weekend recedes and Father’s Day nears, it seems an appropriate time both to be grateful, and to pay tribute to all dads who navigate their evolving roles and expectations in the workplace and the home front. For more than two decades, Father’s Day has been another reminder of my own dad’s devotion, reinforced by the void of his absence at his grandson’s wedding, knowing how he would have reflected on the changes marked by that day.

It is also a marker for my husband’s roles as a dad, as a lawyer, and as the spouse of a professional, coupled with the minefield of choices, complexities and need for flexibility those roles have demanded. Father’s Day celebrates these cherished men — and others of their respective generations — who have seen more rigid societal norms give way to a more realistic view of the nuanced role of dads.

Talking About My Generation

Boomer dads were once boomer children, likely raised in homes where their fathers had suffered through the Depression, volunteered to serve in World War II, and, upon their return, went off to work and left behind wives who tended to raising children and running a household. As boomers grew up and embraced the social movements of the '60s and early '70s, there were often conflicts with their sacrificing parents. The war in Southeast Asia became a particular flashpoint in homes across America, as children protested their government’s decisions and, by extension, their parents’ as well.

As the expression “never trust anyone over 30” became a boomer mantra, another revolution was beginning to emerge — one with long-term implications for their future Millennial children. When that inevitable 30 birthday passed, boomers chose to enter their parenting years with different terms of engagement. In contrast to the perception of their own parents as out-of-touch with their views of the world, boomers were going to be the cool parents who understood their children’s internal challenges and treated them as friends — albeit highly protected ones.

In developing this extraordinary rapport with their children, boomer dads were changing the way men parented. Talking about their kids was no longer off-limits in the office or on the golf course, and men became increasingly involved parents, far beyond their role as primary earner. Men also become involved in their children’s sports activities, and coaching became an acceptable reason for professional men to scoot out of work early, even as working women continued to be stigmatized by absences due to their children’s needs.

The New Dad


Tremendous changes were emerging as fathers began to bask in their role as dads. And with each generation since, that role has continued to evolve, although aspirations still often exceed actual results. As the Boston College Center for Work & Family reported in The New Dad: Caring, Committed and Conflicted, most fathers in their study aspired to share equally in caregiving, even as they had not yet achieved that reality.

Today’s young men have amazing opportunities to shape their role as dad. Their engagement is expected, and their willingness to create a more egalitarian household can have profound implications not only for their children, but for their working spouses, whose success depends on greater equality in the responsibilities at home.

My Millennial son is the beneficiary of a boomer dad whose infinite flexibility allowed his children to grow up knowing that he would do anything for them. He was a role model — the modern father, juggling work and family responsibilities in a way that allowed two careers to grow as two children felt nurtured. In a world of mixed messages for men who treat all responsibilities with care, the powerful lesson learned by our son was that being a parent is as important a job as any other, and both require extraordinary commitment to be done well.

Breaking the Mold

It is never easy to change long-held cultural roles. But having great examples helps. Even though Alex grew up without the benefit of his loving grandfathers, he heard enough stories to know that both began the process of breaking the mold of father as remote worker who came home after the kids were in bed. His grandfathers were deeply involved parents who, without knowing they did so, modeled the behaviors that influenced succeeding generations.

This Father’s Day, Alex will, in accordance with family traditions, acknowledge the many wonderful role models in his life. Having these examples ensures that Alex can join others of his generation as dads who are part of the work-family conversation, determined to chart an easier course for their own children.

My hope is that the day will also serve as a catalyst for accelerated change. As we honor our dads and husbands, let’s also work to end the societal constraints that have held men back from full participation in their lives at home. It is time, as the Center for Work & Family reported, to see more clearly what dads do in our families, and focus on how we can help them do it better. When that change has fully evolved, the result will be happier men at home, and greater equality for men and women in the workplace.

Lauren Stiller Rikleen
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