By Christine Ledbetter
I MISS my father the most when I pull weeds.
For over a decade, we would fly in from our respective homes in Colorado and Virginia to meet in Pike County, Illinois, every May and September. Once there, we stayed at my mother’s ancestral home, a place she cherished, and we maintained years after her death.
We’d rise early in the morning, drink coffee in the sunroom and discuss which section to weed that day.
It was a fruitless battle because it would take only weeks for the weeds to regain the terrain once we’d returned home. But it was our time together, after a relationship of stops and starts.
He was a father of his time. The son of tenant farmers, he was the first in his family to graduate from college, using the GI Bill. He knew how to work hard, but he didn’t know how to play. He was stoic, never silly.
Our together moments were spent laboring. Since his death in 2015, I’ve been pulling the weeds by myself.
I married a man quite different. A feminist, he stayed home for several years to be the children’s primary care-giver. Because I had the job with health insurance, I had to return to work just three weeks after their births. There was no maternity leave, a loss that I still mourn.
He was the only male in the “Mommy and Me” exercise class and could French braid our daughter’s hair with enviable skill. He made our children laugh with goofy noises, cartoonish faces and singing off-key with the Spice Girls.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, a stay-at-home dad was an anomaly.
But fathering has changed. Our grandchildren’s fathers had parental leave, just like their wives. They receive time off from work when the kids are sick.
This Father’s Day, I celebrate how tenderly my son-in-law shushes the baby and engages in a gibberish competition with the toddler. I watch videos of my son dancing with his children employing comical moves, showing them how to abandon themselves to the joy of movement.
Three generations of men raising children brings us fathers who are fully committed to the beauty and messiness of child-rearing as the norm, not the exception.
These are children loved by men in a society where, finally, masculinity allows them to be nurturers — societal progress with great gifts of gentleness and permission to be silly.
Perhaps, now, fatherhood is really just parenthood. And the fight is no longer as much about gender roles as it is keeping the children safe.
—Christine Ledbetter, the former arts editor of the Washington Post, lives in the Midwest and writes about culture.