The Mystery of the (Not) Missing Fathers


There’s a song we all like to sing along to at our house. “Popcorn” by the Barenaked Ladies is uptempo, wistful, and propelled towards an explosive crescendo by an onomatopoetic beat. There’s much to love, in other words, but I always get tripped up a little by the first line of the lyric:


Mama put the popcorn kernels in the pot

She turned up the heat

Now the pot is getting hot


It’s clear, evocative, and seemingly innocent — for a lie. You see, in our house, I’m the popcorn person. Always have been, long before the idea of kids ever came into it, and will be until the kids ship me off to a no-popping-allowed home. But in kids’ songs and books, it’s always Mama this, Mama that. Spend as much time immersed in preschool arts and letters as I have since our son was born two years ago, and you’ll find yourself asking as I do: Why doesn’t Daddy ever get to put the kernels in the pot?

Okay, okay, maybe I’m overreacting just a tad. But have pity — my heart is a little bit broken right now. Not in a large, lasting way, just the p’tit mal of the spirit I get whenever I leave my son, usually to go to work, as I have now. He’s hardly alone or in danger, and I’m not worried. I’m just a little lonely without him.

But why? Dads always go away, and presumably always have. It’s kind of what we do — to work, to war, or often enough, just to … away. And apparently without feeling particularly bad about it most of the time, either. In the US, there are about four times as many single mothers as there are single fathers, and 35 times more moms stay at home with their children than dads do. Really, it’s no wonder that fathers are relatively scarce in kiddie lit — it’s a reflection of real life.

Evolution is a slippery bastard. It’s ham-fisted in action yet elegant in effect. It usually works at least 15 degrees off center from where we think it does, and all but encourages grotesquely pat justifications of lousy behavior: I’m a gluttonous, philandering narcissist, and evolution made me so. [No it didn’t.]

Still, if evolution isn’t working on the emotions and behaviors that surround reproduction and child rearing, it’s the deadbeat dad of biological phenomena. If it is working on our emotions and behaviors — as it surely must be — then what seems remarkable, what really needs explaining, is not that so many fathers fail to bond deeply with their children and commit to caring for them, but that plenty of us do. Why do we stick around one kid, when we could be off siring batches of progeny hither and yon?

Honestly, I think it comes down to breasts — or really, the lack of them. I went through the great majority of my life certain that I didn’t want children, and remained ambivalent until our son’s face hit the air for the first time. Adrenaline kicked in then, but the real changes came more slowly, over months as I cared for the little guy day and night. Not alone, by a long shot, but consistently. Fast forward through enough angelic dozing, satanic screaming, shitty diapers and soul-piercing smiles and, simply put, we bonded. And I miss him every time I go away as a result.

If I’d been a mother, rather than a father, that bonding would have been much more probable. Feeding a baby isn’t so much a choice as it is a crucial tool for silencing nature’s most effective alarm, and women are much better equipped to do that than we poor, non-lactating men are.

I’m basing this on nothing more than my own sleep-deprived musing and a handful of early morning playground chats with other committed fathers. (Saturday morning is our time to rule the sand pits.) But I figure those of use who bond deeply with our children, who stick around for the long haul, physically and emotionally, mostly do so because we did our fair share of the chores when the kids were new. We didn’t have breasts, but we had bellies for sleeping on; we didn’t give birth, but we let our clothes and hair soak up spills and messes made by bodily substances with names we’d never heard before. And we didn’t do it because we were dedicated dads — we became dedicated dads because we did it.

It seems to me that so many men absent themselves from their children’s lives not because they’re shaped by evolution not to care as much as mothers do, but rather because they were more able to shirk the early, insanely taxing but bonding-rich work of keeping an infant alive. Biology is partly to blame of course, in the form of the sexual dimorphism that makes men useless as a food supply. But it’s hardly the final word — men don’t have to skip the hard work of bonding, but they’re aided in doing so, where women less often are, by culture and precedent.

As one minor result, a bunch of my son’s books and songs feel as anachronistic to me in their treatment of fathers as does the airport book we have in which only men are pilots, and women are only stewardesses.

One more thing: I like my son, I’m pretty sure, not just because of early bonding, nor even just because he’s an awesome little dude — though he certainly is that. We actually have a lot in common … we love garbage trucks and dangerous tools, hucking rocks into streams and digging up dirt, and yep, we both love popcorn. Could it be that I love my son, at least in part, simply because of shared interests?

With a daughter due to arrive within weeks, Adam Hinterthuer’s chilling post about princess syndrome yesterday has me scared: will I be a less committed dad if my daughter favors pink tutus and, um, whatever else princesses are into, over garden worms and compost piles?

Nah, I suppose not. I’m just going to have to learn to appreciate insanely pink, irresponsibly girly plastic baby dolls, right Adam? And I guess I’d better get started early.



Photos: Kristina Alexanderson, Kalexanderson on Flickr

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6 thoughts on “The Mystery of the (Not) Missing Fathers

  1. I don’t know where to start. Popcorn? YES! Me too. Bonding as a result of caring? ABSOLUTELY! Why aren’t the psychologists all over that? A daughter due to arrive in weeks? REALLY? Speaking from experience, girls love a good father, and that’s going to be one lucky little girl.

  2. I always think that talk about “quality time” is overrated. Kids, especially little kids just want quantity time with both their parents. Go Canadian…Robert Munch is pretty equitible between moms, dads, grandparents the whole thing. A girl that is exciting, what a lucky children to have you as their dad. And maybe she won’t like pink. When I had all boys I didn’t think I’d spend so much time at a dance studio. (I love the pictures in this story).

  3. @Sue, I think you’re right–grind time counts for a whole lot, pure hours in the saddle or something. And moms and dads both, for sure.

    Robert Munsch is a family favorite, and he not only features a variety of family members, his dads are often not total losers/goofballs. (Another of my pet peeves.)

    And I’m quite excited to hear about the dance studios … we;re still at the tumbling stage, but I think I see some dance potential in our future!

    And @Ann, what would we do without popcorn? the psychologists and everyone else probably does know all this already. I just missed it because I had my face in the corn pot. With my son 🙂

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