Commentary: For Father’s Day, dads reflect on what makes a man

Fathers talk about their hopes for their kids and grandkids and what they learned from their dads.

By Amy Joyce / The Washington Post

To mark this Father’s Day, The Washington Post asked fathers and father figures to reflect on what it means to them to be a man. What do they want their children and grandchildren to understand about being a man in today’s world? How do they see manhood changing? How different is it to be a father today than it was for their fathers?

What follows are some of the insightful, eloquent and poignant answers we received. Happy Father’s Day to those who celebrate, and we’re wishing peace and comfort to those who feel a weight on this day. Mostly, thank you.

The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

•••

To my sons and grandsons, and to my male students:

You will hear a lot about strength. Some of this will be obvious and overt. Some will come through constant, powerful cultural messages. Much of this messaging will be silly and trivial, and some will be actively harmful.

Strength is required to be good, useful and trustworthy. That should be our constant goal. In that regard, strength will manifest mostly inside of you. It involves aligning your actions with a high moral code. It means fighting any trait or inclination that would lead you to hurt or harm another; ever, in any way. It involves fighting any trait or inclination that would harm you or keep you from your fullest potential.

Real strength involves owning your actions and choices. It means working to right your mistakes, to learn and grow. This requires constant strength, and it’s an ongoing challenge, a perpetual quest for the very strongest. Strength includes building the resources to care for and help others. A truly strong man can be fully trusted by anyone in any situation; at home, at work, at a social gathering, anywhere. Work hard to be consistently gentle and caring. In my mind, if you can earn, and be worthy of, a small child’s trust, then you will be well on your way to achieving real strength.

There is another term we use for the fullest, most evolved version of a strong man: a good one.

These forms of strength are often not visible, trendy or celebrated, but they will bring you peace and fulfillment. Each time you apply strength to being good, it will build muscles of the psyche and the soul that will allow your life to soar to joyful, meaningful heights.

Braden Bell, 50, Ashland City, Tenn.

•••

What does it mean to be a man? I don’t know. There! I said it.

Being a man who doesn’t know isn’t the norm. How am I to mansplain if I don’t know everything? Aren’t men supposed to have all the answers? What if my son asks a deep question? Surely I ought to have some winning, fatherly gold to impart.

I’m a fatherless father. I was raised by a single mom with six kids. There are things I don’t know about being a man. I make do.

Also, I’m a gay dad raising what seems to be a straight young man. Am I qualified? Yes, but I don’t know everything about being a straight young man.

I’m oddly at peace with not knowing. My son is maturing as planned. All is seemingly well. But there will always be things I don’t know, and I shouldn’t pretend to know them. I’m still a dad. That I know.

Casey Cavalier, 55, Ashland, Ore.

•••

For me, as a Black father, being a man means being a provider and role model for my three kids in a world that constantly portrays negative images of Black men, but especially of Black fathers. I’m a proud stay-at-home dad with a wonderful wife who fully supports my role in the home as I take on laundry duties, cook (I throw down in the kitchen) and complete other tasks typically associated with mothers.

Fatherhood to me is about providing emotional support to my children and being present at Little League games, in the classroom as a substitute teacher, at dance recitals, at PTA meetings and at bedtime to give a good-night kiss. It’s about being supportive, loving my kids unconditionally and hoping they learn from my mistakes, so they can be great parents if they one day choose to have their own children.

Vernon Gibbs II, 44, New Milford, N.J.

•••

As a stay-at-home dad for the past 14 years, I have learned that no one gets to decide what my masculinity means. That’s for me to decide, and every time my teen daughter comes home from school and wants to talk about her day with me, I know exactly what my masculinity means to me. It means being there for my family every day.

It’s this example that I want all three of my children to see as they make it through their teen years. It has taken me a long time to learn that, and as an at-home dad, I often get comments about what “real men” do. I can build your deck; and bake you a lemon tart. Neither one has anything to do with my masculinity. How I care for my family does.

Shannon Carpenter, 47, Lee’s Summit, Mo.

•••

I was raised with the belief that men were supposed to be strong. I don’t think it’s a bad idea, but today’s men best employ their strength when holding space for their loved ones to individuate. This means working on ourselves first and understanding our own limits. I believe men have denied themselves of their own mental health in the past while powering through as protector and provider. We have ignored our limits. Becoming better at setting our own boundaries and getting in touch with our own needs allows us to model healthy behaviors and hold space for our loved ones to be individuals.

As a father of a daughter with disabilities, I have found that detaching and creating space for my daughter to safely explore her own identity has required me to be stronger than I thought possible, with strength I found through therapy, group support and lots of heavy dead lifts.

Peter Galligan, 44, Denver

•••

The question is: What does it mean to be a (decent) human being?

Tradition has men as the breadwinners, but women are now in many positions and careers that were once only occupied by men. Tradition pegs women as the nurturers and educators of the young, but we desperately need to encourage those functions in men.

I belong to a “senior men’s group,” which meets weekly via Zoom. We come from many nations, faiths, kinds of work and points on the political spectrum. I can’t really see anything we’d have to do differently if senior women were admitted.

What virtue applies to only one sex? What vice is desirable on the other side of the gender divide? Suckling a baby can be done only by a woman, but anyone can hold a baby bottle, kiss a scraped knee, read a book or set an example.

Vive la différence? Hm, pourquoi?

Alexander Patico, 75, Columbia, Md.

•••

It should simply mean to be human and to treat others as such, but, given the reality we find ourselves in, it means having the power and responsibility to speak up for those who aren’t being heard.

Michael Marshall, 36, Auburn, Mass.

•••

I have two teenage sons. I hope they grow up to be good men. I try to teach them that a good man is deeply optimistic about the world, but when he sees trouble, he seeks the solution. A good man does all he can to support the people he loves. When he must choose sides, a good man chooses compassion and empathy. A good man knows when he’s wrong, apologizes and attempts to change. A good man knows right from wrong but looks for the potential for good in others. Most of all, I want my sons to know themselves and always remember that a good man treats all people with kindness and respect.

Carter Gaddis, 53, Lutz, Fla.

•••

Being a man in today’s world means providing not only for your family but also for society, knowing full well that you will not reap those benefits. It’s taking that extra deep breath in difficult times and choosing your words wisely when your instincts say to do anything but. It’s remembering that our mistakes don’t own us and that it is through those mistakes that we learn to improve ourselves and become better versions of ourselves. All of this while remembering that being a man is recognizing the significance of the women who made us and the women who lead us in life just as much.

Alexander Ashworth, 34, Murfreesboro, Tenn.

•••

I’ve been a father for more than two decades, I’m raising three young men, and yet I don’t naturally identify as a father. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because, in my childhood, I saw my father as the man who had mastered all the skills and knew all the answers. I’ve never felt that way. If anything, being a father has humbled me. It regularly reminds me of the limits of my abilities. I’ve been an educator longer than I’ve been a father, and I’ve learned that I can’t mold my boys like clay into the adults I want them to become. I can nudge them, I can support them and, most importantly, I can see them for who they are. But I’ll always question whether I’m making the best choices in support of their growth. Being a father is hard work that reminds me of what it means to be human.

Christopher Kimberly, 49, Frederick, Md.

•••

There is no one way to “be a man.” However, all ways ought to include showing emotion, admitting when you’re wrong, respecting others (especially women), asking for forgiveness and, if you have children, telling and showing them that you love them.

Rob Williams, 37, St. Paul, Minn.

•••

Being a man is providing emotional and physical security for your family.

It is having your family know that you are going to do everything in your power to protect their hearts, minds and bodies. Being a man is allowing yourself to be vulnerable, so your children see that vulnerability is safe. It is being alert and aware in your surroundings, so your family knows you are going to protect them. That is what being a man is to me.

Kyle Lawrence, 36, Memphis

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