Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

When fatherhood comes first

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Once upon a time, in a house with a great big spreading elm out front, a little girl was assembling her mental puzzle of the world.

She had troops to assist in this great sorting, a marching battalion of research assistants frozen in plastic skins. She had dolls, old G.I. Joes worn paint-less on their moulded hips, pastel ponies scribbled black with ballpoint pen. For hours, the little girl would arrange them in ways that tested her misty hypotheses of life: boys and girls, heroes and villains, leaders and workers all acted out alike.

And if there was a child, then who would be the mommy? This was an important thing to know. She wasn't sure, but she had a theory, though. "Girls grow up to be mommies, right?" she said, turning to the supervising human watching from the door.

He laughed, leaned down to ruffle her mousy hair. "Only if they want to be," he said. "They can be, if they want to be."

The little girl, she thought about that, but only for a second. The concept made sense. "I don't want to be a mommy, then," she said, and continued with her play. Moving on to establish a benevolent dictatorship of My Little Ponies, female leaders and engineers and secret mission-makers all. (In time, the Ponies would challenge the G.I. Joes for ownership of their sacred bathtub territory, Crystal Falls, but that's another story.)

Oh, that girl is 32 today, and she remembers that moment clear as day, the moment she understood her life was hers to choose. Which is to say: I cannot speak to what it is to be a father on this Father's Day. I can speak to what it is to be a daughter who learned from her dad how to stand up, how to speak up, how to name for herself what it is to be a woman.

I can speak to what it meant to a young girl to see her father speaking proudly of his female grad students. To see him speaking with respect of his female colleagues, to see him reading books by women and raving about what they'd written. To see him listening patiently to me, rattling off the latest discovery -- dinosaurs, say, or Japan (just Japan, the very existence of a place called Japan).

Through him, I learned my voice mattered, and there was no microphone where it was not worthy to speak. "Can girls be president of the United States?" I asked, wide-eyed. (The concept of borders and citizenship was a lesson for later.)

"Yes," he said, without hesitation. "They can."

Well, that has not yet come to pass, but isn't the most time-honoured work of parents to ignite the flame of possibility?

And look, here's something beautiful: Fatherhood is changing. The physical manifestations of this are the subject of endless trend pieces in glossy magazines, bearing beaming photos of hip urban dads carrying their babies in slings. There's the slow-but-steady increase of baby-changing tables in public men's washrooms. There are the numbers: In 1986, fathers accounted for four per cent of stay-at-home parents in Canada. By 2010, that was up to 12 per cent.

This steady sea change speaks to a lot of things. Among them, it speaks to how women are climbing higher in education and career, opening up possibilities for family arrangements that once didn't widely exist. It speaks to increased protections and acceptance for same-sex couples who wish to be parents. It speaks to the evolution of parental-leave benefits to include fathers.

Indeed, 14 years ago, only three per cent of new fathers claimed parental-leave benefits in Canada after their child was born. Today -- after changes to shareable paid benefits Statistics Canada described as designed, in part, to help "achieve gender equity" -- more than one father in every 10 outside Quebec does the same. In La Belle Province, which offers a unique paternity program, 84 per cent of fathers claimed in 2010.

When we stitch fatherhood into the fabric of our society, we announce the work of care, of nurturing, belongs to any and to all.

This is how it should be, though -- in living memory -- not always how it was. A constructed image of my grandfather, presiding tight-lipped over a postwar home where a father's love was known mostly through silence. That is how it was, once. "It just seems that being a caring father gets more attention and acceptance now, as the way things are supposed to be," my own dad says.

My own dad, who always made it known in no uncertain terms he prized being a father over any career or award. That mattered to the little girl on the floor, piecing together how she could engage the world, peering out from a tiny bedroom at the distant horizons unfurling themselves for her.

So, to all the fathers out there who care, who try, who help point their children toward the future and hold them when they cry: Happy Father's Day.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 14, 2014 0

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