ABHMS celebrates Father’s Day: The rise of engaged, emotional dads redefines fatherhood in modern families

VALLEY FORGE, PA (06/12/2024)—In recent years, a new vision of fatherhood has taken shape—that of an engaged, present father who is unafraid to show his emotions to his children. In this model, fathers are dynamic, resilient and capable of raising children, rather than merely “helping out the mom.” It is embodied in diverse families, for example families with two gay dads, a single dad, or a stay-at-home dad, but it is also increasingly common in families where parents of different genders are in a partnership.

Photo of father holder daughter by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash.

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash.

Unfortunately, this groundbreaking model may be difficult to apply in real-life circumstances, especially for men raised by “traditional” fathers—the family breadwinners who represented traditional masculine values. Although these family dynamics may seem new, this challenge of developing new fatherhood skills was recognized by family professionals decades ago. In a 1949 volume of the journal Marriage and Family Living, a study of traditional and “developmental” conceptions of fatherhood was presented. Developmental parenting was defined as follows: “Developmental conceptions of parenthood emphasize training for self-reliance and citizenship, seeing to emotional well-being, helping child develop socially, providing for child’s mental growth, guiding with understanding and relating self lovingly to the child, and being a calm, cheerful, growing person one’s self [sic].”

An upcoming PBS documentary, “Grown Up Dad,” produced by Joe Gidjunis (and written and co-produced by Joshua Kagi, once a staff member of American Baptist Home Mission Societies), illustrates the quest for fathering skills many men embark on once they become dads. “I just really felt unprepared to be the kind of dad I wanted to be,” said Gidjunis. When he found very few resources for soon-to-be fathers who wished to be fully present in their kids’ lives, he was inspired to create one, and the PBS producers quickly snatched up the idea.

While patriarchy has created difficulties for women in the labor market, it has contributed to models of masculinity that may hinder the development of deep, emotional connections between men and their children. It is a two-way street—with women constituting 46.38% of the American labor market, there is a dire need for engaged, present fathers. “If we’re talking about two-income households, then we also need two parents involved to raise our children today,” said Orlando Rios, one of the men featured in the documentary who talked about their relationships with their own fathers, who were usually absent or too tired after work to engage with them.

Among Christians, there is a need for these conversations from a faith perspective. The predominant narrative about a good Christian father is traditionalist and complementary to “a wife who … joyfully embraces her role as daughter of God, wife of her husband, and mother to her children, and she orients herself homeward,” as Mark Driscoll wrote in his book “Pastor Dad.” Meanwhile, “the father’s duty is to cultivate all aspects of his child to maturity in the Lord…everything in the child’s life is ultimately the responsibility of the father. This is a particularly radical idea in our day, when more than one in three births are to unmarried women,” wrote Driscoll.

Online accounts of “pastor’s kids,” a.k.a. PKs, reveal a full range of experiences, from appreciation to resentment. Almost all PKs’ stories talk about how the pastor-dads were overburdened with work and exhausted. In his blog, the Rev. Benjer McVeigh wrote about a set of guardrails that he created for his pastor-dad role. While he said he wanted his kids to love the church and saw his ministry as a family-wide endeavor, he emphasized the importance of boundaries. He said he did not want his kids to “feel the pressure to be someone they’re not,” and that “he wanted to be a dad to his kids more than a pastor.” In the era of super-connectivity, and electronic devices always connecting us to the workplace, the maintenance of boundaries is vital to fulfill the role of an engaged parent.

We asked dads who work at ABHMS to answer the question, How have you managed to remain an engaged parent while being active in your work/ministry? Here are their answers:

Oladele Barr: “I refer the values and character I possess and use in my work/ministry to how I raise my teenaged daughters, informing them of life lessons and how to navigate various situations positively and successfully. “

Peter Bickel: “Always be present and engagement will follow.”

Vincent Dent: “My engagement is a lifetime commitment. As my children get older—they are both in their early thirties—I find that they come to me with fewer questions, but the issues we discuss are much broader and more significant. The fact that my children trust me to walk with them through their most difficult and sensitive times speaks well of the trust and love we have for one another.”

By Rev. Dr. Anna Piela, senior writer at the American Baptist Home Mission Societies and associate editor of The Christian Citizen.