I watch as all the other dads stand at the sidelines of mini-football cheering on their kids, shouting out advice – it’s all like some foreign Attenborough documentary. I know nothing about football, and nor does my male partner. But our 6-year-old son is obsessed; it’s all he talks about, giving us a play-by-play of the school lunchtime game with his friends. But the football dad is one dad stereotype I am not.
As a gay dad, as an adoptive dad, I spend a lot of my day over-analysing how I’m dadding – what I should be doing to parent my son, how to make sure he turns into a fine young man, how to ensure he is supported to be himself and not a stereotype of what a boy is supposed to be. I want him to be loving, caring, sensitive, and empathetic. I want him to be emotionally intelligent and articulate. So we’ve made sure he has the opportunity to do dance, and musical theatre, that he also dolls, is not afraid of the colour pink. But despite encouraging all this (or perhaps because we have) he’s gravitated towards cars, and play-fighting, and football. (But he does like pink, so that’s something.)
But as I stand at the sidelines watching my son ‘tackle’ the ball – (this is a new word in my vocabulary taught to me by my son), I wonder if in trying to get him to do other stuff I’m just creating a new stereotype. And actually, I’m not helping him to be himself at all. Because who he is meant to be is a kid who lives and breathes football. Not because that’s ‘what boys do’ but because it’s what he does.
With Fathers’ Day around the corner – my mind goes to some of the father/son memories with my son of the past year: my son telling me he wants to have been in my tummy; asking me why I have grey in my beard and if I’m going to die; my son eating around the edges of every single cookie knowing we’d notice if he took a whole cookie; my son screaming the house down every time I attempt to wash his face or apply suncream; my son having an impromptu breakdance party with me in the middle of the kitchen; my son telling me I’m so annoying and not invited to his birthday party; my son telling me I’m his best friend.
But I also think of memories that aren’t mine. I think about his birth dad. I think about what he’s doing in his kitchen while I’m dancing with our son. I think about what he’s doing while I plan our son’s birthday party – is he also looking at the date as it approaches and wondering what our son is doing, just like I’m thinking about him? And on Fathers’ Day, while we are out for lunch, then kicking a ball in the park, then eating popcorn, cuddled up watching a movie, what is he doing? And I think of him alone, wondering about his son, and that makes me sad.
And then I think about him alone, not even pausing to think about our son, and that makes me more sad. Because it makes me think of that other dad stereotype: the dispassionate, uncaring one. The absent dad.
So how do we stay present as dads? How, with so many negative stereotypes and models of fathers that precede us, do we create new, positive ones?
My son is running down the pitch and he scores a goal. And I’m elated. I’m on my feet, cheering. Proud. So maybe I am on my way to being the football dad stereotype after all.