What's Dad's Role in Raising a Child? - Justin Lioi, LCSW - Brooklyn, NY

Have you thought about what kind of dad you’d like to be? Or the basic 21st century question: What IS the dad’s role in raising a child these days?

Many fathers don’t know this (or even realized they didn’t know this) when they are starting out. Sure, up till now they may have followed the expected path for themselves: graduated college, established themselves in a job, got married, had children.

Oh, wait, children. Now what? What are your expectations for yourself as a dad?

Of course, each stage had some unexpecteds. Sometimes there were fears of failing, but there were also well-defined supports. There were advisers in college, mentors at work, and lots of other married men to talk to about being a husband.

Now, if you were suddenly a mother (and by suddenly I mean you lived your whole life with a uterus and you recently gave birth to a child), you’d have to have wandered way outside of Park Slope to not be overwhelmed with bookshelves of mommy advice. And if you were academically scientifically inclined you’d know that most studies done on babies, toddlers, and young children were focused on the mother-child relationship. Attachment theory, bonding, etc.: focus on mom.

Dad’s role in raising a child has become a much more complicated question.

Dad’s Role in Raising a Child: A Major Change in a Few Short Generations

This wasn’t necessarily the case just two generations ago. Expectations have  shifted dramatically in a fairly short amount of time.

Without getting into the why’s, let’s talk about the big how:

  • How is your role different from the one your father may have had?

That’s the issue. That there is no well defined role for the new dad in the 21st century is the challenge. A generation ago you could get by with falling back on what your dad did and you had a rough draft idea of what you needed to be accomplishing the dad’s role in raising a child. The exciting and liberating reality of being a father in the 21st century means that you now get to define your role.

And is there anything scarier than that?

Unlimited Choices—But the Gender Roles Creep In

Today, everything needs to be figured out day by day. Much of this is due to the unpredictability of a child, but there’s also a whole lot of it that comes from the interplay with your partner.

(Side note: In this post I’m going to be focusing a bit on traditional gender roles so I’m going to use male/female to refer to the partnership as I go through it.)

As a man there was a set of male role expectations that you grew up with and probably expected to either follow or rebel against.

Looking back it almost seemed as simple as two choices: be an involved father (which was like or unlike your dad), or be an aloof, bringing-home-the-bacon father (most likely because that was what your father did. For you being more involved either didn’t seem appealing or was too scary because you didn’t have this model). While many couples establish defined roles for each other (especially if one parent is a stay-at-homer), many are just keeping the juggling balls in the air as each day brings a new decision for who’s going to do what.

Yet without discussion (and sometimes even with it) what often happens is that we still fall into gender defined roles. And (trigger warning for hearing some apparent blame, but keep reading as I think I’ll address your concerns…) sometimes the helplessness of dad, when it comes to managing many baby issues, is bolstered by mom’s taking over most baby jobs and reinforcing for the father that he can’t do certain jobs correctly.

Case in point: After my cousin had her first child my aunt would always express such surprise when my brother and I took time to play with the baby. She’d actually call up my parents to say just how amazing it was that we seemed so connected to our cousin (second cousin? first cousin once removed? I never get this right.) It always struck me as strange that this quality in my brother and I was so unexpected. None of my female cousins got that call—it was expected that the women would be good with kids. Why was all of this so surprising?

Room to Get it Right, Room to Get it Differently Right

Once you have children one of the challenges and blessings of a large, involved family are grandparents.

Here are people who raised YOU who are now overseeing you raise a child. Of course, they’ve gone through this, they’ve seen it all, and know so much. Of course, you want to do things your way. Of course, there was a time they wanted to do things their way and they learned that they had some good ideas as well as a lot to learn. Still, grandparents have a way of attempting to be the master cook instead of remaining the sous chef. Sometimes we let them take over and sometimes we resent it.

I imagine it’s hard for them with their experience and knowledge to step back and let you learn and fail on your own. Still, unless you’re sharing a roof, grandma and grandpa go home.

When the same dynamic is happening between a mother and father who live together, then it’s much easier for dad to retreat and take on the role he’s tacitly assigned as opposed to the role he may want. Later, he dad's-role-in-parentingmay hear complaints that he’s only present to play with the baby—although he was given the message time and time again that he couldn’t do anything else. He didn’t get a chance to make mistakes and learn how to swaddle, or how to sit with a crying baby and do all he can, but still see that the baby won’t stop crying until she’s ready to stop crying.

Both parents are often under intense stress. In our still sexist society being a mother is one of the few jobs that women have always dominated. If a woman has internalized that she struggles in many other areas to prove herself, but she’s “supposed” to know how to be a parent, she may be much less willing to allow you to slowly figure things out.

If you want your boss at work to help you grow, but she or he are so overwhelmed with deadlines that they have little time to wait for your learning curve they may just go ahead and do things for you instead of taking the time to allow you to figure things out.

Dad Can’t Do Anything Right

This doesn’t make it okay that your partner may not provide you with space to learn, but if this is the case in your relationship it may provide an opening for a conversation between the two of you (preferably when the baby is sleeping peacefully and you both have a moment alone together.)

I’ve heard lots of complaints about men not being able to be the fathers they want to be because of what they perceive as the mother’s interference. This may be a perception or it could be true. The first step is to dig back into how you guys made it through other challenging decisions pre-child. How did you divvy up roles in the past?

Are you strong in asking for what you want or do you usually subsume your needs to your partner? Do you trust her more in decisions regarding child rearing? How come? Do you feel that you missed out on learning how to be a father? Do you get the message that dad can’t do anything right?

Listen, most people don’t know how to be parents until they become parents. And even then the role, the job, the sense of “I got this” changes every day with every milestone. It’s going to be an awesomecrazyscarywild ride as well as also being absolute hell. If there’s not enough of the former, though, it’s going to be very, very long and painful.

So where do you want to start? How would you like to create your fatherhood role for the 21st century?

Another side note: Coming up soon, Alexa Brett, an Occupational Therapy Practitioner and writer, will be guest posting about some of the important roles that fathers often fill and how important it is for moms to support them in this. Until her post is published please check out her great blog at www.lovethinkthrive.com. Thanks, Alexa! Looking forward to your post!


If having a child has led to more challenges than you expected or if you’d like a place to talk through some of the difficulties and changes in your marriage or relationship, feel free to be in touch.

Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert based in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be. He works with all men but has a particular focus on providing counseling for fathers (and guys hoping to become dads!)