Dads: My, how you've grown!

It occurred to me recently that the role fathers play in their children's lives has changed dramatically since I was a child.

Most children today will grow up with fathers who are active participants in their up-bringing. Dads today are often equal partners with moms in providing hands-on care, overseeing education and development, health and safety. They carry diaper bags and push strollers and are responsible for making dinner.

Such was not always the case.

I grew up in one of the small towns of America that popped up in the 1950s and 1960s wherever there was a steel mill. It was "The Wonder Years" in real life. Every house had a mom and a dad and a couple kids. The dads went to work -- almost all of them in some capacity with the steel company. The moms stayed home, except for one neighborhood mom who had actually gone to college, gotten a degree and was a registered nurse. She went to work everyday in a starched white uniform, complete with the stand-up hat nurses used to wear. That was the only mom I ever knew who worked outside the home.

I have no doubt that the roles played by women are what enabled men to take a more hands-off approach with children. My father never touched a diaper, or a sweeper, or a stove, or a washing machine except to pretend to fix it before a repairman was called. I think he may have opened the refrigerator a couple times -- not sure about that.

He and the other dads of my childhood world didn't have to do any of those things, because women handled it all long before the men ever came home from work.

I'm not sure my father ever quite grasped the idea that children are not just really short adults. My brothers and I were my father's playmates. He liked to play board games, so we sat around the dining room table playing various board games...and no, "Candyland" was never one of them. We played cards -- poker, mostly, or gin rummy, but definitely not "War" or "Go Fish." He snuck us out of bed to watch "Chiller Theater" with him on Saturday nights -- then put us back to bed holding food in our hands or with bubblegum in our mouths.

I learned to read newspapers when I was three years old, and studied the photos of barge and train accidents my father had taken. When I was seven and needed to have my tonsils removed, he drew anatomical diagrams to show me where the surgeon was going to cut.

Oddly enough, in some ways my father was another kid my mother had to worry about, only this kid had car keys and a checkbook.

Saturdays were the days my mother went shopping at a department store in a nearby town. She didn't drive, of course, so my father would drop her off, and return home in charge of three young children. Or not. One Saturday, my father decided after dropping my mother off to shop that we all would go on a secret trip to who knows where. Seems like we drove forever before we pulled up at a house in the woods surrounded by dog kennels -- each of which contained a German Shepard. My dad had decided that he wanted a puppy. He got a puppy. It just never occurred to him that this was something he should have discussed with my mother or us kids beforehand. The rambunctious puppy refused to stay in his cardboard box, and on the long drive back to pick up my mother, began spewing various bodily fluids. When my mother opened the car door to get in, she found three hysterical kids and a puppy leaking from both ends -- and my dad, happy as a clam.

I look back on it now with great humor, and an appreciation for how his "parentling" contributed to the person I have become. But I can't imagine today's dads playing the same role in their children's lives. Today's dads have equally shouldered the parenting responsibilities, to the benefit of everyone involved. But sometimes I really miss having a dad who was more like my best friend.