This Father’s Day weekend, Alan-Michael Graves will spend it doing something he loves — hiking and camping with his three kids. They’ll roast marshmallows, share stories and laughs, and mostly bond as father and sons.
It’s a contrast to his upbringing. Graves said he didn’t have a “consistent dad” when he was growing up.
And thus, he says, he never learned how to be a father.
“I’ve been parenting on what I think I should be doing,” says the married father of three, ages 25, 21 and 3.
Being a new father after so many years without having to change diapers is like starting all over again. So he’s still learning how to be a dad.
No one is born knowing how to be a parent. But while moms and their children can have a bond that will last a lifetime, that’s not always the case for fathers.
Society, economics, relationships, traditional gender roles and an assortment of other factors may not always create great dads.
That is where Project Fatherhood comes in.
The program, created in 1996, is part of Children’s Institute and was developed to re-engage low-income fathers — particularly those in urban settings — in the care and upbringing of their children.
“We’re equipping fathers with the tools we might not have,” says Graves, program director.
“We’re all trying to be superdads and we don’t know what that looks like because we never saw it. Either (our dads) were not around or they were always working,” he said.
Project Fatherhood’s solution, among other things, includes weekly dad support groups where fathers from all walks of life, including those in the immigrant population, share and learn from each other.
Two organizations in the San Fernando Valley — Strength United in Northridge and Penny Lane Centers in North Hills — offer such voluntary gatherings.
Women tend to have an easier way finding help among each other, but that’s not always the case for dads, Graves believes.
“We typically don’t have an outlet, a safe space where guys can talk about feelings, how to deal with girls starting to have sex or how to potty-train a kid,” Graves said.
Then there are contemporary challenges like social media, and the continuous changes in terms of gender and sex identification.
“It’s just different,” Graves says. “Twenty years ago nobody talked about gender fluidity. Nobody knew what it was. Kids come home with questions you never had to answer before and you have to have those conversations,” he said.
In the support groups, Graves said the fathers learn to claim or reclaim their “space at the table” because society as a whole tends to “minimize fathers’ involvement.”
Take, for example, his recent visit to the doctor with his 3-year-old son, Graves said. At the end of the consultation, the doctor said the child had an ear infection and asked him for his wife’s phone number to tell her how to administer the medication he was recommending.
“I told him that I could do a couple of drops in my son’s ear,” Graves recalled. “I don’t blame this middle-aged guy for thinking that way — we’ve all been programmed to do so.
“It’s the same with teachers and others. People are not taught to deal with fathers,” he adds.
For instance, a teacher will often call a mom if a child is having a problem at the school. But not the dad.
Yet fathers are considered to be incredibly important in a child’s life, not just role models or someone teaching them how to throw and catch a baseball.
Study after study shows that the more fathers are involved, it is less likely for that child to engage in criminal behavior, have sex at a younger age and drop out of school.
And being involved doesn’t necessarily mean “living in the house,” Graves emphasizes.
“You can spend two or three days a week or the weekend,” he said, but you have to make that time count.
And don’t think the parenting ends when that child goes to college or is out of the house. It’s a lifelong process, Graves stresses, one he’s still navigating.
But one thing he’s learned is that there are no superdads.
“It’s about learning it’s OK for me to hug and kiss my kids, that I don’t have to flex all this masculinity, that I can talk to them. It’s about me sharing time with them.”
Sounds like a superdad, doesn’t it?
For information about Project Fatherhood, visit www.lafatherhoodnetwork.org. For information about Pennylane Center, visit www.pennylane.org. For information about Strength United, visit https://csun.edu/eisner-education/strength-united.