by Nathan M. McTague
It’s a modern world. We have advanced far enough as a species that we have come almost a full circle in parenting methodology, approach, and perspective.
The 21st Century Parent is a novel breed. An amalgam of all humanity’s past victories, and all our future hopes—we careen toward our hearts while we stumble to find our own ways.
My parents didn’t know what they were doing. Neither, in all likelihood, did yours, or your neighbors.’ An early reaction to this news is commonly blame—it feels better than the rage, sorrow, and powerlessness otherwise available. One way that I’ve discovered over that hump—to a healthier kind of anger and then on to mere disappointment and finally to acceptance or maybe even (if and when we can get there) celebration—is the recognition that our parents’ parents probably didn’t know what they were doing either, or worse…
There has been a slow slippage—the outward-bound portion of the circle we are now closing— further and further away from parental knowing, further from our instinctual roots, further from our familial villages, further from the simple, natural nurturing that our species unwittingly cultivated to the height of all living development. When the agricultural revolution took us from the wilderness, 11,000 years ago, and began slowly cultivating us—society at large increasingly took on the role of the family clan in raising our progeny. And as human cultures all over the world have passed through the political and social permutations uttered by a growing planetary dependence on agriculture, and then with the industrial revolution, an even more transformative dependence on industry, we have continued to be removed from our parental expertise.
We may be the only species on Earth that can consciously change our parenting approach(es) from generation to generation—all other higher species we know, with the possible exception of dolphins, are incapable of parenting in any other manner than they were parented (we have done cruel experiments ourselves to prove this)—and even for us, it has taken about 10,900 years to expel ourselves as far as we possibly could from our aboriginal ways of fledging our young. Fortunately for us, because we can change our parenting, and because of the age in which we currently find ourselves, we are now swinging back, closing the loop on that full circle, and with magnitudes more momentum than when humanity started outward. In the so-called information age, we are changing parenting and culture by the order of eons in just a few generations.
I know my parents did exponentially better than theirs did. Largely by reaction, my mother, in particular, sought in most instances to choose her strategies in opposition to what her parents had done or would. Where they may have been stern, or cold, or outright nasty to her, she was tender, and open, and obviously loving with me. She gave me (the 70’s hospital version of) a natural birth, and nursed me for several months. She let me “nightmare emergency only” co-sleep with her until after I was 8. She shared her focus, her time, and her self with me—or as much as any single mother working full-time and going to business school could.
My parents split up before I was a year old, and my father receded into the distance between Virginia, where they’d lived together, and Alabama, where my mother moved us to be near her parents. I didn’t know there was a real person behind the idea of “Dad” until I was 6 when he came through town for a lightning visit that scared as much as thrilled me.
Before that and for a while after, Grandfather and TV were the only male role models that I had. To their credit, where my grandparents were hard and impenetrable with my mother, they provided a warm second home (and conservative television) to me for most of my early youth. Grandfather, who could be nothing if not austere, let me see around his military corners more than a few times, and became a different man in my lifetime than he was during the raising of his own children, however, remained a force with which to be reckoned rather than a loving man in whose chest to bury your teary face.
I continued, as I got older, to get to know and have a sporadic and tenuous relationship with my “biological father,” whom I saw as both charismatic and dangerously temperamental. My mother remarried when I was about 11 to a man who knew even less about parenting than she did; and while I loved their relationship, I abhorred the idea that this strange little man was going to be fathering me. I’d already fallen, a year or so earlier, for a different father, a 26 year-old youth pastor from South Africa. He took me under his too-friendly wing for a few years before precipitously moving back to his home in Durban when I was 13. It wasn’t until then, that I started to really get to know the brilliant hippy philosopher that I had been calling George and who lived in my house with my mom and who would become (my other) “Dad.”
As a young teen, I simply wanted to give up on being a man. I didn’t like my options. I didn’t like who I’d have to be in order to fulfill the roles I saw being played out by the teen and adult males in my society. And I didn’t like the fatherhood options I’d seen either: the distant, metallic thundercloud, or the alluring and frightening ghost, the needy, guilt-ridden entertainer, or the self-absorbed genius. I came to think and feel that the fullest, roundest wisdom in humanity comes from the feminine, and not just from women, but from the feminine in all of us. I started to write my own identity.
Fifteen years ago, when I first became a parent, I didn’t know what I was doing. I could change a diaper, support a newborn head, and wrestle with a toddler—that was the extent of my firsthand knowledge. I had no idea what involved fathers were like, and all of my parental modeling had come from women. I wanted to be “the other mom.” I wanted to be the gender-neutral, boobless, wonder-nurturer who carried my baby exactly half the time, and who had exactly half as much involvement as her birth mom, and who handled all the sometimes grizzly parenting exploits with just as much tenderness and compassion as only a mother supposedly could. I fumbled with my inadequacies. I bashed my head against all the pointed unknowns. I wept while I ineptly cradled my wailing baby, agitating her with my incessant rocking.
A few years later, when my second daughter was born, I only knew a little bit more about what I was doing. She was co-parented out of the womb, so when I had her with me, I was the only one she had. I’d abandoned understudying as the secondary mother, but still I was in the position of needing to be everything that my girls needed when they were with me. Still I was always in the race against the breastfeeding clock with my incomplete anatomy and babies who hated bottles. I had to learn something that not many of my female counterparts had—how to nurture, how to bond, how to parent really little people without the natural balm of nursing, and without having anyone nearby who could.
When my third daughter was conceived, my partner of the last 11 years, Natalie, and I (who’d been avidly researching parenting together for several years by then) had this idea of what we wanted to do. We’d found Alfie Kohn, Jean Liedloff, Joseph Chilton Pearce, and other inspirations. We’d given up praise and punishments and instead had begun to lean heavily on intrinsic motivation, emotional intelligence, and empathy; we’d given up fighting for control and instead had begun to lead with connection and trust and modeling; and we’d given up having to know everything and had begun instead to have faith in our feelings. We initiated steps, and then met our daughter who demanded our outright commitment, to raise her in a style that we would come to call Cro-Magnon parenting. We turned back the clock in all the ways that we were able in order to offer our youngest, and by proxy my/our elder two, the most natural and nurturing environs and support that we could manufacture. Natalie focused all her attention and energy into caring for our baby and herself. I focused mine on physically—and emotionally—supporting her and the older girls, getting only short turns with our little mother-bound infant. I sometimes sat eagerly on the bench praying that “coach” would “put me in.. Our teeny newborn would only rarely lie on my bare pecs, vainly seeking out mammary services and ripping out tiny fistfuls of my chest hair.
Over the years, I’ve continued to grow and develop as a father, and now even help other parents figure out what they want to do. I go on researching and exploring and learning—studying the work of Pam Leo, Daniel Hughes, Jane Nelsen and others—as well as crafting my own material, but I don’t have to know everything.
I know enough now that I can trust how I feel.
I even know enough that I can trust in my children’s feelings. Between us, that’s plenty. And as it turns out, there isn’t a perfect version of father-ness. There isn’t a failsafe formula, or an exhaustive skills list of things we need to know how to do. The only way for me to be a perfect father is to be with my kids with all of my heart.
And it doesn’t matter how different everyone’s families are from one another, or what cultural rules we observe, or what traditions we return to or abandon—as long as we are trusting in what feels good and what feels right to us, then we are on the best possible path. There are lots of ways to be a good parent—lots of ways for me to be a good father—all of them center around being connected with our children, relating with them, and allowing each others’ and our own feelings to guide our wisdom. It has taken us millennia to get this far, but I think we’re all finally heading home.
Nathan M. McTague is the father of three amazing daughters (currently 14.5, almost 12, and just turned 8), who challenge, inspire, and help him grow everyday. He's also a certified professional life coach, parent mentor, and Positive Discipline parent educator committed to empowering people to reach their highest potentials in self-development, family, and vocation. McTague and life-partner, Natalie Christensen, own and create new media for Feeleez: An Empathy Game for Children; as well as, write, offer workshops, and provide support for dedicated parents.