June 25, 2018
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Readers debate columns on role of military fathers

Sarah Smiley
By Sarah Smiley

Reactions to a recent column about Ford’s last year of Little League surprisingly helped to solidify my points in another recent column (about the changing role of fatherhood and how it affects military dads), which, by the way, also received interesting reactions.

For a while, my inbox felt like a vortex, with readers disagreeing with me one week and then proving my point the next. All of which shows me that the concept of fatherhood, and in particular military fatherhood, is still in flux.

Three weeks ago, I wrote that society’s new expectations of fathers mean that military men who leave their children from months at a time are sacrificing in new and different ways than did their predecessors — military men from the 1970s and earlier who were needed around the house about as often as fathers in general were. I wrote about my own father, who missed my birth, and how that didn’t seem strange because most men — military or not — were not allowed in the delivery room anyway.

Readers said I was complaining about being a military wife. “This is what you signed up for” and “military families always want sympathy” were common sentiments. But that column wasn’t about me. And it wasn’t particularly supportive of the military, either. What I wrote is that as it becomes more commonplace for all fathers to be at every parent-teacher conference, Little League game and school play, men considering a career in the military will have more to consider before they enlist. It’s becoming a new hurdle for recruitment and retention.

Men who aren’t fully and physically (a key qualifier) present in their children’s lives are looked upon with the same disdain as working mothers used to be a generation ago. The whole thing has flip-flopped. Women have, for the most part, come to terms with their dual home-work lives, but for men, it is a new concept. It’s not enough just to bring home the bacon; a dad has to be there to cook it, eat it and clean up afterward, too. And if you can’t do it all, well then, you pretty much stink. (P.S.: Welcome to our world, dads.)

This is a new and unbeatable challenge for military dads in particular because they have no choice (aside from enlisting in the first place) about whether they are home for tonight’s dinner or the next 365 family dinners. Several generations ago, men enlisted to protect the women and children they love back home. Now they enlist to do the same thing, but people view them as deadbeat dads because of it. (Sound familiar, moms?)

A week after that column was published, I wrote a separate one about my oldest son’s last year of Little League and how he did not make the All Star team. My husband has not been physically present for most of Ford’s Little League career. He has, however, provided much encouragement and lessons through email and the telephone. In fact, while Dustin was deployed overseas, he watched Ford pitch for the first time through Skype on my iPhone.

But you can’t play catch through the phone or the computer. I realize that. Everyone knows that. Still, some readers wasted no time reinforcing the point: If Dustin hadn’t been away, maybe his son would have made All Stars. (Would we have thought that twenty years ago?)

Except, guess who did play catch with Ford. Me! And his brothers and anyone else in the community who accepted Ford’s invitation. (One of the boys’ favorite parts of our “Dinner with the Smileys” project was when former Maine governor John Baldacci played catch with them in the backyard.) So I’m not sure the blame can be placed squarely on Dustin. Neither do I think it should, anymore than a working mother should be blamed for a child’s poor grades.

Ford didn’t make All Stars because he can’t hit the ball very far. Maybe that’s because his dad wasn’t here. Maybe it’s because his mom was helping him. Maybe it’s because he hasn’t hit his growth spurt. Maybe he hadn’t had his Wheaties that morning.

But does it really even matter why? These are Ford’s life circumstances. Everyone has some.

After the second column, a reader wrote me and asked, “Why does a father join the military and do that to his kids?”

I’m not sure what “that” is, but my answer is this: A father joins the military today for the same reason fathers always have — to protect the ones they love. The only thing that has changed is society’s idea of what a father should be, which is moving closer to what a mother always has been expected to be.

So shouldn’t it have been enough that I was out there playing catch with Ford? Or should I have been folding laundry and making beds instead?

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

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