Today’s Sensitive New Age Dads

In light of Father's Day Justine Toh reflects on the kinder, softer Dads of today.

There’s an advertisement on television spruiking an internet browser that never fails to choke me up. In it, Daniel Lee opens an email account the day his daughter Sophie is born. He uses it to write letters to her and document all the events of Sophie’s young life—her first birthday, the birth of her baby brother, losing her baby teeth—that he’s captured in .jpeg and .mov glory.

The ad ends with this dad saying that he can’t wait to share all these things with her. The music swells and as my throat starts to constrict, I start to think that those guys at Google aren’t so bad after all. Stupid effective advertising.

Its emotional manipulation aside, what struck me about the ad is the way that it presents as perfectly normal a caring, nurturing, and besotted father who exhibits the kind of qualities we typically associate with mothers. Though we often take for granted the love of mothers, the figure of the tender father is less familiar.

In his book, The New Manhood, psychologist Steve Biddulph lists the kinds of traditional fathers than men of the Boomer and Gen X generations might recognise.

There’s the ‘not under my roof’ father who laid down the law and whose family crept around him as a result. Then there’s the ‘is that the best you can do?’ father whose relentless criticism was often an outlet for his own frustration and disappointment. Third up is the ‘passive father’ who just stands idly by and prefers not to get involved. Lastly, there’s the ‘absent father’ who is never around, perhaps physically, but definitely emotionally.

Biddulph’s directory of dads reads like an anti-catalogue: they list the old men you don’t want. But that’s not to say that dads like these were defective on the whole, or that they were universally loathed by their kids. Brad Pitt’s Mr O’Brien from Terence Malick’s recent film Tree of Life is a case in point. A harsh disciplinarian with a razor sharp crew cut, he’s equally loved and feared by his sons.

Mr O’Brien is a parable of 50s fatherhood where discipline, authority and leadership are the order of the day, and heavily suppressed are parental qualities of intimacy and closeness—they were the responsibility of the missus.

Setting the heavy-handed Mr O’Brien alongside Daniel Lee, the ad’s dad from the more touchy-feely 21st century, shows how much the mood has changed.

It’s not just in random ads either, but a bucket load of films in recent memory, from Life is Beautiful to The Pursuit of Happyness. We also have the animation studio Pixar to thank for producing a clutch of clucky dads, as seen in the brilliant Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc.

The fathers of these animated films are a far cry from those that populated earlier Disney films. Those dads were often of the bumbling, distracted variety—as in Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast—or strong, silent types who loved their kids but whose reserve made them distant—The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, and Mulan.

Pixar’s band of dads couldn’t be more different.

The last scene of Monsters, Inc. sums up the way these films regard fatherhood. In that film, the monsters Sulley and Mike look after the toddler Boo, stranded in their world after she followed Sulley out through her closet door that connects the human world to Monster City.

By the end of the film, Boo is safely back where she came from but never to see Sulley again as the door between them has been shredded. Mike, however, painstakingly repairs the door and when Sulley, almost too anxious to hope, opens Boo’s door, his big blue face lights up in joy at seeing her again. It’s a magic moment.

Given the enthusiasm for fatherhood on view in those films, it comes as little surprise that John Lasseter, Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer, is not only a proud dad to five sons but also something of a father figure to at least two generations of CGI animators in the studio.

It’s partly why Esquire Magazine dubbed Lasseter Father of the Year for 2011. We get why when we hear him heap praises on his team after they wrap animation on Cars 2:

  “You guys are remarkable and I’m so thankful you’re here at Pixar. Thank you for one of the greatest experiences of my life and I love all of you…”  

The Esquire reporter observes: “There was a time when bosses wouldn’t talk like that to their charges. There was a time when a lot of fathers wouldn’t even talk like that to their children.” Clearly, there’s a lot of affirming, paternal love flying around the office, which probably has a lot to do with why the films made by these guys—“all family men”, says Lasseter—are so good.

God the Father often gets a bad rap. For some, He might tick all four categories of deadbeat dad chronicled by Biddulph

So what of the ultimate father: the Heavenly One? How does He stack up against today’s sensitive new age dads like the John Lasseters and Daniel Lees of this world?

God the Father often gets a bad rap. For some, He might tick all four categories of deadbeat dad chronicled by Biddulph: the perennially displeased lawgiver who refuses to intervene and is never around when you need him. Such a portrait is far from true, but it’s easy to understand how cursory encounters with Yahweh of the Bible might discourage people from creeping closer.

But in the book of Ruth from the Old Testament, God is described in tender, nurturing terms, which offers a different spin on his particular brand of fatherhood—not unlike the way Daniel Lee busts through clichés of repressed but tech-savvy Asians to reveal the doting dad within.

A central character in the book, Boaz, tells Ruth, “May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” Such language pictures God as a nesting hen—a more maternal image than we tend to associate with God.

That blessing must have been sweet succour for Ruth, a cultural and religious orphan who left behind her people to throw herself on the mercy of the god of her mother-in-law, Naomi. Recently widowed and without prospects for a safe or hopeful future in a world where women were defined by their relationship to men, her situation was desperate. She needed a good man on her side.

Ruth gets one in Boaz, who ends up marrying her. But she does even better in acquiring a loving, merciful Father in God. Though (or perhaps because) Ruth is a lowly, powerless alien from a despised people, God gathers her into his family like a hen her chicks under her wing. After all, He’s a family man, too.

God never makes a full appearance in the book of Ruth but His presence is everywhere evident in the providential turn of circumstances that irresistibly lift Naomi and Ruth out of their hopelessness and into His grace. His care isn’t as loudly proclaimed as an ‘I love you’ gushed by the Lasseters of this world or as visible as an email inbox packed with memories as typed up by the Lees. But it’s certainly no less ardent.

At the same time, I don’t want to sentimentalise God, who is awesome, unfathomable and to be respected—even feared. Even if the overall account of Ruth is one that extols God’s grace, it would be a mistake to trifle with Him.

The prevailing story to explain the Lasseters and Lees of our time is that, in the West at least, we live in a kinder, gentler world where men are allowed to express their emotions. But the story of Ruth in the Bible, where God the Father is depicted in warmer and more tender terms than might be expected, shows us that God has always lived there, and perhaps our dads are catching up.

Dr Justine Toh is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.