Sooner or later, our kids will make us suffer. When they’re babies, their crying keeps us up at night. Later, their teenage shenanigans might rob us of more sleep. Some of us stay at jobs we hate so that our kids will never have to wonder where their next meal will come from. We can battle with our co-parents over issues like housework and discipline, testing love we might have once thought would last forever.
These stresses and sacrifices can be painful, but studies are finding one thing that can help us to weather them: a sense of purpose. That is to say, our long-term, meaningful goals as fathers.
A sense of purpose shapes day-to-day goals and behavior. Seeing a destination on the horizon helps us to lift our eyes over the dirty dishes and temper tantrums, to a future that is better than the present. Purpose makes that pile of dishes matter. It reminds us that we matter, if only to our kids. Purpose keeps us at home with them when we wish we were elsewhere.
While purposes can vary, recent studies suggest that just having one is good for you and your family. So, what does purpose look like in a father’s life? How can you find your purpose as a father? These are existential questions that every man must answer for himself. But research does provide some insights to help us understand ourselves better—and see the fathers we want to become.
The evolution of purpose
The chances are good that your purpose is different from the one held by your own father and grandfathers. Scholars say that fathers of previous generations saw their purpose as financially supporting their families and providing discipline to their children. Some saw themselves as leaders and role models for their families, especially when it came to religious instruction. Inherent in these missions is a sense of authority, which could sometimes become authoritarianism—“the enforcement of strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom,” as the dictionary says.
As a group, today’s fathers see their role somewhat differently.
For more than a century, the number of women in the workforce has steadily increased. Today, there are roughly as many women as men working for pay—though men still tend to make considerably more money than their female coworkers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
What does this have to do with purpose? As women made more money, men’s participation at home started climbing. Today’s dads are spending much more time with their children than did their fathers. Moreover, the United States has become increasingly diverse. Immigrants have brought new conceptions of fatherhood to America. Fathers of color face challenges that are shaping their sense of purpose.
As a result of these developments, many fathers today add “nurturing” to their purpose, along with “providing.” In a discussion I hosted on my Facebook wall, a number of dads said their purpose was to be better than their fathers—and to raise kids who would be better than them. What they meant by this, more often than not, was to be physically and emotionally present in the lives of their children.
“I lost my dad a few months ago,” said Jason Avant, a dad in California. “Nowadays I find myself looking through the lens of my childhood, and I do my best to be everything he was, and everything he wasn’t.” San Francisco writer Andrew O. Dugas, one of those who defines his purpose as “to be a better father than mine was,” says: “My son turned out better than I did. Stronger. Tougher. Kinder. Smarter. Wiser.”
For many men, raising kids means that they need to make self-improvement and self-care part of their purpose. After the birth, “It was no longer acceptable for me to simply go through the motions,” said Blake Overbay, a sergeant with the Massachusetts Army National Guard. “I had to outwardly demonstrate that I was working to better myself. Like deliberate and exaggerated movements to warm-up before a workout.”
In fact, a new study links a strong sense of purpose to healthier behaviors. Boston College psychologist James R. Mahalik and his colleagues surveyed over 200 men (“mostly white, employed, heterosexual, and married”) about their sense of purpose and health behaviors like eating right or exercising, and then analyzed how those factors interacted.
“Our results suggest that when men who are fathers experience greater purpose, they lead healthier lives,” write the authors. “It would be logical to presume that they do so to promote outcomes such as improving their health to make a difference in their children’s lives.”
From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that purpose might lengthen life—and that the purpose that comes with fatherhood might drive healthier behaviors that could be taken up by our kids. After all, evolution involves passing on our genes. Our offspring have a better chance of growing old enough to have their own children if we stick by their side to make sure they stay healthy and strong. A sense of purpose is a tool evolution put into the hands of fathers, to remind us to do that.
The strength of our purpose
In the Facebook discussion I hosted, many fathers mentioned how a sense of crisis—the pandemic, police brutality, and economic turmoil—is affecting or clarifying their sense of purpose.
For Berkeley, California, writer Shawn Taylor and his daughter, “My primary purpose is to prepare her for the racist and sexist bullshit she’ll encounter, without robbing her of her sense of wonder and joy.”
As the author Ta-Nehisi Coates once told me, in an interview for my book, The Daddy Shift: “I just thought, it was the ultimate service to black people if I can be a great father. It was almost a nationalist, Afrocentric way of seeing it.” For San Francisco attorney David Pai, “watching younger generations rise up” has energized his sense of purpose:
Their inherent curiosity, empathy, and “general goodness” makes me believe that, while I may not see it in my lifetime, I can certainly help lay the foundation for my daughter’s generation to build a more sustainable and equitable world. So that means being very intentional and self-aware in my thoughts and actions (avoiding cynicism is my challenge), not just around her, but touching upon nearly everything I do. Or, in a nutshell, trying hard not to pass on negativity, even in the end times.
A sense of crisis hasn’t fundamentally changed the paternal purpose of Scott Behson, a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University and author of The Working Dad’s Survival Guide. However, the #metoo and Black Lives Matter movements have led him to redouble his efforts “to make sure that he is a good man to women and a good ally to people of color.”
COVID-19 has powerfully affected how writer and Dads4Change founder Whit Honea sees his purpose. The global pandemic has provided “many more examples of right, wrong, empathy, kindness, ignorance, sacrifice, and all the isms. The lesson plan changes by the headline.” Right now, he said:
History isn’t only being told, but fought, lived, and written. It has made my boys realize that their previous, comfortable view of the world was framed in window treatments and could benefit from a brick or two. Granted, these are the lessons my wife and I have been teaching our boys all along, but the reality of the moment is that they are now paying more attention. They are finding their voice and amplifying others. Their masks can’t muffle the message and they don’t hide anything. We’ll yell again tomorrow.
John Anner has three grown daughters—and he has found that raising them has changed his sense of purpose in life. Today, he is the business development director for a nonprofit called Women for Women International.
I long ago landed on my two central values—generosity, and care for women. So, my purpose, as I age, is to focus intently on those two things, building off the things my daughters have taught me. Women in general, and Black women in particular, have labored for too long for no recognition and no pay. The world is built on their uncompensated and unacknowledged labor. So now is a great time for old white guys like me to do the work—for free—and make sure women get paid.
Oakland author and illustrator Innosanto Nagara sees his purpose as going beyond the self—a quality inherent in the scientific definition of purpose, which includes goals that are not just meaningful to us but make a difference in the world. Nagara sees his mission as creating the space for his son “to explore, challenge himself, and push his limits, take risks, fail, and succeed but not incur/cause irreparable damage/trauma in the process.”
For Nagara, this goes back “to the basic Khalil Gibran idea that our children are not ‘our’ children. They are the children of life’s longing for itself. They are with us but don’t belong to us. Their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which we cannot visit, not even in our dreams.”
How can dads find their purpose?
There are almost no recent scientific studies of how fathers develop a sense of purpose. However, researchers are starting to understand the factors that shape our purposes across our lifespans, providing insights that can help fathers to find their purpose. Here are some of the pathways you might take to explore your own purpose.
1. Read books and watch movies
There are countless novels, comic books, movies, and TV shows that thoughtfully portray fathers, as well as nonfiction books and articles on the history and meaning of fatherhood. When I was becoming a father, I found particular inspiration in Michael Chabon’s novels, the short stories of Alice Munro, the graphic-novel series Starman, movies like The Pursuit of Happyness, daddy blogs, and books by feminist scholars like Stephanie Coontz and Arlie Hochschild.
The stories that inspired me may not inspire you. Perhaps you’ll look more to religious texts, or even to the stories of sports stars. The important thing is the search for inspiration. Seeing the purposes of other fathers, both real and imagined, can help you to see your own.
2. Talk to your co-parents, friends, and family
While purpose is a very personal thing, it often emerges from our connections to other people.
It’s important to thoughtfully, intentionally sit down with your co-parent and talk explicitly about what shapes your idea of a good father and what your goals are—and to listen to what the other parent has to say. It was incredibly meaningful for me to interview my grandfather and father for my book, The Daddy Shift, because in my family, we never discussed fatherhood. You can talk to the fathers in your own family right now.
If your kids are young, think about joining a neighborhood group for moms and dads—and then, later, volunteering at school. All of these conversations will help inform and sustain your purpose as a father.
3. Look to your hurts—and turn them into healing
Many men have described to me feeling hurt by their own fathers. Sometimes, the pain came from physical punishment. More often, it’s emotional, arising from absence or verbal abuse. As we saw in my Facebook discussion, men do turn this pain into a purpose to be better than their own fathers. Other fathers described being hurt by racism or some other form of collective discrimination—and so are raising their children to fight back against injustice.
You’ll incur hurts as a parent, too, when you feel overwhelmed or heartbroken. Instead of beating up on yourself, you can ask yourself what that pain means and how you can do better next time. Your purpose as a father never stops evolving, because we learn something new (about ourselves and others) at every stage of our child’s life.
4. Move toward joy and meaning
There’s more to purpose than pain, of course. Many fathers describe their purpose as raising happy kids, and so they try to be happy themselves. “I want my kids to be happy and to put good into the world, to do the right thing rather than the easy one,” says Honea. “My purpose is to model that, sometimes (often) fail, and let them see me learn from it.”
In his book The Path to Purpose, Stanford psychologist William Damon argues that purpose happens when our skills meet the needs of the world. While that idea doesn’t precisely translate into parenting, it’s always the case that we’re better at some aspects of parenting than others. When you play with your kids, you shouldn’t always just do the things they enjoy; it’s important to do the things you like to do, too. If you’re good at baseball, see if they’ll play ball with you. If it’s Star Wars you love, watch the movies over and over with your kids, and talk about the messages the movies impart.
“We constantly inject joy into our lives,” said Taylor. “We dress up, we play, we talk about what make us happy and ask what makes each other happy.” He’s on the right track: There is a great deal of research suggesting that fostering positive emotions—like happiness and gratitude—can lead us to a sense of purpose.
That can be difficult to do in the face of disease and quarantine, violence and protest, unemployment and uncertainty. But making the pursuit of positive emotions a part of your purpose as a father can help your family to navigate the multiple, interlocking crises that we are facing. Confronting those crises provides us with a sense of purpose, too. That’s why I go with my son to Black Lives Matter protests, and why I talk with him about the work I’m doing at home, in quarantine, for the Greater Good Science Center. In this way, I teach my son to have a sense of purpose—and so open the door to its benefits for him.
The gift of having a sense of purpose is that it reminds us of the future we want for our children, and it shows us how we can work toward that future today.
This article is part of a GGSC initiative on “Finding Purpose Across the Lifespan,” supported by the John Templeton Foundation. In a series of articles, podcast episodes, and other resources, we’ll be exploring why and how to deepen your sense of purpose at different stages of life.