Think about it. The traditional definition of "to father" is to contribute genetic material in the creation of a baby. In contrast, "to mother" implies raising a child with care and tenderness. Let's look at how the current blurring of roles between fathers and mothers is changing these distinctions.

Fathers Take an Active Part

More fathers than ever before take an active part in raising their children-most with as much care and tenderness as a woman. As mothers have increased their presence in the workplace, fathers find themselves on the home front, or front seat of the preschool carpool or wherever their parenting role takes them. Fathers can be seen jogging in the park with strollers, diapering in the men's room and registering an up-and-coming kindergartner for school. Increasingly men are seeking to be present in their parenting.

Some cite the recent recession with forcing families to choose one of the two parents to focus on the full-time income while the other works part-time or performs parenting full-time. Pew Research reports that GenX parents say that whoever is better suited-or finds themselves with a career opportunity-goes to work, or whoever is better suited or does not have as fruitful job prospects as the other becomes the primary parent. Others say it's the steady progress of the equal rights movement that has helped both men and women shake stereotypes for fathers and mothers. The winning of rights for gay and transgendered people may also contribute to shedding conventional ideas about what men can do and what women can do. Whatever the causes, and there may be many, the latest census statistics bear out that preschoolers are almost as likely to have a working mother as a working father (only 24 percent of preschoolers have a stay-at-home mom), and that 18 percent of preschoolers whose mothers work are in the care of their fathers.

Dads Are Forging Close Relationships With Their Children

And it's not just unemployed fathers who are enjoying the fulfillment of jumping into parenting with both feet. Many contemporary dads are forging close relationships with their children, some proudly Facebooking their kids' latest antics and precious poses. Products and services for male parents reflect this trend. There are baby care classes just for men, where a veteran father teaches fathers-to-be how to support the head of a newborn, soothe an upset baby, bring up a burp and change a diaper. These classes used to be taught by women, and were, as a rule, offered to couples rather than men only. Never having seen such a class, I can imagine a few sports jokes when the teacher demonstrates holding a newborn in "the football hold" as his all-male class practices on baby dolls.

The change is everywhere. Newer strollers have adjustable handles for "taller" handlers. Baby backpacks, front packs and diaper bags are designed with men's body shapes and color preferences in mind. Dads are connecting with other dads at baby gym and swim classes, co-op nursery schools and Daisy Girl Scout meetings. Books and blogs are written by dads about being dads. One example, The Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting Are Transforming the American Family, by Jeremy Adam Smith, (Beacon Press, 2009) captures this moment of cultural change as we obscure the differences of what it means to be a parent of one sex or the other.

One beautiful effect of this trend is the modeling one can see in little boys as young as toddlers.

Pretend Play

This is the age when pretend play begins. The first make-believe is usually with toy animals, cars, trucks and baby dolls. The child says, "vroom vroom" as he pushes the car on the floor attempting to make the sound a real car makes; or he imitates the sounds of farm animals when he plays with toy cows, horses, chickens and pigs. Such pretend play helps the child learn how the world works.

And pretend play of family life is trending toward dads. Before they can put two words together, tots are using baby dolls (or stuffed animals or trucks) to imitate the caregiving they have received from their fathers. Nurturing behaviors in pretend play are evidence that a child is receiving good nurturing. While preschool teachers have long defended a little boy's right to play "Mommy" in the dress-up corner, the son of a hands-on dad can now carry out his nurturing role without having to change gender.

Parenting

Parenting is a combination of natural instincts and cultural teachings. And while our culture has gotten away with making the vast majority of doll strollers pink (so as to appeal to those who are consciously or unconsciously directing little girls toward motherhood), equipment for future fathers needs to catch up with the adult inventory. Find your little guy a blue plaid doll stroller. Or maybe one with dinosaurs. Or dump trucks. He needs to take his baby on a walk to hear the birds sing-and to watch a line being painted in the street. That's what fathers do. Sons can be intentionally taught how to be good parents. As easily as learning that a cow says, "Moo," a child can learn that a father picks up a crying baby and checks to see if he needs a new diaper.

If you reflect on the role you play as a father―the skills, values and habits that help you to do this job well―you can find countless "teachable moments."

A mother who was in my babysitting co-op was certain her little boy would never play with dolls. Trucks, yes. Dolls, no. She said her son would enjoy playing with my son's toys when he came to my house even though her son was closer to my daughter's age. While my son often played house with his little sister, by age 5 he had accumulated a fleet of toy cars and trucks. My 2-year-old daughter, influenced I'm sure by my excellent mothering, spent most of her playtime pretending to be a mother, supported by all the necessary tools of the trade. Soon after the visiting little boy's mom had left, he walked over to a large truck, picked it up and held it to his chest. Then he found a small blanket to wrap it in and placed it carefully in the doll crib. Yes, indeed, he played with trucks. As tenderly as a father.


Deborah Wood is a child development specialist residing in Annapolis.