The Southern Dad

By Adam Harrell


Atlanta, Georgia

In 2013, I botched becoming a father. I told my wife that when her water broke, she should use a secret code phrase, to call me and say, “The eagle has landed!” With that, I would leave the office to meet her at Emory University Hospital in Midtown Atlanta. I thought it would be a fun way to handle a stressful situation.

But instead of it going the way I rehearsed it, when it happened in real life I answered the phone, got confused about why she was telling me an eagle had landed and said I’d be right there after I wrapped my meeting. She corrected me and said, “No. You should leave your meeting now. We’re about to have a baby.”

Like most men born in the early 1980s, I wasn’t prepared for fatherhood. I spent my 20s and early 30s as a self-centered, career-focused guy whose only interaction with kids was brief periods spoiling my much younger cousins. I was “the cool uncle.”

My transition, of course, is normal. The shift to fatherhood is the time when men begin to fulfill expected roles in society. For years in our region, being a good father meant protecting "pure women" and "traditional values." But with the shift in modern masculinity and the changing roles of fathers in the household, I question what it means to be a "good dad" in the South in 2019.

My first male role model, besides my dad, was my grandfather. If you were to conjure an archetypal Southern patriarch, he would come to mind. Daddy Dee was a character out of a Harper Lee novel. Active in his church, active in his community. His word carried weight (and authority). As a farmer, he made his living working the fields and spent his ample spare time roaming the hills of western North Carolina hunting grouse with friends.

He was of the generation when there was “man’s work” and “woman’s work.” This meant my grandmother spent a significant portion of every day washing, cooking, and cleaning for my grandfather. As a child, you look up to your grandparents with such reverence that it’s only in hindsight you notice that, just maybe, things weren’t the way they should have been.

But then again, in the 1960s, the most famous TV dad was Andy Griffith, and he left all the hard work of running a household to Aunt Bee so he could spend his time on “more important” things.

Traditional gender roles have roots as deep as ironweed here in the South, and these roles reinforced ideas I have trouble accepting — the rigid dogma that says the man should rule and wife should serve. The “boys will be boys” mindset that permits men for a variety of behaviors, ranging from lazy to toxic.

How can you separate the positive aspects of masculinity from the parts that aren’t so good? That’s the part I grapple with.

I have no desire to be the Sensitive New-Age Dad portrayed in the movies of my youth. I’m a stoic guy. I just don’t want to be emotionally distant. I want to be strong. I just don’t want to use strength to demean others. I want to be brave. I just don’t want to put my loved ones at risk. I appreciate beauty in the world. I just don’t think it’s right to objectify women.

I say all this, but, to be honest, I’m still not sure I’ve figured it out.

There are nights when I get home after leaving work later than I planned. Stuck in traffic, my frustration smolders at red light after red light, and I feel defeated before I even have a chance to start cooking dinner. There are mornings when I wake up late, rush to get breakfast made and walk my daughter to the bus stop, then feel like I’m exhausted before I’ve even had time for a shower.

My wife works full-time, picks up our daughter every afternoon, washes all her laundry, and runs more errands in a week than I do in a month. She’s also better and more patient when it comes to playing one-on-one, although I’m getting better at it as our daughter grows up. And when push comes to shove, our daughter is more likely to end up in her arms than mine when something goes wrong.

Splitting the burdens this way means I don’t have time for the traditional “manly hobbies” of the Southern dad. No golfing, hunting, or fishing for me. I don’t have a watering hole where I have an after-work drink or a man cave to escape to at night.

After our daughter goes to bed in the evening, I’ll often pour a glass of whiskey or wine and turn on the TV, although I’m more likely to watch a cooking show on PBS than I am a game on ESPN. I take particular pride in roasting up a chicken, cooking a perfect steak, or smoking a pork shoulder just right. My daughter and wife think I’m a good cook. There’s value in that.

The only symbolic marker of fatherhood I seem to be missing is the ubiquitous Yeti cooler. You know the one, rarely used in the true outdoors, but almost always full of IPAs. Apparently, Yetis keep your beer cold for a long time. Plenty of my neighbors seem to have them.

I don’t think I’m alone in trying to figure this stuff out. When I talk to other dads my age, none of us wants to go back to the old ways. But we’re all searching for an authentic version of our own identities. It’s almost as if we seek out markers of masculinity that we can slip into and out of, like a pair of boots. Boots are great. You just don’t want to be forced to wear them all the time.

And perhaps that’s the ideal. Perhaps being a father figure in today’s world is all about taking traditional conceptions of masculinity and stripping away the toxic parts.

At least that’s the route I’m trying, and I can only hope that one day, years from now, it’ll lead my daughter to say, “My dad was a great dad.”