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It’s Time for Some Dad Theory

Five hundred years after Shakespeare helped introduce the term, “dad” remains a symbol of fatherhood’s egalitarian transformation.
June 17, 2022
It’s Time for Some Dad Theory
(Photo by Arthur S. Siegel, via the Library of Congress)

It’s not news that conflating fatherhood and political rule—what some would call patriarchy—is a bad idea. The moral feasibility of the scheme aside, both fatherhood and governing are consuming pursuits. Even if I could bring my good and the public good into perfect alignment—and I can’t—it would be impossible to muster an absolute commitment to both simultaneously. The fact that many fathers attempt to do just that produces miserable outcomes, but it sure makes for great entertainment.

Two of the best shows of the last twenty years, Succession and Arrested Development, work so well in part because they remind us of the tragic and comic excesses of the rule of fathers. Patriarchy is a living reality in the Roy and Bluth families, and in both shows, it takes one of its last sanctioned forms: the family business. Each series opens with the paterfamilias refusing to retire. The announcement brings considerable chagrin to their adult children and other, more ambiguous figures who have been waiting in the wings for a job. This is a classic scenario, and one might even find in it echoes of Hamlet, a story about how stalling succession leads to arrested development, if you will.

Logan Roy and George Bluth Sr.—our tragic patriarch and our comic patriarch—are estimable, distant, occasionally threatening, and frequently inscrutable figures. Nobody ever really knows quite where they stand in relation to them. Solidarity among their children is rare, and alliances between them are usually temporary. The men withhold financial and emotional boons and deploy paternal approval only for the purpose of manipulation. Both delight in teaching dramatic “lessons” through humiliation and fostering sibling competition, and neither has many scruples when it comes to either the family or the business.

But there is an important difference between the sinister way Logan presides over Waystar Royco’s quest for global domination and the hapless way George Sr. falls into “light treason.” (For one, Bluth does seem to try to put “family first.”) And while Succession’s gravitas makes the corruption of the members of the Roy family feel inexorable, the failings of the Bluths are relatively benign. Everyone in Arrested Development can still stand each other well enough to return to Balboa Towers or Sudden Valley for drinks at the end of each episode.

These two sides of the twenty-first-century family business plot hark back to an important, productive tension in modern culture’s source material: the pull between tragic and comic representations of patriarchal rule in Shakespeare. If Shakespeare’s tragedies portray doomed men who attempt to maintain absolute, simultaneous, and ultimately impossible commitments to both fatherhood and political rule, Shakespeare’s comic plots often show us men trying to act like patriarchs in a world that has found a different basis for political legitimacy than patriarchy. Logan Roy is like King Lear because he’s still powerful and effective. George Bluth Sr. is Falstaff— not the capable Falstaff of the Henriet, but the diminished Falstaff of Merry Wives of Windsor: His power is mostly titular, and he is the butt of the joke.

The fathers in Shakespeare’s comedies are the problem: Despite their formal authority, they’re largely impotent, ineffectual, and irrelevant—but nobody has bothered to tell them that. Leonato’s attempts to defend the honor of his daughter Hero in Much Ado About Nothing nearly throws the city of Messina back into a war they had only recently ended. But for all that, Leonato is fifth business, and the more important battle is the figurative one: The play’s real verve comes from the question of whether its two sparklingly witty, independent protagonists—Benedick and Beatrice—can cease hostilities in their “merry war” long enough to realize they’d be happier together.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Egeus’s attempt to exert misogynistic control over his daughter Hermia’s romantic life becomes irrelevant as soon as she and her friends run off into the woods. In Merchant of Venice, Portia can simply undo her dead father’s patriarchal stratagems to control her desires by delivering a few rhyming couplets. Time and again, the comedies portray conflicts between ambiguous patriarchs and everyone else in their lives—people who can govern themselves, and increasingly want nothing more than to do so.

But what would happen if Much Ado ended with the couple accepting at face value Benedick’s sardonic observation that the world “must be peopled,” and deciding in light of it to have kids? Shakespeare’s comedies—no less than Succession and Arrested Development—raise a question increasingly timely for us: What happens to the father after the most obvious manifestations of patriarchy pass away?

He becomes a dad.

Fathers didn’t completely disappear, of course; the popularity of Succession and Arrested Development speaks to the durability of the theme of complicated fathers from Shakespeare’s time to now. But the ambiguity about paternal authority that the Bard drew on to give dynamism to his plays has reached an inflection point in our transition from “father” to “dad.” The OED lists Shakespeare’s King John as providing one of the first instances of the word “dad” in English. Five hundred years later, “dad” is a symbol of fatherhood’s transformation to better fit a more egalitarian age.

The authority of fathers is bestowed by tradition and convention, which makes it brittle; the classic patriarch maintains it by fostering obedience and distance, and defends it through politics and even violence, if necessary. Dads, by contrast, have no similarly vaunted sense of themselves, and encounter paternity uncertain of their standing in either the familial or social worlds. They perform the work of caring while struggling against an odd sense of their own illegitimacy as caregivers.

Rita Koganzon has written persuasively about how early modern thinkers saw “authoritarian” families as a necessary redoubt against the drift of liberal politics, but, as she acknowledges, mores in this area drifted nonetheless. As far back as the 1830s, Tocqueville, reflecting on a style of “democratic family” he encountered in America, could observe that “the father exercises no other power than that which is granted to the affection and the experience of age.” He doesn’t seek a greater authority or fight to preserve it, either. As a dad, King Lear might not have attained the same heights as a philosopher-statesman, but he might have been happier.

I wonder, and not without some anxiety, what the French aristocrat might have thought about guys like me. Lacking what Tobias Fünke calls George Sr.’s “raw power,” the modern dad finds his place in the family poorly defined and consequently somewhat eccentric. Clichés about dads do most of our thinking on the subject, but relying on them leaves everything interesting about dads on the table—and as an unambiguously modern dad, I find clarity about what I’m trying to do more useful than condemnation or nostalgia.

While moms typically begin parenting intimately close to their children—many babies learn “dada” before “mama” because, it is said, they don’t see a difference between themselves and “mama” for the first few months—and work to introduce more space over time, dads start at a distance and have to work to become closer to their kids. Classic fathers exaggerate this distance, and it becomes a way of life. Dads do the opposite: They recognize a need to reel back the distance of the father and to draw near to their kids, as their own fathers may not have done. These are learned approaches, and even if we are (rightly) hesitant to give cultural roles the imprimatur of nature, it isn’t controversial to suggest that most men are not socialized to be care-givers. That said, being a dad is an ecumenical and inclusive pursuit; anyone—especially anyone caring for small children—could participate in the dialectic of dads, regardless of gender or sexual identity.

Dads recognize that they need to establish their place in their kids’ lives—to earn “that which is granted to the affection,” as Tocqueville wrote. They feel a little weird about it, and perhaps they regret in some measure their loss of natural authority, but they still elbow their way into love. The standard cultural fare of a dad’s life—the punny jokes, the endearing professions of civic pride, the simultaneously benign and complicated hobbies, sports fandom, disarmingly dorky footwear, favorite records cued in the hope of sparking curiosity and amusement—is actually a collection of tools for gently closing the gap. The goal is to merge the inner closeness he already feels towards his kids with the outer reality of his relationship with them.

It can be a painful process: Even well-loved children sometimes go through seasons of rejecting their dads (and, for that matter, their moms). One of my daughters for months refused to allow my face anywhere near hers because I was “too sharp” before I shaved my beard and “too scratchy” afterwards. In previous generations, fathers might have refused the discomfort of entering this dialectic of closeness and distance, and retreated back into the tower of their authority. Dads have no tower into which to retreat; to exist as a dad is to be exposed. When a child comes into the world, a dad is not also born: Rather, a potential dad is given the choice to become actual.

I’m a professor; after I became a dad, I noticed surprising changes in how I went about my work. This is the “theory” part of Dad Theory: not a hypothesis about paternity, but some suggestions about what being a dad does to the work of theorizing.

Fathers, famously, have been one of the primary barriers to thinking. It was the fathers who came for Socrates, accusing him of having corrupted the youth of Athens. They understood, as Socrates’ contemporary Aristophanes shows in his play Clouds, how vulnerable paternal authority is to just a bit of questioning. But because dads have been liberated from this specific concern about intellectual threats to their natural authority, they are free to explore the effects of their parenting role on thinking itself.

Being a dad is a companionable affair, which is why dads so often call our children “buddy.” My goal for my kids is not usually dutiful obedience but willing compliance. The problem is that my four daughters—some of whom can read this and are, I assure you, perfectly delightful—are not always willing to comply. A friend of mine interprets the Greek gods, a divine ensemble full of messy patriarchal drama, as “things you can’t negotiate with.” One of the first lessons any dad learns is that children are Greek gods.

My daughter Ruthie did not want to wear—or even bring—her raincoat to school one day last month. She had a sensible reason: It had not yet started to rain. “Buddy,” I said, “if you don’t bring it, you’ll regret it later when it’s raining.” With Hellenic rage, her tearful eyes flashing, Ruthie spat: “You’re not my buddy. A buddy wouldn’t make me do something I didn’t want to do!”

She was right. To be a dad is to constantly negotiate with things that admit of negotiation—and Greek gods. How can I bring this unknowable little creature into knowledge? Zeus has his thunderbolt; all I have is the threat of no Paw Patrol after school.

Good thinking enables us to transform something we don’t know into something we do. To use a spatial metaphor, the challenge is to bring something in the distance a little closer to us without collapsing the distance completely. Performing the miracle of cogitation is likely to leave us feeling a little smug about ourselves, the self-ruling princes of the intellectual realm. But dads know such autonomy is illusory.

My kids—if I can even use the possessive—are a part of me, but I cannot see them if I reduce them to my own reflection. Parenthood entails limitless closeness; all parents see more of their very young children than their kids can see of themselves. Being a dad, though, means perceiving this intimacy from a distance and working to make it outwardly manifest through awkward, conscious effort. This dialectical relationship resembles good thinking, which brings us to the first moment of Dad Theory. Dads guard against losing themselves in particularity, on one hand, and losing themselves in abstraction, on the other. Being a dad means being neither too attached to one’s own concerns to see things clearly, nor too impressed by speculation to see the messiness of real life. To practice Dad Theory is to negotiate with the known unknowns—and to trust that love is a stable point you can use to navigate through ambiguity to reach something solid and sure.

As a dad, I avoid the ex cathedra pronouncement “because I said so” as much as I can. But children are relentlessly, doggedly eristic: They attack without mercy and demand absolute consistency from their partners in debate. When she was 3, my daughter Joanna once asked if her baby sister would be going swimming with us. “No,” I replied, “babies can’t swim.” After half a beat, she primly informed me: “But, Daddy, Baby Beluga ‘swims so wild and swims so free.’” I had let her watch the video that contained this counterprogramming; she had caught me plainly in a contradiction. I am dad enough to have taken the note. My children delight in critique: they troll me about my graying hair and lower back pain; I troll them back about how they are never, ever getting a dog. Reason is a great leveler in the contexts of intellectual pursuit and the democratic family both. Being a dad is an endless boot camp that trains you to show your work, and to root out your natural hypocrisy and laziness. One of your kids is somehow always nearby with a whistle clenched in their teeth to call out every momentary lapse.

Showing your work is essential for cultivating the virtuous intellectual habit of giving due process. This means Dad Theory is a theory of the second look. Its mindset is skeptical, but the skepticism is gentle because it is also interested. Dads can’t afford to be too committed to any one way of looking at things because we have a more foundational competing commitment—to our little ones, their good. Since that commitment has been attained through much effort and at great cost, dads also stand to gain some distance from the very assumption that we need to maintain distance from an object of inquiry. The second moment of Dad Theory, then, is to recognize the situatedness—the messy, limited humanness—of thinking.

This is not to say that Dad Theory is a counsel of irrationalism, perspectivism, or intellectual despair, but rather that it commends patience and qualification. I’m often summoned to referee disputes between my daughters: The task is to determine what volatile compound of feelings, circumstances, and attendant misunderstandings led to a particular explosion. But there’s a twist: I am—in a way I might not have otherwise thought possible—on both sides, or even all four sides, at once. Thinking takes place between poles of objectivity and subjectivity, and often toggles quickly between them. Being a dad not only trains a person to inhabit this in-between space: It also joins the mind and heart in ways that don’t seem propositionally possible. Being a dad can bring on a kind of intellectual synesthesia: The mind feels; the heart knows.

The tragic error of the classic father was to mistake relative distance for absolute distance. The danger of being a dad is far less dramatic. We’re liable to become a sort of liminal figure—neither close enough to be what our kids need or distant enough to attain the ambiguous grandeur of the patriarch. The unsuccessful dad is harried but remains immature. In Succession and Arrested Development, Kendall Roy and Michael Bluth are such dads; they’re not like their fathers, but we could be excused for wondering whether they’re much of an improvement. Still, Kendall Roy’s birthday party—an unbearably cringe affair—finds the Waystar Royco scion moodily contrasting a salty birthday message from his father (“Cash out—and fuck off”) with the sweet gifts he receives from his ex-wife and kids. And even if Michael Bluth never actually hears anything his son George Michael says, he at least knows he should be listening.

Dad Theory—with its emphasis on situatedness and humility, its blending of the heart and mind, its ideals of intellectual fairness and the light touch—is a sensibility forged from the experience of growing into the role of the dad. When we know things, we have the tendency to behave like classic fathers—we start to believe that we are somehow completely formed, autonomous. But Dad Theory’s characteristic insights are rooted in the experience of growing with your kids, and the democratic realization that there is still room to grow. If fathers became dads in response to the pressures of the age, Dad Theory looks beyond those pressures to the future they make possible, starting with our own hearts.

Matt Dinan

Matt Dinan is a professor in the Great Books Program at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. Twitter: @second_sailing.