Parental Paradox: Why A Father's Tough Love Is The Harder Job

Jim Blasingame

Parental love is a paradox, simultaneously delivering the expectation of safe harbor with the consequences of discipline. As the father of an adult daughter and son, plus the grandfather of four knucklehead boys (Hurricane, Tornado, Crash, and Train Wreck), I’ve learned some things about this paradox.  

All the hours logged as Dad and Poppy have often caused me to contemplate how different are the roles of mother and father, especially in the overt demonstration of parental love. And it’s fascinating how the manifestation of this love differs between mother and father – biologically, emotionally, and experientially. 

A mother’s love, at once gentle and fierce, is observed in almost all animals, not just humans. No doubt you’ve heard this simile: “… as sweet as a mother’s love,” and this warning: “Never get between a momma bear and her cub.” I’ve witnessed and have been the happy recipient of this side of the parental paradox, and there truly is no other force like it in nature.

A human father’s love, on the other hand, is more often associated with the other half of the paradox by unfortunate references like “tough” and “strict.” Here’s a warning no one has ever heard from a father: “Just wait ’til your mother gets home!” As a teenager, my dad once – and only once – apologized if his approach to paternal love might have seemed “hard-boiled.” It did. But knowing this rare gesture was rhetorical, I chose the better part of valor by not confirming it out loud.

Consequently, it troubles me that there are no corresponding sweet references to paternal love. Could this be why Father’s Day is not quite as big a deal as Mother’s Day? Just sayin’…

Mothers occupy the pinnacle of parental love – with complete justification. And not to take anything away from them, but a mother’s sweet love is as primal as the miracle of birth. Indeed, it’s their first nature and, let’s be honest – they don’t have to work too hard to deliver it. But there’s a uniqueness about a father’s love that deserves a better rap, for two reasons: 

  • A human father’s tough love is more learned than primal and does not exist outside of homo sapiens.  
  • When a father’s parental toughness is delivered, especially when applied to an indignant recipient (read: teenager), it requires a love that is at once courageous and patient. Courageous enough to endure a likely negative response, and patient enough to defer gratification – sometimes for years – for having dispensed that lesson. 

No one is more keenly aware of the distinction between the application of these two demonstrations of love than a single parent (especially a single mom), where both kinds are required of the same person, perhaps within minutes. 

Mothers, please forgive any bias you may detect, but here’s my conclusion about the paradox of parental love: The only force in the universe that comes close to a mother’s sweet/fierce love is a father’s tough/courageous love. But the latter is the harder job, and the return on investment almost always takes longer.

Write this on a rock … Happy Father’s Day, Dads. You’ve earned it. 

Jim Blasingame is the author of The 3rd Ingredient, the Journey of Analog Ethics into the World of Digital Fear and Greed.

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