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What It Means to Be a 'Good' Father in America Has Changed. Here's How.

"I think the key change for the invention of the modern father is in the 1920s," says historian Robert L. Griswold.

In practice, every family — and what that family expects from a father, if one is present — is different. But that has never stopped anyone from imagining that there’s a certain way to be a “good” dad.

Some of the tensions there are near-constant, like the contradictory expectations between going out and being a breadwinner and staying home and spending quality time with the kids. Some of them are distinctly modern, like the impact of social media. And over time, as the role of the American dad has been subject to increasing analysis, there’s been less and less agreement on the right way to be a father.

The American Dad Emerges

In the early years of the United States’ existence, the concept of what it meant to be a dad was something that, as far as historians can tell, people just didn’t think all that much about. In that period, a good dad imparted faith and knowledge, and that was that.

“The topic of fatherhood was not commonly discussed in Colonial American sources,” historian Shawn Johansen, author of Family Men: Middle-Class Fatherhood in Early Industrializing America, told TIME in an email. “Fathers were to teach their children religious piety and doctrine, while inculcating good work habits and the necessary knowledge to succeed in a mostly agrarian economy.”

That began to change — like so much else — in the 19th century, in the years after the Civil War. The growth of the U.S. commercial economy meant that it became more common for a family’s primary source of income to be a job performed outside the home rather than a farm or family business, meaning that someone, usually the father, left every day for work. This shift jump-started the rise of a middle class, just around the same time that children started to be seen more as individuals with rights that must be protected rather than just another pair of hands. Kids started to leave home for public school, too, and it was the responsibility of the father to guild them, especially sons, to later finding their own jobs. (Johansen notes another “surprising” change in this period when it comes to American fatherhood: this is when some men in the middle class start to be present in the room when their children are born.) Industrialization led to a unique set of expectations for working-class fathers, too.

“Fathers’ identities revolved around bread-winning and their ability to place children in work positions,” says Johansen. “The vagaries of industrial work, however, made working-class fathers’ authority more vulnerable than even the middle-class fathers.”