A Father’s Day Retrospective

The date is June 16, 2019, and it is officially Father’s Day here in the United States. The first known Father’s Day celebration in America occurred in 1910, in Spokane, Washington, though it didn’t really catch on. In fact, there were numerous failed attempts to revive the holiday for several decades, including attempts by national leaders like Calvin Coolidge and Woodrow Wilson. However, while Mother’s Day has been celebrated since the 1870’s, and has been a declared national holiday since 1913, Father’s Day did not gain that distinction until 1972, when President Nixon signed it into law.

Its not hard to understand why Father’s Day has been so slow on the uptake. For much of the past 150 years, since the Industrial Revolution began to reshape the American family, moving us from a largely agrarian society to an urban work-a-day society, fathers occupied the role of breadwinner and disciplinarian, but they otherwise had limited involvement in the nurturing of their children. Almost all of the daily child-rearing responsibilities were undertaken by the mother. Dads would work all day, and maybe see the kids for a few minutes at night before moms corralled them into bed.

However, in the past couple decades, we have seen a new trend. Basically, since women began to infiltrate the marketplace, leading us into the beginnings of the two-working-parent household model, fathers have been taking on an increasing role in child care. As the economy struggled, and more and more mothers were forced to leave the home to bring in a second income, fathers, albeit reluctantly, were forced to become co-parents, sharing equally (or slightly more equally) in the child-rearing responsibilities.

As it is now, myself, and most other fathers of my generation and later — at least those that are decent people — have shouldered a considerable portion of the childcare duties. We have changed diapers, wiped noses, read bedtime stories, made school lunches, managed carpools, and helped with homework. We attend, and even volunteer at school functions, we go grocery shopping, and sometimes we even cook and clean our houses. Things that were practically the sole province of mommies just half a century ago.

So, now, in the new world order of co-equal parenting, and more and more often co-equal breadwinning, Fathers are rightfully claiming their special Day. Father’s Day means more now than it did in 1972, and certainly more than it did in 1910. And while those of us who are, in fact, dedicated fathers should be proud of the jobs we do, perhaps it is our fathers, if they were decent fathers, that deserve the most fanfare.

Through my various stages of life, I have more than likely complained from time to time about growing up with a detached, uninterested father. Maybe I felt that my father spent too much time at work, and not enough time being Dad. Perhaps I have blamed more than one of my problems, issues, neuroses, or peccadilloes on the lack of fatherly guidance as a child. Maybe I even felt un-loved at certain low points in my emerging adulthood. And it was always easy to passive-aggressively blame dad, and mom, and my siblings, and my ‘middle-child syndrome’ for my own failures. But looking back, I might have failed to give credit where credit is due.

No father is perfect — because fathers are humans, and subject to the same stresses, emotional ailments, and character flaws as anyone else. Because my dad was under constant pressure, partially from the memory of his own absent father and poverty-stricken childhood, to succeed, to grow his business, and to provide more for his family than he ever dreamed of growing up, maybe he wasn’t as involved in my life as I am with my kids. Because gender roles were changing in the 1970’s, and men born in the 1950s were not raised, trained or prepared in any way for the challenges of child care, perhaps my father was not as nurturing as I am to my children. In other words, if there were any inadequacies in my father’s parental performance, they may not have been intentional.

In fact, looking back, I realize that my dad may have actually tried to be a nurturing and caring parent. As much as I malign my childhood experience, when I reflect, I remember very few really bad instances of dad-fails. A few spankings that were maybe a little too severe, a few disappointments when he didn’t show up for something important to me, but nothing that left a permanent scar on my psyche. In fact, when I look back, I remember dad crawling into my bedroom after bedtime to tickle me and my brother; I remember him patiently teaching me how to play the guitar; telling us jokes that were ever-so-slightly inappropriate, despite a warning glance of disapproval from my mom; hunting, fishing, camping, family vacations… And I could go on. Looking back, I actually have many more good memories of my father than bad ones.

And I say that my father deserves more accolades than me and my contemporaries, even though we may shoulder a little more of the burden of parenting. We were raised in an era when fatherly mothering was becoming the norm. We were expected to be co-parents, not just breadwinners. So when I leave work early to rush to my son’s school play, or schedule a day off to carpool the kids, or lay in the bed with my daughter until she falls asleep because she’s afraid of the dark, I’m just doing my job. When my dad did all those things, he was doing something extra. He was a father, being a dad, because he wanted to, not because anyone expected him to be. And I dearly wish I had one more chance to tell my father, who passed away 2 years ago, how much I appreciate him.

So, Happy Father’s Day to all the fathers out there, present — and past.

Public interest advocate. Guitar guru. Devoted father. Political dissident.

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