In the Age of Parenting Fathers

Fathers’ Day is the ultimate afterthought. Mothers’ Day was originally celebrated in 1908 in the United States. Like the small-engine tools that so many fathers will receive and/or use today, Fathers’ Day took a few yanks—and generations—to get going. President Coolidge primed the pump in 1924. Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith gave a tug in 1957. LBJ proclaimed the third Sunday in June as Father’s Day in ’66 but tricky Dick was the one who finally made it law in 1972. I was born in 1974 so Father’s Day has been around for my entire life. But not my brother’s.

Also worth noting: they picked the month after Mother’s Day to honor fathers, which is to say the month after school gets out. Among the last activities in which young students will participate as the school year winds down is to make Mother’s Day cards and presents. Sorry dads, no laminated poems and artwork for you. Like I said: afterthought.

Perhaps, though, this is as it should be. Not only is Mother’s Day sixty years older than Father’s Day, but similar traditions stretch back to many of the civilizations of antiquity. A father’s contribution to child rearing can begin and end on the same day, but for the most part mothers are more committed, their bodies corporeally essential for both birth and then feeding. Warren Jeffs of the Fundamentalist LDS Church, to use one infamous example, sired 70 children, but it took 60 wives to get him there.  For mothers the attachments to baby, first with cord, then breast are very real and the emotional bonds are enduring.

My lovely bride got up early to make me breakfast this Fathers’ Day morning but I cleaned up the dishes afterward… so that Aimee could do some work and bill hours for the consulting she does in addition to her full-time teaching job, a reminder that women’s roles have changed drastically since 1972 as well. That we are equals in our household is the mark of tremendous progress but with parenting roles she is still a little more equal than me. I am a taller, physically stronger, more utilitarian version of mom, able to reach the top shelf, build shelves, throw the children in the pool but alas, not as emotionally sensitive or available as the lady of the house. When the pain is acute the young’uns seek comfort in her arms. That evolutionary cake was baked 200,000 years ago. There is progress still to be made.

When my first child was born I stayed at the hospital every moment Aimee did. Then I took two weeks off from work to be at home for mother and baby as she healed and he first explored his small world. These are typical experiences of new dads in the Age of Father’s Day (i.e. post 1972). My brother was born in 1970. Four years later he was left with a friend while my mom gave birth to me. My father was at work. These are equally typical experiences of men for the thousands of generations preceding us, returning to an office, a field, or the taiga, spear in hand.

Perhaps Fathers’ Day is our first aspirational holiday, based not on a season or religious observance but to mirror an honor already afforded the fairer sex. LBJ and Nixon may not have been trying to raise the standards for male parenting but Fathers’ Day is at least coincident with greater participation of men with their children and I am lucky to be on the receiving end of this shift in cultural norms.

The frustrations of fatherhood (or generically, parenthood) are mountains jutting out of a plain, obvious and impossible to ignore. Why can my children not pick up shoes from the floor? Why must they bicker constantly? The best parenting advice I ever got was “pick your battles.” Sometimes it is better to let my children leave the house dressed as slobs just to get the grocery shopping trip over with as quickly as possible, but I do recognize the cliché is a metaphor for war. The rewards, however, are oceans: even larger than their orographic counterparts, mysterious in their depth, and largely hidden by the horizon. I ride the waves, discover new sources of pride and inspiration, and while I will never know the totality of this sea the journey is far more rewarding than fraught. Fathers’ Day was an afterthought, but I’m still glad the men were finally invited to the party.

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