Several years ago I wrote this piece about fathers and fatherhood, moved by the holiday to express some thoughts on the topic. As I sit here in 2021, thinking about my own father—gone now for almost 22 years—while blessedly, lovingly, still able to admire the parenting skills of the very alive man I married, I am once again moved by the role men play in the process of life’s continuation. The piece below makes reference to Mad Men, a series that, while not current, remains an interesting treatise on “fatherhood” from its anachronistic point of view… so it still holds; thought I’d “redux” it… Enjoy the read/re-read!
Noble fathers have noble children. ~ Euripides
I was not initially hitched to the Mad Men bandwagon as it hurled its way to phenomenon status; I missed the kick-off and never jumped on. But once the media analyses and water-cooler accolades became so hyperbolic as to raise the show to “Breathlessly Zeitgeisty Must-See TV,” I knew I had to get with the program; it’s bad enough I never watched an episode of Survivor!
So I’ve been Netflixing the series and, I have to say, it is a fascinating snapshot of a historical time teetering on the brink of explosion. It well depicts the era’s style and panache (now called “mid century”), and paints a clever and sometimes unsettling anthropological thumbnail of human nature at a point when society was remarkably different. While it focuses mainly on only one or two class sub-sets, it does a good job of breathing life into the anachronistic “swells” and “dolls” of the jargon, the girdles and slicked back hair, and the propensity for unrestrained smoking and drinking (after watching several episodes I felt both asthmatic and buzzed!). But what it illustrates most pointedly is the distance we’ve come in our gender politics.
I was a child during those years and though aware of the more superficial elements, was clueless to the nuances and expectations of the roles of men and women in how they related to each other and certainly as parents. It’s one of the truer clichés of the time that “women’s work” was mostly defined as homemaker, house cleaner (unless affluent enough to afford “help”), and primary parent. Despite the Madison Avenue secretaries and the exceptional women who worked their way up toward the glass ceiling (ala Mad Men’s Peggy Olson), most women carried the weight of child raising, and Dads would show up after cocktails to give big hugs, have dinner, then go off to do “man” things while Mom put the kids to bed. Fathers were loving and involved in their way, but the extent to which they were hands-on was minimal. And while certainly there are still fathers operating from the antiquated paradigm of Don Draper, they’re a different breed these days, the product of an evolving and equalizing culture.
Our views of motherhood have remained fairly constant; it’s the role of “father” that has fluctuated and changed with the times. Men’s life expectancy is still up to six years shorter than women’s so, to put it bluntly, Daddies die sooner. While more women work outside the home than ever before, men still rely on them to take the larger role in parenting, meaning Dad’s intimacy and influence with his children is commensurately less. Some family compositions simply transcend without a traditional father: post-divorce custodial mothers, families with deceased fathers, single mothers who never married, same-sex mothers, etc. Statistics show that these families can thrive and be remarkably “whole” and functioning without a male figure, so the question remains: How essential is a father these days?
In families that have them? Very essential. It’s not whether families can survive without a father – they can, that is well documented. It’s whether a family that has a father has one that is fully present, involved, and contributing in the most effective ways possible for a child’s best shot at success.
Scores of books and studies have dissected, analyzed, and deconstructed the role and there is likely no man on this earth who doesn’t have at least some notion of the task based on his own experience as a child. Typically a man either admires the parenting he received and mimics it, or abhors his own father’s choices and becomes determined to make better ones. Which gets right to the point.
Modeling. A father is the first male role model a child has. In most families the father is the BIGGEST, most influential authority figure to first set boundaries, examples, and expectations. Through him a boy conjures his first idea of a man, picking up the nuances, proclivities and emotional expressions he will emulate in his own version of the role. In a father, a girl sees All Men – at least in the early years. She learns what to expect from other men by virtue of how her father treats her (and her mother). Through him, she sets her bar for the level of respect she’ll require, the honor she’ll demand, the self-confidence she’ll exude, and the aspirations she’ll pursue.
It’s a big responsibility, no doubt about it. We have come a long way from the Mad Men who saw their children as so many props, but new eras bring new problems and in a world where too many young men advance into adulthood needing anger management skills, a better understanding of how to be strong without being a bully, and a clearer sense of the purpose of honor and integrity, a father’s work is cut out for him. When a daughter sublimates herself in her relationships with men, loses her sense of confidence in the face of career adversity, or can’t determine how strong a woman to be without losing appeal, she clearly needs wise fathering to help reconstruct her perspective.
There are as many ways to be a good father as there are fathers and this is not to say a mother is any less important to the outcome of a child. But a father’s role is unique, specific, and very powerful. As we celebrate Father’s Day, it merits mention, as Euripides stated, that “noble fathers have noble children.” So wear that well, Dad, celebrate your nobility. Embrace your role and never forget you hold center stage – and always will – in the eyes of the children celebrating this day with you.
A very Happy Father’s Day to all the “noble fathers” in my life.
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