Tomorrow is Fathers Day. I suppose that should mean something to me since I’m a father and once had a father, but I must confess that it is not a day that moves me much one way or the other. It is of course a good thing to celebrate fathers, but I don’t see how setting one day out of three hundred and sixty five to do so says enough about the importance of fathers. In fact, considering the familial dysfunction of our society it is very possible that such a day causes more pain than pleasure. Let me explain what I am getting at.
The ideal for the American family, for my Baby Boomer generation at least, was the Cleaver family of television fame. Father Ward was always calm when he came home from some job that he could perform in a suit. Mother June always had dinner ready when Ward got home and kept an immaculate house while wearing pearl necklaces. Wally was the nearly perfect big brother to little Beaver and both Wally and The Beav always learned a life lesson by the end of the show. Of course there were other perfect families on the tube; Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet were two of the best, and we got to hear Ricky Nelson sing at the end of the latter’s show, but Leave It To Beaver stands at the peak of familial perfection.
Yet I never knew anyone who quite lived up to that ideal. Many of my childhood friends came from single parent families. I won’t speculate on the reasons for this because I never asked, and explanations were never offered. Other of my friends came from two parent families but the home was anything but harmonious. Alcoholism tainted some and neglect others. My own experience was a father who was usually loving and attentive but could turn to confusing moods of morose anger, which many times ended in me and my family hurting emotionally and in much more physical terms. I was famous in my neighborhood for the number and quality of the ass-whippings that I received at the hands of my father. I never saw THAT episode on Leave It To Beaver.
There were a number of other ‘normal’ two parent families in our neighborhood and their kids, my friends, seemed to turn out OK. They grew up to become teachers and police officers, contractors and housewives. But their lives reflected little of the idyllic life that was presented in the television shows of the 1950’s and 1960’s. I know. I was sitting on park benches after dark, smoking cigarettes and talking with my friends about our lives. There was little perfection to be found there.
The truth is that there are many realities in American family life and some bring pain to children where fathers are concerned. Sometimes fathers are unknown. The mother had no idea who the partner du jour was that acted as a sperm donor to her child. The father has no idea either, and therefore couldn’t offer to stand up to the role of fatherhood even if he was inclined to do so. In other cases the father had bugged out on the family before the child ever knew him; perhaps before the child was even born. Such cases as these leave a child with no idea of what a father should be. Television family shows are fine, but they are like watching soap commercials for all the impact that they have. “Father” is an abstract; something that other kids may have had, but possibly nobody in any particular kid’s circle of acquaintances. Fathers Day might just as well be Flag day. Who cares?
Worse yet are the instances when a child can remember a father, who is now departed due to divorce or abandonment. In such cases children often wonder “What could I have done?” or “What did I do wrong?” The answer to both of those questions, of course, is nothing. The adults, who it turns out are not significantly more emotionally developed than their children, behave in ways that they perceive to be beneficial to themselves, and their children and their spouse must be content to take a pitiful second place to their narrow little self interest. This leaves the children wounded and less equipped to construct meaningful relationships in their own adult years, thereby insuring that the sad cycle will not only continue but pick up speed.
And then there’s the abuser. I never knew any kids in my neighborhood who admitted to being really beaten or to be sexually abused by their fathers or other extended family members, but the odds are that such things happened. They just were not talked about back then. When I think back fifty and more years to my childhood friends I wonder what went on behind closed doors. I would like to believe that nothing out of line was going on, but I am not so naive as to believe that was the case.
For people who survived such childhoods, Fathers Day is a cruel joke. For the person who’s father is a ghost due to death or abandonment before memory, or the person who still feels the lash of the belt or the impact of the fist, or even worse, the personal, sexual violation, Fathers Day is a time for anything from an unconcerned shrug of the shoulders to a cold rage that says “Screw fathers and their damned day.”
But this is not the whole story. There are many fathers who sacrifice their own desires and their precious time to fulfill their role. There are many men, every one of them as imperfect as I am, who work overtime to provide the material needs of their family. These guys take their children to baseball practice or soccer games, go to school plays or recitals, discipline their children lovingly when they stray into bad behavior and, best of all, love their children’s mother openly and sacrificially. These guys exist; I know many of them. They are imperfect and not in the majority, but they exist, and they offer examples to all of the rest of us who could and should do better than we do. To these guys I will offer a heartfelt “Happy Fatherhood Day.”
I guess it’s obvious that I prefer Fatherhood Day to Fathers Day, and that’s because so many fathers are not worth celebrating. “Fatherhood Day” would be a day to celebrate the idea of a kind, loving male who will stand by his obligations to wife and children and go beyond obligations to real servanthood. This man would take the cares of the world onto his shoulders to the best of his capabilities in tandem with his wife, and be a friend and model and rock to his kids. On this day we would say to these imperfect guys who are struggling to do their part “Well done,” and to those who have shirked their responsibilities “You should be ashamed.”
So Happy Fatherhood Day! And may you guys out there wear whatever shoe fits.