Fathering:  a 21st Century Job Description

this article first appeared in the Island Word in May, 2009. 

Now that we have a boy in the house, people are concerned that our children have access to “male role models”. But we wonder sometimes, what does it mean to be a good man these days? More specifically, what makes a good father? What can our boy look up to as he thinks about the kind of father he will be? So much has changed about fatherhood that not even television is giving us models of the good father anymore. Fred McMurray, Jimmy Stewart, and even Bill Cosby seem dated and quaint now. Homer Simpson, The Family Guy, and King of the Hill are not only cartoons, but also pathetic caricatures of fatherhood. Well meaning but not-too-bright is the best that can be said for today’s TV fathers.

Compounding this dearth of fatherly role models is the commonness of distant and absentee fathers. Listening to a group of cub scouts discussing absentee fathers recently, Serena observed that they began their stories with  “My father left when I was ____ years old,” as though time stopped and began again for every child with that dramatic life event. Serena’s own daughter, at the age of nine, referred to her father moving away as “the first really bad thing in my life.” These children put the lie to pat assurances that “your parents don’t love each other anymore, but they both love you and will always be here.” When a father or mother leaves, the child experiences himself or herself as having been left behind.

With Father’s Day rolling around, we are once again faced with the perennial problem of celebrating fatherhood in a society where so many children do not have visible fathers to celebrate. How do we affirm and encourage the positive role that fathers play in the lives of their children, without implying that traditionally-configured families are better than those without a man? How do we encourage children to appreciate fathers, when they have them, without rubbing salt in the wounds of those who don’t? We have said before that we wish schools would bow out of the Father’s Day and Mother’s Day hype, leaving families to decide for themselves who, and how to celebrate. But this skirts an important need on the part of boys (and girls), to know what good fathering looks like and to appreciate when it comes their way. Father’s day might be better celebrated if it were focused less on “father” as a specific, biologically-related person, and more on those who “father” in the active sense, providing consistent support to children and their mothers and giving boys (and girls) a model of positive masculinity.

Dividing parenting up according to gender—mothers and fathers—is traditional but not particularly helpful unless one is in the greeting card business. But mothers and fathers have come to be associated with two distinct sets of parental strengths and duties. The set which we call “mothering” includes feeding, nurturing, comforting, and encouraging children in the most intimate spheres of family life. The mothering parent makes chicken soup and wipes our brow when we are sick, makes our house into a comfortable home, goes to school conferences, and believes in us when no one else does. “Fathering” consists of protecting and providing for the family, playing rough-and-tumble games, teaching skills that require power tools, cars or barbeques, and providing an admirable model for how to get along in the wide world. In addition, each parent in a well-functioning family actively supports the other, so that children can admire each and can observe both parents treated well and with respect.

Within cultures, there have always been men who mother and women who father. Sometimes this is made necessary by circumstance, when one parent dies or goes away. Sometimes it is a matter of personality suiting one to one side or another of the parenting dichotomy. Nevertheless, most of us in the shared dominant culture of early 21st century Canada do have a clear idea of what mothering and fathering traditionally consist of. The trick is to embrace change and variety, while honoring and providing for every task that is necessary and desirable in the raising of a child.

In a culture that is still patriarchal in many ways (that is, partial to fathers), the lack of a visible male father is indeed likely to be felt as a deep wound to a child. We can’t make up for this entirely by providing the substance of “fathering” through alternative people; the child will still ask who their “real father” is. But being able to see and to say “thank you” for the fathering that one does receive is important to every child, including those whose male biological parent is absent, unknown, or irresponsible. So what if Father’s Day shifted slightly to be Fathering Day, and to focus on those who do father work for children and mothers, regardless of gender or biological ties?

Thinking about this need to encourage, recognize and honor fathering work, we had to first step back and define what fathering entails. We did some reading, but most sources spoke only about how fathers play with children; few mention the ways in which fathers support the family behind the scenes. We were disappointed with this; the financial support of a family and the emotional support toward the children’s other parent are too important to go without recognition. And since this work is usually only indirectly witnessed by children, who benefit from a well-provisioned and safe environment, and a supported and confident mother, it’s adults who need to point it out to them, and coach them to say, “thank you”. Our list, then, of what father-work entails highlights not just the play and the fort building, but the providing and mother-supporting as well.

Fathering work can be done by anyone, regardless of gender, age, biological relatedness or formal title. So, who should get a Father’s Day card this year? The answers might surprise us. If our readers are not sure, perhaps this list will help.

Those who “father”

1. Protect the family. This is probably the oldest and most universal role of fathers. Try to remember feeling really, really safe. Who was keeping watch, ready to defend you if necessary while you slept? Who made sure your house was strong and safe from storms or bears? Who does this for your children? Send that person (or those people) a card for Father’s Day.

2. Provide for the family. This important function gets often overlooked these days, as at-home parents are inclined to see going “out to work” as a luxury. But welfare is no fun, and staying employed involves self-discipline and sacrifice. Consider the coal miners who not so long ago worked underground in Cumberland, stooped over in tunnels that could fill with toxic gas or explode into flame. Why do people do such dangerous and unpleasant things? Because someone whom they love depends upon it. Who keeps the wolf from the door of your children’s house? Who provides the money to buy safety, food, and dignity, and something special now and then for them? Send that person a card for Father’s Day.

3. Teach skills and values. Who do your children look up to? Who teaches them or helps them to build things? Who answers their endless “why?” or “how?” questions? Who says, “gee, that’s a good question—I don’t know”, then helps them to look up the answer? Send that person a card.

4. Have fun messing around with kids. Who plays with your children, laughs with them, tells them silly jokes? Whose puns do your kids think are brilliant until age ten, when they groan at them, until they move away and start to pun themselves? Send that person a card.

5. Stay around. Who shapes their career plans around the children? Who hangs in as a family person, doing their best even when fighting private demons? Who fights to overcome their own limitations because the kids need them to be strong? Send that person a really big card.

6. Encourage and support the children’s mother. Who tells her that she is smart, beautiful, and worthy of respect? Who shows the children what respect in the home looks like every day, modeling equality, fairness and empathy regardless of gender? Send that person a card.

Our list is by no means exhaustive or culturally universal, but we think it is a good starting point for approaching Father’s Day in a positive way regardless of family shape. Think of it as a starting point for conversation at home and in the neighborhood—what does it mean in these changing times to father a family?