I’m writing this on Father’s Day. Father’s Day is an afterthought. The second Sunday in May was officially designated Mother’s Day in 1914 by Congress and President Woodrow Wilson. The first presidential proclamation honoring fathers was issued by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966, over 50 years later.
Until recently fatherhood itself was an afterthought. In men’s lives, fathering was not the top priority. Men were breadwinners. Men were considered the heads of the household and people gave lip service to “Father Knows Best”, but women cared for children.
The women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s finally made an issue of fathering. If women were going to get out of the house and into the workplace, men had to change their roles, too. By the 1980s, fathers were allowed into the delivery room, present at that magical and painful moment when fatherhood really begins. A few couples shared jobs and child-rearing, and thought this was the wave of the future.
But changing cultural assumptions and family dynamics was not easy. I still remember being the odd man out when I brought my son to a play group in the 1980s. The mothers didn’t know what to do with me, even though we all knew each other. Did I have any interesting things to say about paper vs. cloth diapers? Did I know how to play with children? Would I act like a man among women, that is, superior and condescending? Fathers know best?
Women today still struggle with workplace discrimination and unequal pay. Paternity leave policies are far from universal. Stay-at-home fathers face social stigmas about their choices. Although fathers spend much more time taking care of their children, they are still far behind mothers. Since the 1960s, fathers have tripled the amount of time with their children, but that amount has risen from 2.5 hours a week (20 minutes a day?) to 7.3 hours per week, barely an hour a day. On average, that’s not really fatherhood.
There is much public concern about inadequate fatherhood. Many commentators on fathers and their absence, such as the National Fatherhood Initiative, claim that “Today, one in three children are growing up without their father.” This is an unfortunate error: one in three children live apart from their biological father, but many live with a step-father or adoptive father. Still, the number of fatherless children is very high, a bit more than one in four. That compares to only one in thirteen who live with no mother.
Furthermore, fathers raising their children without a mother tend to have it easier than mothers alone, according to the Census Bureau. In 2011, fathers alone cared for 5% of 12- to 17-year-old children, but only 2% of those 2 years old or younger. Fathers alone took care of 6% of children with no siblings, but only 2% of children with 3 or more siblings. About 21% of fathers caring for children with no mother lived below the poverty level, but that was true for 44% of mothers alone. The median income for mothers alone was about $25,000, while it was over $40,000 for fathers. On each of these measures, women take the tougher parenting roles.
Some of the blame for men’s insufficient attention to fatherhood can be attributed to our sexist culture. Girls are still given dolls to practice with, while boys play video games where strong men save sexy women. One of today’s Father’s Day TV programs is the Miss USA pageant.
But men themselves have to shoulder most of the responsibility for their lack of responsibility. Too many men help to make children, but then fail to help raise them. Raising children means not doing other things, including participation in the family-unfriendly work culture of corporate and professional life. Men have let women be the advocates for flexible hours, leave for child care, and other reforms which make it easier to combine family and work.
Being a parent is difficult. Fatherhood has been my most demanding, but also most rewarding accomplishment. There were no days off. Sometimes the work was literally shitty, but I liked changing diapers, because it was a moment of tender touching. (I’m a fan of cloth, by the way.) Every decision seemed momentous, with no obvious answers. Should we let our baby cry a bit longer? Is it time to replace the crib with a bed? How late can they stay out?
Fatherhood is about taking responsibility. You only earn a say in big decisions by getting up in the middle of the night, by missing meetings to stay home with a sick child, by replacing a social life with a home life. That investment is worth every second. Long after the rigors of parenting are over, children who are no longer children reflect back the love they have received. On Father’s Day, and every other day, fatherhood is the best thing to which a man can aspire.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 18, 2013