Shadows and sunlight on Father's Day
- Any job description for the position of father would be necessarily vague; the rules, roles and expectations of fathers are in constant flux
Globe & Mail, June 17, 2004
Forget the easy cynicism about Father's Day. The arbitrary designation of the third Sunday in June as Father's Day may well be a marketer's invention to improve retail sales as shoppers abandon the malls when the first warm weather hits. But Father's Day triggers much more than shopping. It unleashes an emotional undercurrent of labyrinthine complexity. Why?
Mother's Day, albeit another marketing scam invented to separate us from our money, is a much more worthy occasion. Any father who has attended a childbirth will acknowledge that he got the easier job. It is easy to see what Mom has done for us. Therefore on Mother's Day we buy her cards, send flowers or take her out to dinner. Mothers deserve our thanks. At least this way we are reminded to do it once a year. With Father's Day, the issue darkens, taking on greater nuance.
Perhaps fathers come back to our memories more poignantly than mothers because we never really knew them. If you were born before 1945, chances are your father was a visiting celebrity in your childhood. If you were born in between 1945 and 1960, you may have more memories of him, but maybe not more involvement. After 1960, he was around more and began spending some time with you. After 1975, he might even have maintained the illusion of spending as much time with you as did your mother. Don't believe him. He didn't. Now he regrets it.
Dead fathers come back to us when we least expect them. A whiff of cigar smoke on a busy sidewalk. Old plaid shirts in a cupboard. Medals at the back of a drawer. Fishing rods, trout flies in a tackle box. His favourite beer. Living fathers tend to be older than their wives and less agile at adapting to the passing years. They are more brittle. Like tall trees in a cyclone, they are blown down sooner. We take them in our arms as we never tried to as children. Now they are so much smaller. The physical prowess we remember has melted away. Now they have soft middles and stooping postures.
Warriors no more.
Fatherhood is a largely unconscious role. Ask any group of 11-year-old girls on the cusp of fertility about their life aspirations. Many of them will mention becoming a mom. Then ask their male classmates. No mention of becoming a dad. None. Sex, yes. In the pubescent male imagination, manhood and fatherhood travel in non-intersecting orbits. Fatherhood is not part of most men's Game Plans. They don't aim for it. Fatherhood often struggles into male consciousness only during an affair that is threatening to become a permanent fixture. This prospect often triggers the fight-or-flight response.
The unconscious is a very chaotic entity. Often, as a man lurches into fatherhood and holds his first newborn child, he is overwhelmed by deep feelings that have been crouching just beneath his skin, like patient terrorists about to wreak havoc. The responses to fatherhood cover the full repertoire. He may surrender to the love of his children the moment they are born. Or he may see them as encumbrances that he has to endure to keep living with this particular woman. Or he may run. Or any combination thereof. If he is lucky his wife will read his symptoms and help him interpret these feelings. If he is unlucky his wife will assume the worst, lower her expectations and let him slouch through fatherhood as if drunk, oblivious to what he is missing.
For anthropologists, fatherhood is a very ambiguous role. Apart from the biological imperative, children can survive and grow to maturity without the intervention of a father. True, such circumstances might result in guaranteed income for future generations of therapists, but so can families with abusive fathers. Or unfulfilled fathers who blame their lack of achievement on their families. Almost any sort of a mother is far better than none. Can the same be said of fathers?
Any job description for the position of father would be necessarily vague; the rules, roles and expectations of fathers are in constant flux. Think of any job that lacks clear rules, roles and expectations. How well are these jobs performed?
Fathers still feel their way through the maze, bumping into walls and bruising foreheads. Fathers talk more about fatherhood now than 50 years ago, but they are still woefully isolated compared to their wives when it comes to support for their emerging roles.
Clearly songwriter Leonard Cohen knows something about fatherhood. His own father died when he was 10. He avoided fatherhood for as long as he could. When one of his amours had two kids, he left. Consider the lyrics of Cohen's First We Take Manhattan:
Remember me? I used to live for music./ Remember me? I brought your groceries in./
It's Father's Day and everybody's wounded/ First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.
What are the wounds of Father's Day? Grief for lost fathers. Resentment for absent fathers. Regret for thanks left unsaid, for embraces never given nor received. Fondness for times shared, precious to the memory due to their infrequency. Anger over old battles, loud voices. Strong hands. Throbbing scars. Old wounds. Father's Day.
On this Father's Day let us celebrate fathers who strive to become more conscious of the cold shadows or warm sunlight they can shed on the lives of their loved ones.