Why fathers still matter
By Margaret Renkl
JUNE 21, 1999: "Where are the other dads?" our oldest boy wondered once last winter as he watched his father roll the kickball toward another one of the kids in our front yard. "How come Dad's the only one playing? How come hardly any other dads show up at the Cub Scout meetings?"
"Most fathers aren't schoolteachers," I reminded him. "They don't get to work at 7 in the morning so they have to stay at work late. And sometimes they have to work on Saturday. Those dads do indoor stuff with their kids instead of playing kickball."
"I guess so," my son agreed. Then it was his turn to kick, and our discussion of the sociological role of the middle-class father was over.
"Indoor dads," my husband muttered later, after I repeated the conversation to him. I was trying to make him feel good, to let him know that his usually oblivious son had actually observed and noted the special attention he received from his father, a kind of attention a lot of kids aren't lucky enough to get. But my husband didn't look cheered up; he looked disturbed instead. "Indoor dads," he kept muttering.
Maybe that's when the theories started to bloom. All I know is that my usually optimistic husband spent much of last winter developing a depressing theory about the growing irrelevance of fathers here in the waning 20th century. Suddenly the happiest, most hopeful grown man you could ever meet began to speculate darkly about the demise of the American Dad. His evidence was purely anecdotal, but after a while I had to admit it was pretty convincing.
First, there were the dozens of kids in his high-school classes who had gotten deep into adolescence without benefit of any significant fatherly influence--not, as in many homes, because the fathers didn't live in the same house with the kids, but because they worked so many hours, traveled so many business miles, and played so much weekend golf to erase from their desperate souls the numbing effects of so much business.
Then there was the different matter of epidemic numbers of non-resident dads--the fathers who lost interest and simply wandered off, as well as the unwillingly absent fathers systematically excluded from their children's lives by punitive ex-wives.
More than anything else, though, my husband's theory of the Vanishing American Dad was centered on modern technological industrialization. For him, the real question boiled down to this: What do fathers have to teach their kids anymore? What do middle-class children need to learn that they can't learn from their mothers?
In the modern world there are no gender-specific male skills like farming or hunting that a kid needs to learn from his father to survive. If anything, what boys need to know is exactly what girls need to know--how to put together a last-minute meal from what happens to be in the pantry, for example, or what deli meat smells like if it's gone bad. Away from home, there's work to consider: Already the skills people need for success in today's techno world are the qualities that girls tend to have in spades: the ability to create a support network, to sit at a desk for long stretches of time, to work comfortably in teams, etc. If what will make a kid successful as an adult--both at home and in the marketplace--is what Mom already knows, then what, my husband wondered, is the point of Dad?
I have to admit it took me a while to come up with a response, but finally in the long, warm afternoons of spring I found my answer. Because it was in the spring that my husband--formerly the favorite all-time pitcher in the neighborhood kickball games, formerly the den leader of our son's Cub Scout troop, formerly the dedicated community servant working Saturday mornings in the homeless shelter--disappeared. What took his place was a typical, 12-hours-away-from-home-every-day working father. A Disappearing Dad who had to spend too many of even those few home hours doing homework for the job.
This transformation happened once baseball season began, at which point my children's own personal after-school Father became a bunch of other kids' after-school Coach. Nothing new in this, really; extracurricular activities are a routine part of any teaching job, and my husband often had committee meetings or sponsorship activities that kept him at school late. But this was his first spring to coach a real team rather than intramurals, and the first time "staying late" didn't mean getting home at 5. Suddenly it meant getting home at 7 instead.
That's a big difference. If a father gets home by 5, there's still time to fit in a rousing game of slapjack before dinner; there's still time to eat as a family at the dining-room table; there's still time to lean against the bathroom sink and serenade the kids in the tub with bar songs by Tom Waits before snuggling up for a bedtime story. There's time to play with the children. There's time to know the children.
You can't really know your children in half an hour of "quality time" at the end of the day. But when the kids go to sleep at 7:30 as our kids do and the dad doesn't get home until 7, well, you do the math.
Maybe you'd think the three months our family spent exiled from DadLand would eventually incline me to agree with my husband's theories about the growing irrelevance of fathers. I mean, the family did go marching on while he was gone. I started playing all-time pitcher in kickball myself, the kids and I still ate dinner together at the dining-room table, and everyone was all clean and ready for a bedtime story as soon as my husband walked in the door. It wasn't bad, you might argue; it was just different. A whole lot of families have to make do with just that kind of father, and they probably feel lucky to have him.
I'll concede that point. Even so, it was bad. It was bad because we missed him. It was bad because when he wasn't there, it felt as though we were merely rehearsing for family life and not actually living it. It was bad because all day we were saving up things to tell him, and then when he got home there were too many things to say at once and not enough time to say them in. Until baseball season ended, a lot of important things didn't get said at all.
Last winter one of my friends lost his father. In truth the guy had been a dreadful father--a brilliant and creative man, yes, but also a verbally abusive, womanizing drunk who didn't come home for nights in a row, disappearing altogether when my friend was still a child and not surfacing again for years. You'd think the end of such a miserable father would be good riddance, his death a relief and a blessedly closed door. But it was not. For weeks his son was in mourning--for the loss of any last chance to understand the old man's demons, for the loss of any chance to understand the man himself. For the loss, finally, of the only person in the world who would ever be his father--the one man who had called, on purpose or not, my friend's own life into being.
So that's why I believe fathers matter. Invariably, no matter what time he gets home for supper or if he even comes home at all, a father's connection to a child is primary, primitive, and absolutely indissoluble. And if he's not there, no one else can take his place.
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