Fathers deserve more than a day

Posted: Jun 18, 2005 12:00 AM

As a rule, I'm not a fan of Hallmark Days - those occasions when we're obligated to celebrate and tithe to the tinsel titans who compel us to compassion or guilt.

But Father's Day has always had a special spot on my calendar - not only because I like fathers, but because I'm partial to underdogs. The American father, maligned and marginalized the past several decades, makes underdogs feel smug.

Frankly, I don't know why Dad doesn't slam the door on his way out.

The reason he doesn't is because fathers, when they are true fathers, don't do that sort of thing. They don't act childishly, throw tantrums, pout and demand attention. They take the guff and keep on trucking. It's a very grown-up thing.

Before everyone who had a bad father or a lousy husband starts typing my name, allow me to disclaim: The world is full of good and bad men, some of whom have managed to procreate, as well as good and bad women. Ditto.

But none of our personal anecdotes changes the fact that fathers are critical to children's lives, just as mothers are, and that the diminution of Father in our culture may be the single stupidest turn in human history yet. The proof of our folly is all around us as measured in the pathologies afflicting our young, yet we persist in denial lest truth inconvenience our next act of self-affirmation.

Given what we've done to fathers in the span of a generation - demoting him from Father Knows Best, which in spite of all its hyperbolic dramatization hurt no one, to the Three-D Dad: dumb, dorky and dispensable - it's a wonder men still submit to the altar.

Put it this way: If we did to Motherhood what we have done to Fatherhood, we'd all be wearing riot gear.

Women are frankly better at defending themselves than men are, which may be a function of the fact that they were the underdogs for so many centuries. Under the heel of a boot, one learns to think creatively. Men are just beginning to feel the crunch of gravel pressing into their faces.

That a father revolt is inevitable seems a matter of cultural physics and human nature. Human beings can withstand only so much contravening pressure against what is in their interest or necessary to their survival. Men do not do well without families, as George Gilder wrote as long ago as 1973 in his landmark book, "Sexual Suicide," subsequently expanded to "Men and Marriage."

Gilder argued that men need marriage and the social unit of the traditional family as a means of channeling their inherent aggressiveness toward providing for family. Without it, they are vulnerable to mental and social problems and tend to be less successful. When men through divorce are deprived of their children, they become what in healthier circumstances we would wish them to be: ferocious in trying to gain access and protect them.

A time of reckoning can't be far off given that family courts have made divorced fathers visitors to their children's lives - 40 percent of children live in homes without their fathers - as society has embraced the "deadbeat dad" as a prototype rather than a deviation from the norm. Studies show that women file the majority of divorces, and that fathers (almost 80 percent) who have regular contact with their children pay their child support in full and on time.

Meanwhile, old-fashioned masculinity is demeaned as we celebrate "metrosexuals" and invite homosexual men to ridicule heterosexuals' fashion sense ("Queer Eye for the Straight Guy"). It's hard enough raising boys in homes without fathers, let alone in a world that finds traditional male characteristics boorish and passe.

To be blunt, raising boys and girls without their fathers is simply another, if mysteriously accepted, form of child neglect. Obviously some parents don't deserve their children; and some children, like me, lose a parent to death. We can't make the world perfect for everyone.

But purposely creating ways to keep fathers from their children - either because personal bitterness makes it preferable or because moving far away makes his participation impossible - is not forgivable. When hurt fathers contact me for advice, knowing my concern about the long-term effects of father absence on children and ultimately society, I urge them to keep to the high road.

To be patient and understanding, to be strong and reliable, to be fatherly - in other words - in the old ways. That so many try in spite of the forces arrayed against them is reason enough to celebrate this day. Even to give ol' dad a call.