We've reached an odd place in Western history when a case has to be made for fatherhood, but here we are.
I'm a shameless "Daddy's girl" even though I'm well past the age of a "girl" and "Daddy" is 10 years in the grave. I'm even past grieving at this point and struggle sometimes to bring his face into focus.
What I have no trouble recalling is the power of his influence in my life and the utter impossibility of imagining a childhood without him. It's not that he was perfect - who is? - but he was mine. And because my mother died young, he was mostly mine for much of my childhood.
This particular happenstance is probably what led me to become a champion of fathers. If my father had died young instead of my mother, maybe I'd be a champion of motherhood, but I doubt it for this simple reason: Motherhood doesn't need a champion.
The sanctity of motherhood is intact and manifest, as irrefutable as the umbilical bond between mother and child. Fatherhood is something less certain. Until the advent of DNA to prove paternity, fatherhood was a bond of faith founded in trust.
She says, "The baby's yours."
He says, "I will be his father."
Unlike women, who know with inescapable certainty that they are the parent of their own child, men have had to place their faith in the integrity of their sexual partner. Thus, fatherhood was a voluntary commitment, a quintessential offering of self-sacrifice and surrender to mother and child.
His selfish interest, of course, was tied to his wish to propagate and protect his own bloodline. Even so, sticking around requires a leap of faith that borders on the mystical.
It's really rather sweet when you think about it - man surrendering his less laudable nature, tamping down his more natural inclination to play Johnny Appleseed in order to mow grass on weekends and patch skinned knees for the added privilege of working hard for little credit.
Fathers, in a word, are awesome.
Things have shifted a bit in recent years, you may have noticed, and "awesome" isn't a word you hear much in describing men, unless you've got some little moon-faced twit gaping at a guy's pecs or the angle of his jeans. More often they're deadbeats, losers, rapists, murderers and abusers. Oh, and idiots. Name a TV dad who can tie his shoes without assistance from his far-smarter wife or kid.
Fathers aren't only morons, they're expendable.
Today's women - armed with degrees and checkbooks, not to mention easy access to sperm banks - enjoy the social freedom to have children with or without dear ol' dad counting contractions and are increasingly opting out of the paperwork. Gone is any shame associated with having children out of wedlock.
For a visual aid, picture Angelina Jolie - goddess/mother toting her collection of global offspring with unwed Brad-Dad in tow, shuffling along like a bashful Sherpa. You get the feeling he's a bit player in the larger narrative, a cameo father with a little "f." How long before mother becomes bored with the father she thus far hasn't bothered to marry?
Obviously, celebrities occupy a demographic all their own, and celebs of Jolie-Pitt status dwell in a niche apart. Who else gets to shut down a country while they give birth? But the broader celebration of these faux-unions and love-babies creates a new storyline that trickles down to the street and gets re-enacted by the un-celebs and lesser actors among us.
Advice to Jolie wannabes: If you're going to have babies outside of marriage, it's best to have a few millions stashed in el banco. Barring that, it's best to have a father who cares that his offspring are more than the result of a random sprint around the fallopian track.
To say that children want, need and deserve to have a father seems as unnecessary as insisting that they want, need and deserve oxygen. How did we arrive at not knowing this?
That some marriages aren't good enough to preserve is understood and regrettable. But why we would willingly fashion a society in which men are denigrated and fathers minimized like some useless icon is a mystery that escapes me.
The even greater mystery is that men continue to sign up for the job, to sublimate themselves to the higher charge of being a father even in the face of a culture that belittles them. That's what fathers do, of course: take the grief and keep on keeping on.
Which is why we love them.