Father’s Day. A day to reflect again on the great privilege of being a dad, to reflect on what my own dad meant to me, and to receive with enormous gratitude the love my children put into their tokens of appreciation, little though I may deserve them. This year, it comes at the beginning of the week in which Greg, Sam, and I will take our annual “guy trip,” this time to Portland, Maine and joined by my brother. So it seems a particularly fitting day to return to a theme I first wrote about on May 31, with What Does the Word Dad Bring to Mind. I wrote that post as the beginning of an irregular series on parenting, in particular about fathering.
I wrote in that initial post that I was struck by the difference in our perceptions of “fathering” as compared to “mothering.” I continue to be struck by the difference. Here’s another example, apropos of the day: For years I’ve heard a popular myth that Father’s Day was a “copycat” holiday, a follow-on to Mother’s Day, made so as to make sure men didn’t feel left out and invented by greeting card companies in order to boost business. It’s interesting how popular this particular myth is, particularly among those who tend to identify as being of a “liberal” persuasion.
It turns out that the story of the modern Father’s Day quite parallels the story of Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day was the result of a movement begun in 1907 by Anna Jarvis, started as a church service honoring Ann’s mother, and culminated in President Woodrow Wilson’s 1914 declaration of the 2nd Sunday of May as a day to honor our mothers. Father’s Day started similarly, but took a much more circuitous route. Father’s Day was first proposed by Sonora Dodd in 1909, who wanted to have a day to honor her father, who was left to raise 6 children alone after his wife died in childbirth. The first father’s day was said to have been celebrated in 1910, and in 1916 President Wilson attended a Father’s Day celebration. Oddly, it wasn’t until 1924 that President Coolidge supported the idea of a National Father’s Day, and it was 1966 before President Lyndon Johnson signed a proclamation about Father’s Day. Only in 1972 did President Nixon made it a permanent day of celebration.
Doesn’t that seem odd to you? The idea for a day to honor Mothers and Fathers started within 2 years of one another, yet it took 7 years for Mother’s Day to be officially recognized as compared to 63 years for Father’s Day. As I wrote in the first Dad post, “fathering” conjures up different images and has a different emotional valence than does “mothering,” and it’s hard not to believe that has something to do with the disparity.
So I’m on a mission. I want men to be better dads, and to get so good at it that the different perceptions fade into nothing more than an historical anomaly. Really, I’ll settle for being a better dad myself, and perhaps my sons will learn from that. In that spirit, here are my current “commandments” for dads:
- You don’t have to be perfect in order to be loved by your children. They are remarkably forgiving of your foibles. Find that hard to accept? Get over it – your children need you to let them love you, warts and all.
- You don’t have to have an answer for everything. Every once in a while, it might do your children good to hear you say “I don’t know.” Even better to hear you say, “I don’t know, but let’s find out.”
- Also, you can’t fix everything, and you need to give up trying. A lot of the time, your kids (and your wife, by the way) need you to simply bear witness to their pain. It will make you terribly anxious to simply listen and be present. Get used to it.
- It is not a sign of weakness to say “I’m sorry” when you mess up. I don’t care if you believe that. Your children, maybe especially your sons, need to know that admitting your mistakes is an essential skill of being an adult.
- When your children become teenagers and begin to treat you as if you are mentally defective and an embarrassment, just keep doing what you’re doing. Remember: your job is to hold the boundary, and their job is to press against it. It’s painful for both of you sometimes. That’s ok.
- The things that matter most to your kids are the small things. Your time matters. Throwing a baseball, reading aloud, taking a walk, sitting on the front porch swing. All those gifts you put on your charge card will break, or be forgotten. Their memories of your time together won’t, not ever.
- Never, ever let your children see you treat another human being with disrespect. Especially never let them see you mistreat their mother, or take her for granted. If your marriage is in trouble, fix it. Now.
- Tell your children you love them. It’s more important to show them, but telling is important too.
- Remember, your children are listening. They may not look like it, but they hear everything, especially what you don’t say out loud.
- Listen more.
What did I miss? What did your dad do that made him special to you? Perhaps by sharing, we’ll all get better at this.
Les Kertay, The Moments Project