WHAT FATHER DID KNOW BEST
Fatherhood, we are everywhere told, has at long last been taken back to the drawing board for a much needed redesign. Gone is the workaholic "absentee Dad" of the 50s and 60s who raised Babyboomers like myself. Gone too is the disciplinarian Dad who would sooner tan a bottom than rediaper it. The "New Father," we learn, is more engaged, more caring, more nurturing, more--well, like Mom has always been.
As a full-partner in the raising of our young son I welcome much of the way contemporary culture is redefining the role of Fathers. Emotional care and nurturing is not a just a Mother's job, it's a parent's. And I regard the round-the-clock maintenance duties I split with my wife as neither menial nor particularly maternal. But before we chuck the old paternal model completely, we would be wise to look beyond that caricature of a Dad we love to lampoon to a more sober vision of the way the best fathers (and even a few of the worst) have functioned to model the "public" side of our identity.
Prior to the birth of our son I had given a great deal of thought to being a parent; but no thought at all to being a father. Not, at least, since the age of seven or eight when I was pretty sure that I knew exactly what fathers did--and pretty sure as well that my own father did not. Since both my parents worked, my father could not claim the status of "lone provider." He didn't hunt or fish or, for that matter, even look athletic. He didn't tinker with cars--didn't, in fact, even drive (and doesn't to this day).
Inexplicably, he refused to beat up the people I thought deserved it. Displays of manly strength came only at odd times. For example, the time my mother made him take me (on the bus) to a Dodger game and I watched, sincerely impressed, as he stoically endured nine loathsome, interminable innings. All for the sake of duty.
Yet, it seems to me now, that he was more of a "real" father than the cartoonish "Mr. Mom" version we are spoonfed today. As were, for that matter, many of those Jock-Pops who’s worth I so inflated as a kid. For what they and my father shared was a preoccupation with the way life worked once you got beyond the front door. By being relegated to the home by sexist traditions, Mothers were, in effect, called upon to govern a realm whose chief currency has always been the noise and chaos of spontaneous emotion. Sure, some emotions had to be either educated or policed by rules. But ideally, the fundamental rule that was to undergird (even if it sometimes undermined) enforcement was absolute and unconditional love. Home life is only possible in an environment where irrational love, intimate knowledge, and long memory combine to make perpetual forgiveness--or at least toleration--of innumerable petty transgressions a reasonable way to live.
But very little of this is true out in the cold--where fathers were forced to spend their days. The world outside is not necessarily a more evil place; but it is a very different one. Full of strangers, people who share little or no personal history; people who are not bound together by deep and unconditional affection. Rules and conditions organize this world, not love.
If the job of mothers was to teach us how to become a loving and self aware "private self," it was fathers' function to tutor us in the development of our "public self." To teach us, in other words, how to operate in a world held together more by contractual obligation than by love. Where forgiveness is never automatic, personal acceptance is always conditional and failures of duty are often punished by law. Of course, some of the best fathers have often been strong, worldly-wise mothers. This is a fact only the weak and foolish are afraid to see. The issue is not sex or gender roles. The real point is that, as we rethink the way families work, we would do well to learn from the way fathers in the past helped teach us the boundaries between private and public life. This is especially true in a culture increasingly disposed to conduct public affairs in private fashion: where private sins are unreflectively confessed merely for commercial gain; where an angry dinnertable shouting match seems an acceptable model for civil political discourse; where any crime is thought forgivable when committed under the spell of overpowering emotion. And where the word "duty" sounds only quaint.
In these lights, I think the father whose world view resembles the sports-page ethic of orderly competition comes out looking pretty good. Even many of those "unreflective" fathers can teach us how a deep sense of responsibility is a more reliable motivator than deep emotional self-awareness.
My own father, I should say, was anything but emotionally aloof. But the intense feelings we often saw were not something he chose to discuss. Instead, when he talked it was to advise, complain, muse, observe--all of which added up to a kind of running skeptical commentary on the forces that shape worldly life. Some of it stuck, some didn't. But the real lesson came in the constant, unspoken reminder that there was a drama to life more significant than my own feelings. And that I needed to understand the world I lived in, especially if I was not going to be the center of its attention.