I don’t sentimentalize Father’s Day, or fathers in general.(In fact, if half of them knew what they were getting into, it might be a great boost to the contraceptive industry.) Anyway, fatherhood is an abstraction which people have to define for themselves. Individual fathers is another thing entirely.
The idea of fatherhood has changed a lot through the years.
My own father, long dead, was a man of his time: his role in the family was what the culture demanded of him in the nineteen fifties. In those days, he was supposed to be the breadwinner, his main job to see to it that the family had a place to live, and food on the table. If he didn’t, it was embarrassing, not only to him, but to the entire family. Mothers didn’t go out to work to help unless they had to, and if they did, it was not something to be proud of. Father was the lynchpin, because the family’s survival rested on his shoulders. But at the same time, fathers in those days were often not seen and only heard about. That is, children knew their fathers by reputation (“Wait till your father gets home,” “Daddy says no” and “You’re going to disappoint your father”); they were presented and represented by mothers, who were doing all the hands-on care anyway. So many of us who grew up in the 1950’s, had fathers who kept at arms’ length. What we knew was that good fathers provided for us, and in return, we provided them with good grades, beauty queen trophies and football medals. Those medals stood in for affection. My father never kissed me, and I never kissed my father and that did not, at the time, seem amiss. It would not have seemed proper, to him. His “standard” Father’s Day gift was an expensive cigar or a bottle of Haig & Haig Pinch Scotch, both of which were deemed “manly” gifts in those days. In fact, for many men of that generation, a display of affection was a sign of weakness and embarrassment. Men of that generation did not cry.
When my children were born, many fathers were still like that, but things were changing, and there were men like my husband, too, who were discovering that more involvement in the day to day of their childrens’ lives brought a new dimension to family life. M was a hands on, change-the-diapers kind of father. More than that, he spread his particular brand of humanity, a kindness and willingness to lend a hand, not only to our children, but out into the community, to our childrens’ friends, and others. I would say in many ways he started off like a traditional father, but somewhere along the way transcended the role of fatherhood and replaced it with his own selfhood. Little League coaching was the least of it. He was there, quietly telling you he was there if you needed him. Yet he, too, did not demonstrate his affection easily.
By the time my son became a father, fatherhood had changed a lot. Being hands-on from the beginning was more common. (I remember my daughter waiting for my son-in-law to come home from the store before diapering their newborn, since, as she said at the time, “Diapering is a two-person job.”). My son, a macho guy if there ever was one, was completely easy with showing affection, always has been, kissing and hugging his sons, and his father. It changed M, who, in his old age, learned from his son, and became more demonstrative, as well.
So, now, my eldest grandson is going to be a father! I have a special relationship with each of my grandchildren. But today, my relationship with this grandson is what is filling my heart with pride and confidence, because I know what kind of father he is going to be. He will be soft and hard, gentle but strong and as sweet as you can imagine anyone to be. He will be there for this lucky little girl no matter what she needs, because he has the emotional presence of all the wonderful men in his life — his grandfather, his father, as well as his own sweet heart and soul.