The Re-Evolution of Fatherhood
As we approach the annual celebration of Father’s Day things are a bit different. If you note media and advertising images you’ll detect a swing in our societal attitudes toward what it is to be a father. And a welcome one.
When I was a lad in the 50’s and 60’s being a father was something one simply expected to be in due time. The images portrayed on tiny black and white TVs tended to show the father as a kindly person who led his family forward with wise decisions based on the needs of the group. The best example of this was probably Ozzie Nelson of the Nelson family on TV.
I was quite surprised just a few years ago to see the “Ozzie and Harriet Show” labeled as a comedy. Of course it was, but at the time I thought of it more as a documentary. Just like the show I lived in a home with a mother and a father and three sons. The three boys got into various situations that were resolved with humor and logic, as the boys never did anything that could have dire consequences. I never reacted to the show as a fictionalized version of the family life I was used to. I probably pegged the naiveté meter for all time.
In a teacher staff development session one year the topic was communication among children and parents. Participants shared what expectations they were taught in their homes as children.
When my turn came I explained that in my family my parents often had couples over for dinner. The guests were almost entirely engineers or physicists or university professors. I was expected to stick around after dinner and take part in conversations that ranged from science to politics to sports to whatever else came along. I was encouraged to speak to the issues and state my position, with no regard to the status, education, or economic level of the adults. I don’t recall any of the guests every seeing anything odd in having a teen debate ethics in science with them, for example. From these experiences I learned to be unafraid of speaking my mind to anyone, and this served me very well as an adult.
As I summed up, a colleague in front of me turned around. He’d been raised in a home where after dinner he was encouraged to disappear. He was expected to never speak to an adult unless he was spoken to first. He said to me “You have no idea how much I hate you right now.”
I was lucky.
In the 80’s and 90’s and up until recently there came a mass media swing toward portraying a father figure as the village idiot of the family. He was usually the butt of the jokes, and often portrayed as sort of sweet but really not all that smart. At the same time, single men were super heroes or international spies, did all of the winning, and reaped most of the spoils and acclaim for their heroic efforts.
Of course this is a gross generality. Bill Cosby at Dr. Huxtable was a warm and intelligent father figure, and the ironic horror is that now we realize what a monster he’s been for decades.
I used to rail about this unfairness, but mostly to myself, as in my own home I received a lot of love and respect. Still, it rankled me that young boys were growing up bombarded with images and themes that indicated that to become a father meant saying good-bye to adventure, accomplishment, respect, and a goodly portion of your IQ.
But now the latest trend in TV commercials, and to some extent TV shows, is the portrayal of fathers in at least a positive fashion, and often as heroes to their children and spouses. And about time, too.
So this Father’s Day, take a minute to be thankful for any positive examples of fathers you have had in your own life, and see what can be learned from the negative examples you may have experienced.
I’ve had the benefit of two father figures, and they left me with three significant impressions.
Both my father and father-in-law were war heroes in a quiet way. My father was pulled off a train on the way to boot camp by the MPs, as his boss had argued up the chain of command until his position that Al Preston would better serve the war effort by working at home won the day. My father earned six patents during the war, none of which earned him a dime since they were all part of the war effort. His work on high altitude breathing systems for B-17 and B-29 pilots saved a lot of lives, and that is more important.
My father-in-law lied about his age to enter the Navy at… 16. Years later he was drafted out of college to serve in the Army in the Korean War, sailing away immediately following the birth of his first child. I cannot imagine myself in either scenario.
My father did pretty much everything right for me. Until 1967. In that year my mother died in a very short period of time from ovarian cancer, and to a large extent my father never recovered. As engineers, my parents had planned out their lives with great care. They sacrificed in many ways to take care of their three sons.
For example, I did not get through college on a scholarship. I got through college with money from summer jobs and my parents paying for all the rest of it with money they could have spent on themselves. I thought this was unfair, and when I suggested I get a part-time job during the school year my father turned the proposal down flat. His reasoning was that he had worked at three jobs to put himself through college, and all he wanted me to do was go to class and get the grades. Which I did, once I got into the program I needed.
After my mother’s death he was a changed man. For the rest of his life he tended to be judgmental, critical, and bitter. I’ve not had to face the horror he did – his wife taken just as they were about to (finally!) have time and money for themselves, but their experiences changed mine.
We purchased a bit of a rambling wreck of a 1958 Corvette two months after our marriage and performed a rolling restoration over the next two years. I was determined not to put the things we wanted off for decades only to see them all vanish in a puff of smoke.
I also intend to live my life without the bitterness that comes to many men in old age. We’ll see how I do with that one.
A few years after the tragedy of my mother’s death my father was fading from my life as a guiding light, but I had the good fortune to inherit John, who came along as an added extra to marrying Susan.
Like me, John was an English teacher, but my scholarship and intellectual vigor were a comedic opposite to his. I’m sure he had to think of me as an intellectual lightweight and later, in my years as the president of the local teachers union, as a name-dropper and a pompous ass. I was both of those things, but he never criticized and never offered his opinions of what I was doing as a teacher or husband and father. He was always there if I had a question, but he never intruded. Now that I have both a son and daughter in law, I have a lot of work to do to live up to his example.
On Father’s Day I think of these two fine men who were fathers in my life. I hope you have positive examples in your own life to celebrate.
Happy Father’s Day.
Copyright 2015 David Preston