Why mom gets roses, and dad a collect call

Let's face it: there's something about a silk tie that strangles sentiment.

Whereas May overflows with tender tokens for mom - measured by the 150 million greeting cards and the wire-jamming long-distance telephone calls - dear old dad generally will make do with much less this Sunday. As many dads know, Father's Day is the No. 1 day for collect calls - and for proudly modeling a new glow-in-the-dark football tie.

Even if dads don't mind, the Father's Day/Mother's Day discrepancy nonetheless speaks to society's views on parenthood and fathers' role in raising children.

"The 'gag gifts' associated with Father's Day reflect the profound ambivalence that our culture feels about emotional connections to fathers," says Scott Coltrane, a sociologist at the University of California at Riverside.

Glenn Bridges of Wellford, S.C., has a sentimental side, but he acknowledges he isn't completely comfortable showing it on Father's Day. Growing up, he saw his dad as a more distant, almost heroic figure.

As an adult, he says, "I've seen a more affectionate side to him. But even so, I tend to get him a humorous card and a more practical gift."

Still, times are changing, and attitudes toward fathers are changing along with them. Mr. Bridges, for example, is himself a father, having custody of his three sons.

"It's Father's Day year-round for me," says Bridges, who doesn't care what he gets this Sunday. He frequently tucks letters in his boys' backpacks telling them how proud he is of them.

Lately, his youngest son has been returning the favor, hiding homemade drawings and notes saying, "I love you, Daddy" in Bridges's briefcase. "That's better than Hallmark," Bridges chuckles.

AS men like Bridges take more active roles in their children's lives, Father's Day might move up in the holiday pantheon.

Ralph LaRossa, a professor at Georgia State University and author of "The Modernization of Fatherhood," cautions drawing parallels between "the culture of fatherhood and the conduct of fathers."

But how Americans celebrate fatherhood may catch up with today's dads, others say. "Gender roles and gender behavior are changing all the time," says Frederic Brunel, associate professor of marketing at Boston University School of Management.

There are some signs that may be happening. Hallmark's wares feature fewer dads befuddled by diaper changes and more straight-faced sentiment. Boston's Bella Sant spa recommends pampering pop with a manicure or facial, and 911Gifts.com offers tranquillity fountains and European soaps. The top sellers, however, are a money clip/pocket tool and a hand-cranked radio/light, proving that shopping for dad still comes down to "ties and tools," as Mr. Brunel puts it.

Indeed, Americans' tendency to shy away from sentiment when it comes to their fathers is one explanation for the 10 million ties being handed out this Sunday - to say nothing of the scores of soap-on-a-rope and state-of-the-art pooper scoopers (for ergonomic walks with Rover) being gift-wrapped this weekend as symbols of filial piety.

Father's Day, first proposed in 1910, has played second violin to Mother's Day throughout the 20th century. "There's a sacredness attached to motherhood that we don't attach to fatherhood," says Mr. LaRossa.

That comes through in the hoopla surrounding the two holidays.

Dads got 95 million cards last year to moms' 150 million. Mother's Day is the No. 1 calling day in the US, according to AT&T, while Father's Day registers the most collect calls. And moms got six times more posies in 1998 than did her parenting counterpart, according to an FTD survey.

Also, while both holidays were created at the beginning of the century, Mother's Day was signed into law in 1914, while Father's Day didn't become an official celebration until 1972.

That's not to say Americans don't want to do right by their dads. Elizabeth Stump of Castro Valley, Calif., for one, says both holidays are "equally important" to her. Last year, she bought her dad a plane ticket to come and visit. But that, she says, is partly because her father spent three years as a stay-at-home dad in the 1970s - "long before it was fashionable."

In general, she says, because "mom deals with more of the nitty-gritty of daily life, children know their mothers better."

Father's Day, like most holidays, harks back to tradition - in this case, the era when dads were sole breadwinners.

In that tradition, "when dad needs something, he goes and gets it," says culture commentator Robert Thompson in Syracuse, N.Y. So when it's time to buy him a gift, "all that's left is stuff he didn't really want." The question becomes, what do you get the guy who has everything?

Choosing the right gift "can be a minefield," says Brunel. "It's not the gift that matters. It's not really the thought that counts, either," he adds. You have to find a gift that says, "Hey, dad, I really understand who you are and this is a symbol of our relationship."

Moreover, some dads have trouble switching roles from giver to receiver.

"I tell my kids, 'You don't have to get me anything,'" says Rick Flynn of Saugus, Mass. His philosophy is, "Let me take care of you." "But at the same time," he admits, "I'm thinking, 'Gee, I hope I get that drill.'"

Some cultural experts say the expanding definition of "father" may also raise the profile of dads' special day. Now, one-third of all Father's Day cards are sent to men other than dads. "The need for Father's Day may become greater" as a way to honor stepfathers, grandfathers, and other men who have stepped in to fill a father's shoes, says Mr. Thompson. "It might end up putting more juice into the holiday."

But until that happens, Brunel says, "We're still going to see a lot of ties."

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