The evolution of fatherhood

When Americans honor Dad this Sunday, the celebratory statistics will be impressive. Families will send an estimated 90 million cards. They will buy 10 to 12 million neckties. And they will make tens of millions of well-wishing phone calls. (Don't tell Dad, but Father's Day is the busiest day of the year for collect calls.)

It's also a day when more calls than usual go to the Sun Belt. As AT&T spokesman Dave Johnson explains, "There are lots of fathers down there, and lots of grandpas too."

Yet all those grandpas, in the Sun Belt and elsewhere, hardly figure in the public image of Father's Day. Even the most handsome silver-haired men seldom appear as models in ads for ties and shirts and watches. That honor goes to young men, shown affectionately cradling infants and playing with young children.

The ads are often touching. They celebrate a modern generation of men who pride themselves on being more involved with their children than their fathers and grandfathers were. As these "new-style" diaper-changing, baby-toting men are praised in the media for taking an active part in family life, they are forging admirable and more equitable roles for everyone.

But as their star rises, that of their own fathers and grandfathers, the "old-style" dads who raised children in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, is falling. Although these men are remembered as loving, they are also criticized for having been passive. Distant. Uninvolved. Authoritarian.

It is a portrayal that is often unfair. These fathers played by the rules that existed at the time. They did what was expected of them, and they did it as well as they could.

Theirs was an era, after all, when domestic roles were clearly separate, like His and Hers towels on a bathroom rod. In the '40s, wives who worked after marriage were typically forced to quit their jobs when they became pregnant - "started to show." Most fathers shouldered the full responsibility of breadwinning.

Even in the '50s and '60s men were routinely excluded from parenting activities that "new-style" dads now take for granted. There were no "birthing" classes for expectant couples. Fathers were largely banned from the delivery room, left to pace in the waiting room until a nurse strode through the double doors and announced "It's a boy!" or "It's a girl!"

Paternity leave was not an option. It had not been invented. And bookstores didn't yet have "Parenting" sections with titles such as "The 7 Secrets of Effective Fathers" or "101 Ways to Be a Special Dad."

In his book "The Greatest Generation," Tom Brokaw celebrates World War II-era parents by describing their "strong commitment to family values and community. They were mature beyond their years in their 20s, and when they married and began families it was not a matter of thinking, 'Well, let's see how this works out.' "

Theories of childrearing change with the wind. Should Dad be a parent - or a pal? Just check the Parenting shelf, laden with contradictory ideas.

Few people would suggest going back to the rigidity of old roles. There is much to celebrate in the new, more fluid domestic approach for both men and women.

But on Sunday, as older fathers and grandfathers in the Sun Belt and elsewhere open their cards, unwrap their ties, and answer their phones, they can be assured of this: They may be largely invisible and criticized in the media, but they're hardly unappreciated where it counts most: within their own family circle.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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