ARLINGTON, MASS. — It seems redundant to note that Father's Day is slated for mid-June, roughly the same time most schools let out for summer break. It's generally understood that Father's Day is simply a greeting card proliferator, a faux holiday; and yet the inspiration for it came from quite an earnest source.
In 1909, Sonora Dodd was inspired to suggest Father's Day while listening to a Mother's Day sermon. Mrs. Dodd proposed a special day in order to honor her father, William Smart, a Civil War veteran and Washington farmer left to raise his six children alone after his wife had died in childbirth. Mrs. Dodd's proposal was taken up locally and the first Father's Day was observed the following year. By 1924, President Coolidge announced his approval of a national Father's Day, but nothing was made official until 1966, when Lyndon Johnson made the third Sunday in June Father's Day.
There is a little-known tradition associated with Father's Day; one wears a rose - red if one's father is living and white if one's father has died, although this seems to have been relegated to observing that one has descended from some vague paternity by barbecuing in the backyard.
Go into any greeting card section of your local drugstore and behold the myriad ways one can fete Dad, almost all of them based on driving lessons and golf obsessions.
Single women, either by choice or necessity, head 9 million American households, and there are 1.3 million runaway or homeless children in the US and an untold, migrating number of children in battered-women's shelters. Add the number of children with two moms, two dads, or another nontraditional parental figure (grandparent, foster parent, etc.) and it's easy to see why even the most irreverent greeting cards can leave one slackjawed by the less-than-realistic portrayals of fathers.
There are strong views about the role of fathers in our culture, not all of them positive. Where did that come from, our caricatures of father as a bumbling Homer Simpson, a recliner-weakened, remote-wielding slacker? Why are fathers consistently devalued? Some feel it's an economic issue, or one of weakened social values.
"Everyone knows that the rising proportion of women who bear and raise children out of wedlock has greatly weakened the American family system," stated James Q. Wilson in an issue of City Journal titled "Why We Don't Marry." He proposed that the reason women are so much more likely to have children in an unmarried state is that "being an unmarried mother and living on welfare has lost its stigma." That must be why I see so many women wearing "Kiss me, I'm on welfare!" T-shirts.
Whatever the reasons for the shifting, sometimes shiftless role of fatherhood in our culture, I hope we can recapture Sonora Dodd's original purpose. What does being a father mean? Webster's definition: "A man who begets or raises or nurtures a child; a male parent of an animal, a male ancestor." Fine, that's father-as-noun. Father-as-verb gets trickier: "Fathering: To procreate as the male parent; to act or serve as a father; to create, found or originate, to acknowledge responsibility for."
I understand the concept. It's the interaction, the father-ing that threw me. As a girl, I believed I needed my mother, a woman, to show me how to become a woman; but a father seemed to be some minor-key version of a parent I already had. It's only now, as a mother watching my children parented so well by their father, and as a daughter blessed by the knowledge of my own father as a person of great worth in my life, that I "get" the concept. It's a role easily relegated to second-place status when we allow the fathers in our culture to recede.
This isn't an argument for single mothers to marry or a tirade against lesbian mothers, nor am I proselytizing for father-based households. It's just this: I am grateful for those men who fathered and continue to father, who "acknowledge responsibility for," who fight the stereotypes of the Couch Potato Father, the Emotionally Distant Father, the Absent Father, and the Workaholic.
This Father's Day, genuinely reach out to fathers who are present, and those who need to father more fully. Let's make the day worth something. Let's ask more of fathers. There can be so much more to Father's Day than a jokey card and a bad tie.
• Barbara Card Atkinson is a writer and the mother of two small children.