Fathers, Sons, and Feminism

THE birth of a son! From the dawn of time it's been one of the supreme moments in a man's life. A son: an alter ego, a chip off the old block, an heir, someone to carry on the family name and the family business, someone to instruct in the manly rites and rituals, the repository for boundless dreams and ambitions, a proxy for immortality. Oh, the glory of it! Nearly every new or prospective father of a boy has, in his heart, sung words like those from ``Carousel'':

My boy Bill - he'll be tall and as tough as a tree - Will Bill. Like a tree he'll grow, With his head held high And his feet planted firm on the ground. And you won't see nobody dare to try To boss him or toss him around.

Yet in this feminist - or is it now post-feminist? - age, the raising of a son is fraught with uncertainty. As I hold this tiny male in my arms, questions mingle with my pride and exhilaration. How should I feel about him? Is it significant that he's my boy, or only that he's my child? I screen my emotions for any deviations from the feelings I bear for his two older sisters. I don't worry that I will love him more, but that I will love him differently. Is that permitted?

The fact is, feminism has made me self-conscious about fathers and sons. Here's what should be the most natural, spontaneous emotional tie a man can have, and the consciousness-raisers have gone and made it a threesome: me, Garner, and a little voice that will keep whispering in my ear, ``Don't be sexist.'' Should I be angry, or grateful?

It hardly matters. Whether I like it or not, I'll raise my son in a social and cultural milieu that my dad, let alone his dad, never imagined. Now I've got to sort it all out. I know I don't want my relationship with Garner to be bound up with all the ancient masculine myths and habits of thought, don't want it to be a vehicle for the perpetuation of divisive and hurtful genderism. But I also don't want it to be fettered or twisted or, yes, emasculated at the insistence of some new feminist orthodoxy.

I acknowledge that traditional, hearty, masculinely conspiratorial relationships between fathers and sons have frequently left something to be desired. They tend to foster in boys at a young age a men's-club separatism and to breed macho fallacies. These relationships don't even work all that well for the participants. Too often, it seems, they have left fathers embittered and sons alienated.

But atavistic, bone-bred practices yield grudgingly. As a legal principle, primogeniture - whereby all of a man's property passed to his eldest son - is long dead, but as an emotional impulse it survives. Yet it obviously is unfair to a man's other children. What's more, emotional primogeniture imposes heavy, sometimes intolerable expectations and burdens on the favored son.

In some respects, I think I've advanced beyond that kind of emotional injustice. My dreams for my daughters definitely have an expansiveness they may have lacked but for feminism. In my mind I haven't relegated Sarah and Lisa to certain educational or career spheres. They should study what they wish, pursue any career they fancy: I'll do all in my power to assist them. Garner will enjoy no favoritism on that score.

Who knows, maybe one of the girls will even be the jock of the family; I know families like that. Hey, no problem.

Yet the perplexities nag. Boys are different from girls, after all, so won't I have to teach Garner things that only I can teach him, and that I can teach only him (just as my wife will, in some areas, have a special responsibility for our daughters)? Like how a man behaves, how he carries and presents himself. And won't Garner and I be companionable in a way I can't be with his sisters? Not that the companionship will be better, just different. That's okay - isn't it? Clearly, this isn't going to be easy. Feminism has irrevocably complicated fatherhood.

I strongly suspect that feminism has done fathers and sons a favor, however. With its emphasis on individualism rather than stereotypes, on communication rather than hierarchy, on self fulfillment rather than role fulfillment, feminism probably has made it easier for fathers and sons to detoxify their relationships, to purge away the Oedipal competitiveness that can foul the springs of generational affection. In that respect, anyway, feminism may make my relationship with Garner more easygoing and empathetic.

Still, I worry. What will happen that future day when we are playing catch, and I decide to ``put a little mustard on it,'' as my dad used to say, and young Garner drops his baseball glove, shaking his stinging hand and rebuking me with welling eyes? What indignation will rise in my gorge, what Spartan, be-a-man ethos will demand to be honored? Will I fight it down? Should I?

I honestly don't know.

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