Let's Honor Fathers - Single Fathers, Too

Fifteen percent of single parents are dads, yet they remain largely invisible in our culture

On a Sunday morning in May 1909, Sonora Smart Dodd sat in church in Spokane, Wash., listening to a sermon honoring mothers.

As a mother herself, she didn't mind the attention. But she was saddened that fathers were not equally celebrated. Her own father, William Jackson Smart, a Civil War veteran, had raised her and her five younger brothers after their mother died in childbirth.

Mrs. Dodd asked Spokane's ministers to deliver sermons recognizing fathers the following year on her father's birthday, June 6.

The ministers were not ready until the third Sunday in June, which became the traditional Father's Day. Although it took Congress six years to recognize Mother's Day as a national holiday in 1914, Father's Day had to wait more than six decades to become official in 1972.

Recalling the origin of the holiday is appropriate today, since families headed by single fathers constitute the fastest-growing type of family in America. The 2 million single fathers - a population the size of metropolitan Denver - already account for 15 percent of single parents.

Hollywood's portrayal

Rather than being celebrated today, single fathers remain largely invisible. They almost never see themselves portrayed in popular culture, either as single parents or as responsible men. When fathers do get attention, it is often negative. Hollywood uses fathers for comic value, as in the movies "Mr. Mom" and "Three Men and a Baby."

The president of the Fathers Resource Center in Minneapolis points out that the movie "Mrs. Doubtfire" - in which the man was incompetent until he dressed up as a woman - sends men the message that as males they are unable to care for children. Even in a movie such as "Sleepless in Seattle," which portrays a sensitive, capable single father, the Tom Hanks widower character feels incomplete until he finds another wife.

The media also highlight absent dads, deadbeat dads, and abusive dads. Novels and memoirs commonly feature the father who, when present, sexually and/or emotionally abuses his children. Surely it is not only literary merit that made a best-seller of "The Kiss," a memoir about a father who abandons his baby daughter and then, 20 years later, has an affair with her.

Nobody should be more bothered by these images than the men who are raising their children on their own. The concept of single parent is usually associated with working mothers and deadbeat dads. But among noncustodial parents there are three times as many deadbeat moms as deadbeat dads.

While they may, on average, be better off financially, single fathers struggle against social discrimination from people not used to responsible, full-time fathers. The discrimination can be as subtle as a strange look when he, not the mother, takes the child to a doctor or brushes the daughter's hair.

The stereotypes also confront single fathers more directly, as with advertising that shows only mothers as nurturers. Workplaces are becoming more accommodating in granting flex-time and emergency leaves to working mothers, but if fathers receive the same consideration it is often as a favor rather than a policy. Even the term "working mother" lends legitimacy to a mother's situation - but who has ever heard of a "working father"?

The holiday

The symbol of Father's Day is a rose, but not too many roses are delivered to fathers on the holiday. Mother's Day is the busiest day of the year for florists, as well as for restaurants and for AT&T. Father's Day, on the other hand, is when the most collect phone calls are made, underscoring the image of father as blank check.

Sonora Smart Dodd spent the first Father's Day in 1910 delivering gifts to housebound fathers in Spokane. She lobbied the rest of her life for Father's Day to become an official national holiday, even appearing on television in 1970 when she was 88 to confirm the holiday's origins. She wanted us to honor fathers with words, cards, and gifts.

I also am the daughter of a single father. Knowing that the holiday was founded by a young woman like myself, who struggled for equal recognition for devoted fathers, gives the day the special meaning it deserves.

A father's efforts

Rather than giving my father a tie or a golf ball when I was growing up, I gave a wooden spoon one year, an egg-slicer another - gifts reflecting my appreciation of the more than 1,000 meals he prepared during the year for me and my two sisters.

For years, my father drove me to ballet classes, fixed my hair into a ponytail, strategized with me through numerous crushes, and read books out loud - including two years of "Gone With the Wind," complete with regional accents.

Like Sonora Smart Dodd, I realize even more now, as an adult, how difficult it is for a father to raise children on his own. Our government and community groups are right to spend money and effort to get fathers involved with their families, but we also must support and celebrate the fathers who are already exemplary.

* Shira J. Boss is working on a book about the lives of five single fathers, including her own.

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