Sunday is Father’s Day. If you didn’t know that, you’re not alone. Father’s Day just doesn’t seem to get degree of attention as its parental counterpart. Heck, Father’s Day doesn’t even get the singular focus of other holidays; think about how many “Dad’s and Grad’s” advertisements you’ve seen lately—“Thanks for paying for my college degree and letting me move back into my old room, Dad. Could I borrow $20 bucks to buy you a tie?” While this lack of holiday equity probably isn’t fair, I think it reflects the different parental role that our Dads play in our lives.
If you think about it, Dads are kind of interlopers in their family’s lives. Six days a week my Dad would get up and go to “work”. When I was a kid I had no idea what went on during the time that he was at the “office”, but I didn’t get the impression it was much fun. The fresh faced, well put together man who left our house in the morning usually returned home with all the enthusiasm and energy of someone that had just been worked over with a tire iron. Even though I realize now that all he probably wanted to do on these evenings was pour himself into a chair and drink scotch for a few hours, he was the one who sat with us at the dinner table night after night explaining the mysteries of algebra, or taught us, and a number of other kids, the right way to throw a football and win or lose like a man on some playing field or court.
Dads also tend to see the world differently than moms. I don’t know if this reflects some inherent genetic difference in the sexes, but Dads definitely have a different perspective on things. Think about it. When you were a kid and skinned your knee, your Mom was the one who cleaned it up, put some Bactine and a Band-Aid on it and asked if you were okay and if you wanted a glass of Kool-Aid. Dads, on the other hand, would tell you to stop bleeding all over the couch and go cut the grass. Dads also see things in more black and white terms than Moms. Dad just didn’t care why or how you shoved little Ryan through the drywall in Jimmy William’s bedroom, but he was very clear that you were going to apologize and do extra chores around the house to pay for the consequences of your actions. Mom was the one who dried your tears, told you to do what your father said, and was waiting with open arms when you returned from performing your mea culpa—which of course, was the scariest thing you’d ever done in your life. Interestingly enough, however, it was Dad who came into your room later that night to tell you that it was okay because he never really liked “that little Ryan anyway” after he was rude and talked back to him a few times.
If your family was like mine, your parents had fixed disciplinary roles. Dad was bad cop and the Supreme Court rolled into one. Mom handled the misdemeanors of every day life. Infractions like talking back, failing to take out the trash when asked or getting in trouble at school, were her domain and she doled out the appropriate punishment accordingly. But when an offense was committed that she felt was out of her jurisdiction–typically signified by the phrase, “wait until your father gets home”—the offending party knew that justice would be swift and severe. My own such indiscretions seemed to always coincide with my Dad having a bad day at the aforementioned office, which meant that the inquiry portion of the process was dispensed with and the sentence imposed immediately. Now that I’m older I know that the last thing my Dad wanted to deal with was the by-product of a poor decision made by one of his kids, but that it was his responsibility to ensure that the error wasn’t repeated. Unfortunately, I think that in having to play this role, most of us were always just a little afraid of our fathers and that tended to reinforce the remote nature of their relationship to the family.
I once read an article talking about heroes in our lives, and the author said that the real heroes were the men who went uncomplainingly to work everyday, many at jobs that were far from the careers that they envisioned when they were young, to provide for their families. Now that I am a father myself I find myself wondering if my Dad dealt with the same things that I worry about: my kids’ future, the pressures of business, my obligations as a husband and a parent. For all of us, sometimes it seems like these responsibilities can be overwhelming. If my Dad ever felt that way, I never knew it. His job, like Dads everywhere, was to be the pillar of strength for our family. He made us feel safe and that there was nothing in the world that he couldn’t deal with. I can only imagine how lonely my Dad, and fathers in general, must have felt, and feel, in silently shouldering these responsibilities. As another Father’s Day approaches I will do what I always do. I’ll buy my Dad a gift that I think he’ll like (like Old Spice soap on a rope), but when I see him on Sunday the first thing I’ll do is say, “Thank you”.