Rethinking Father’s Day

As a commercial holiday, Father’s Day runs a distant second to Mother’s Day. Americans spend less on dad, and this year spending is down even more. But what does that mean? Do we spend less because we appreciate dad’s contributions less? Does mom get more because we think that she gives more? In my Rethinking Mother’s Day post, I looked at how Mother’s Day gets mom wrong and it seems only fair to do the same for dad.

The media tends to portray fathers as bumblers in the domestic sphere (Ray Romano), or as sexist buffoons declaring domestic chores to be “woman’s work,” (Archie Bunker), or as hyper-successful patriarchs, too busy with “important stuff” to do much around the house (JR Ewing, Tony Soprano). Except for grilling meat on the barbecue, men seem doomed by our collective expectations, to feel conflicted about participating in day-to-day home life. This is bad for everyone, especially kids.

Father’s Day gift ideas underscore this rejection of domestic life. Common Father’s Day gift suggestions include: golf paraphernalia, neckties, barbecue tools, electronic gadgets, and booze. None of the activities associated with these gifts (barbecue tools excepted) result in family time. The commercial sentiment is that a father is someone who is fulfilled and happy when he is at work, in the bar, on the links, or working with his gadgets. In other words – not with his family.

This is a problem because dads are as essential as moms when it comes to child rearing. Research is starting to show just how big a role their involvement plays in their kids’ long-term success and happiness. And highly involved parenting isn’t just good for kids, it’s good for dads. Jeremy Adam Smith’s fascinating post, The Astonishing Science of Father Involvement, explains how the male brain actually changes in response to fatherhood. Dad’s noggin sorta re-wires and gets smarter in proportion to how much time he spends with his child.

Pants - wrapped in stripes and decorated with googly eyes and a smiley face.

Surprise gift - wrapped in stripes and decorated with googly eyes and a smiley face.

Suzanne Braun Levine’s book, Father Courage: What Happens When Men Put Family First explores the broader implications of this new kind of fatherhood. Here’s how Publisher’s Weekly summarizes her book:

“It is all of a piece, the entry of women into the workplace and the integration of men into the family.” Many fathers in this “transition generation” feel they face their difficulties alone and are surprised to find how many others are like them. From the birth experience at the hospital through the early months of parenthood and beyond, men often receive conflicting messages from society that encourage them to be supportive but not to get too closely involved in the dailiness of raising children. Women, too, are often unwilling to “relinquish the mystical powers attributed to motherhood” that is for many the only power they have. Levine also contends that a double standard in the workplace favors women who need to take time to be with their families but discourages men from putting family first. Writing at the “equity frontier” of “family politics,” Levine provides a useful sourcebook for would-be revolutionaries and makes an eloquent plea for more public conversation about private pressures.

I’ll end this post with a big thank you to my husband, an amazing father, who worked at home for the first year of our son’s life, who displays superhuman patience, and who shares the chores 50/50 except when he’s doing really important stuff, (just kidding he always pitches in). Here’s a preview of some of the treats we have planned for tomorrow. Pancakes and a long bike ride are also on the agenda. Happy Father’s Day!


  1. I am not so convinced that brain rewiring is sufficient, but Levine’s book sounds promising. Father involvement is, to me, not just important because the father is a male and the mother is female and they engender social expectations that need to be crushed (to which I let my feminism ring). But because real men – in the anti-machismo sense, respect their wives/partners and children enough to see past these prescriptions. Here, where my wife and I live, we have the Real MEN’s Project (Men Embracing Non-violence). Here is a news story:(

    So, maybe it more than just an active role in domestic life, but rather a respectful, productive role that we celebrate. Peace.

  2. Kristabelle says:

    Wow, that’s a really clever way of thinking about it!

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