Beyond cards: tools for Father’s Day

 My father died a little over four years ago. Today, on Father’s Day, I will likely visit his grave and quietly contemplate his absence. The silence at his graveside won’t be without precedent. Even when Dad was living, we shared many silences.

Not that there was any great animosity between us. But, as with many fathers and their children, our communication had well-defined limits. We could talk passionately about hockey, cars, and construction projects around town. I often sought his advice and help with building and repair projects. His sturdy carpentry still serves our household well, and I often miss his skills with materials and tools.

But the list of subjects which we never discussed is longer than I could dream. Males in our culture learn not to talk about many things, and the father-son relationship is often one of the most limited we experience. My father belonged to one generation in a long line of men who were emotionally inarticulate. Of course, it’s easier to confess a father’s sins than it is to confess (and correct) one’s own. The male reticence which I found so limiting in men of my father’s and grandfather’s generations is a habit of mine as well, despite concious efforts to the contrary.

This wouldn’t be so important if it weren’t for the fact that a father’s role is changing. In the extended families of previous generations, a father could be the authoritarian, the bread winner, and the slightly-removed model of manly behavior, knowing that the mother, grandmother, siblings, neighbours, cousins, aunts and uncles provided a rich array of emotional support to his children. In the second half of the twentieth century, however, the nuclear family of mom, dad, and one-point-two children is on its own, and the traditional role is no longer enough. Unlike my father, I tell my kids that I love them. I give them hugs, cook for them, and read to them. Yet I do so with no illusions that this is enough. This role of father seems so vast that I suspect I will never fulfil it to my satisfaction, or to the satisfaction of my children. I have three children whose personalities, interests, and needs are so diverse that it seems, at times, six or eight Dads are required to provide the appropriate range of fathering.

My children deserve a Dad who can listen more than he lectures, a Dad who doesn’t tire of an eight year old’s energy, a Dad who creates opportunity more than he takes it away. The fact is that many of us men are ill-equipped for these expanded responsibilities. We learned how to be a father from our fathers, and regardless of how competent and caring our fathers were, we can’t stop there.

Father’s Day is an odd occasion, an invention of greeting card companies, a day when children (under the guiding hand of Mom) are supposed to give Dad a gift selected from a thick pile of department store flyers. Over his few decades of fatherhood, the average man collects a houseful of barbeque tools, Italian name cologne, zippered shaving bags with little pockets that never get used, sports videos he will watch once, variable speed reversible drills to ruin many a Sunday, and goofy golf accessories. Which is not to say that Father’s Day is a bad idea. Each card, each gift, is treasured not so much for its own sake, but for the volumes of unspoken, heart-felt and inevitably inadequate love behind it.

Yes, there should be a time when we honour our fathers, and thank them for what they have done in the past. But perhaps this should also be a day for us fathers of today to reflect on the challenge of the future. To think about reinventing the role of father for a new age, when bringing home a paycheque and playing an occasional game of ball with Johnny is no longer enough. The past, after all, is not where our children are growing up. Their future is ours to shape.

Red Deer Advocate & Ottawa Citizen 1992
© Lorne Daniel