Monday, June 28, 2010

Monday, June 21, 2010

Faces of Fatherhood

Happy Father’s Day. Whether you celebrated the day with a special dinner or just a lazy day off, if you received that special gift you wanted or got yet another un-wearable tie, given in love, I hope your Father’s Day was exactly what you wanted and that you know the joyous feeling of appreciation your family feels for the gift of your presence in their lives.

As I began to think about this message I wanted to share, I felt myself becoming more than just a little bit afraid. How does a single, childless man, the son of a single mother, someone who has never known a father in his own life, even begin to find the authority or context to speak about fatherhood? How is it possible for someone who has never seen a father of his own in action to have any idea of what's expected or required from a dad?

When I was very young, I often longed for the father I never had - usually after I’d had some sort of run-in with my mom. I would sometimes lie in bed staring out the window to the sky and romanticize my mythical father; in my childish mind he took the shape of a fighter pilot in the foreign legion, or a famous actor, or an independently wealthy super-spy. 

Or, an independently wealthy, former fighter pilot turned super-spy working undercover as a famous actor. 

In any case, I was sure that someday he would return to find my mother and me and we would live out our own happily ever after. It was the stuff of fantasy in the way that only children can create it.

Later, in elementary school, I found myself becoming just a little bitter about my lack of a dad. It made me different. And as we all know, difference is death in the Petri dish of social Darwinism that is the schoolyard. Then there were the activities: the father-and-son picnics I could never go to, the Pinewood Derbies where I stood on the sidelines and watched, while super-dads helped their sons race their wooden masterpieces to the finish line. There were the family softball games where I played (or rather watched) from right field as dads cheered on their sons. And yes, there was Father’s Day.

“My dad is and accountant”
“My daddy is a lawyer”
“My dad is a construction worker”
“My dad can beat up your dad!”

“What does your dad do Jimmy?”

I am not looking for sympathy here. I don’t want it and I have never needed it. I may not have had a father, but I had and have the single most awesome mom a person could ever want. She gave me more love than I could've expected if I'd had twenty parents. And, it is her I celebrate today.

My goal in telling you a little of my story is to provide some context. It is clear to me, from my own experience and the experiences of millions of kids all over our country, that fatherhood comes in many forms.

I just have to take a look around the congregation of my place of worship to see that. We celebrate and worship each Sunday with many so called “traditional” families and they sit side-by-side with many “post-modern” families. There are kids in our congregation with two dads or two moms. There are kids in our congregation who have step-dads and there are kids who, like me, have no dad. There are even one or two kids with no moms or dads! 

Is there a way that all of the kids in the Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation (VUU) can celebrate Father’s Day with authenticity? That's my question to you.

The role of father has evolved over time. The first modern celebration of a "Father's Day" was held on July 5, 1908, in Fairmont, West Virginia, in the Williams Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church South. Grace Golden Clayton, the originator, chose the Sunday nearest to the birthday of her father, whom she was mourning, as the date. In December of that year a mining disaster in nearby Mon-on-gah had killed 361 men, 250 of them fathers, leaving around a thousand children fatherless. Clayton suggested to her pastor that they honor all those fathers. Of course as it was the first event of it's kind no thought was given to promoting the event, and as a consequence Father's Day wasn't celebrated again for many years. In fact, the original sermon was never reproduced and has been lost to time.

The first "official" observance of Father's Day is believed to have been organized through the efforts of Sonora Smart Dodd of Spokane, Washington. Having heard a church sermon at the local Episcopal Church in 1909 about the newly recognized Mother's Day, Dodd felt strongly that fathers shood also be recognized. The following year she took the idea to the Spokane YMCA and their Ministerial Alliance. They endorsed Dodd’s idea, and helped it spread, by celebrating the first Father’s Day on June 19th, 1910. however, it took many more years to make the holiday official. 

Whether we count the first Father's day as happening in 1908 or in 1910 matters little except to historians; either way it was a long time ago. The Great Depression was still a generation away, the term "nuclear family" had not yet been invented, women’s suffrage was still being debated state by state, and Stonewall was more than fifty years away. These were a far different times than our own. The world was a very different place. The American family was a very different entity, and so were American fathers.

At the turn of the 20th century, the commonly understood role of the father was the stern disciplinarian: stoic, remote, and terrifying. With a fourteen or sixteen hour workday, particularly for rural farm families, a man might start his day long before his children woke and return home well after they had gone to bed. A child might interact with her father only when receiving discipline or on holidays and otherwise might only interact with her mother. A father was responsible for the support of his family, and often that was where his duties ended. The rearing of children was the province of their mother and, if the family was wealthy, the servants.

The idea of fatherhood really began to change in the years following the Great Depression and World War II. Industrialization and the growth of the middle class meant that fathers were spending less time toiling to support their children and more time parenting them. Evenings and weekends became family time, and fathers engaged with their children much more often and in new ways.

The fifties and sixties brought us Father Knows Best and Leave It To Beaver.  Dad was not only authoritarian he was also wise. He could deliver a baseball, a life lesson and a spanking with an equal amount of love, sometimes in the same 30 minutes. But the sixties also brought us My Three Sons, a clear departure from the nuclear family.

By the time that Richard Nixon made Father’s Day official in 1972, the idea of fatherhood and the role of fathers had changed even more. As women began to take a much more active role in the working world, men were called upon to take a more active role in the rearing of their kids. They were being asked to help nurture their children along side their wives and to help to foster an atmosphere that promoted intellectual and emotional growth.

During the eighties, the American family saw further changes.  Children raised by single parents became much more common and the term “latchkey kid”, first coined during World War II when one parent would be off fighting the war the the other would be working became, a much more common occurrence. 

The late eighties and nineties saw a widespread call for equality from LGBT couples and many began to build families of their own through adoption, fostering or natural means. In recent years laws banning gays from foster care and adoption are being challenged in the courts. More and more, children are being raised in families built on love without a care for the conventions of the past. 

Today it’s not at all uncommon for children to be raised in a non-nuclear or postmodern family structure. According to the 2000 census approximately forty percent of American children are being raised in families without both a mom and a dad. Again, I ask how do those families share in the celebration of Father’s Day?

Another title for this post could be: The Story of Two Jacobs. Both of them are wonderful little boys, each with a different type of Father.

Our first Jacob is  a regular fixture at VUU, the son of Linda and Anne. Linda and Anne tried very hard for a quite a while to conceive Jacob. He was very much wanted and they dedicated themselves to bringing him into their lives. There were many trips to the doctor and many long nights spent talking about what it meant to bring a child into their lives especially. They asked the same questions every prospective parent asks. Could they provide for him the life they hoped he'd have? Could they give him they strength of character that every child needs? 

Although they have never really worried about Jacob needing a father per se, they definitely worried about him having male role models. They have made sure to encourage strong relationships between Jacob and the men in theirs and his life. His grandparents, family friends, and others have all played a role in giving Jacob the confidence he needs to grow into a boy of conviction.

Once, when Jacob's preschool asked the class to talk about what they wanted to be when they grew up, Jacob answered without missing a beat: "I want to be a mommy when I grow up!" And when the other kids in his class insisted that he couldn't be a mommy because he was a little boy, he countered with unassailable kid logic: "I can be anything I want to when I grow up, my mommys told me so!"

Our second Jacob, a beautiful little boy, was 22 months old and a victim of neglect and abuse when he entered the home of Karen, as her foster child. In a very sort period of time Karen fell in love with little Jacob and adopted him, binding him with love to her heart and home to share her life with her partner who, as it happens, was also named Caren. 

As a result of his treatment before he came into these women's lives, Jacob was slow to develop. It took him longer than most kids to begin speaking. When he finally did begin to speak he would often call out to men with whom he came in contact, mistakenly calling them "daddy". This happened several times in restaurants and other public places much to the embarassment of his mothers.  

Jacob's moms struggled with how they should each be addressed. Since they both shared the same first name having little Jacob call one of his mommies "Mommy Karen" and the other "Mommy Caren" clearly wouldn't work. One day, after spending the day painting and working on things around their home, Caren came downstairs, in her overalls, and a flannel shirt, a baseball cap sitting backwards on her head. Jacob, looked up in surprise said "daddy"! From that day forward, our second Caren was Jacob's daddy. 

Jacob referred to her as daddy to his friends, his family and his teachers. Once, when his preschool class made their family trees as a class project Jacob did his too, confidently placing Caren as his "daddy" at the top of his tree next to his mommy, Karen. When his classmates told him that she couldn't be his daddy because she was a girl, he confidently and without any sense of difference firmly told them: "she's my daddy!" And that was that.

And that was that. Caren, took to the role like a duck to water. Jacob was as much her son as he was her partner's even though as a gay woman the law said she had no standing. In her heart and in her action, she was Jacob's daddy. In fact, so much so that her biological niece's and nephews began to jokingly call her "Uncle Caren". 

Caren helped to shepherd a child, once so scared of the world that even getting him to dip his toe in the water to take a bath was too much for him, into a healthy, loving little boy. That is love, that is nurturing, and that is Fatherhood, gender be damned.

I believe its possible for an adult of any gender or familial relationship to help a child to learn the lessons typically ascribed to a father: Courage, Commitment, Honor, Steadfastness. Anne Geddes, the famed photographer of babies and moms, once said: "any man can be a father but it takes someone special to be a dad." I couldn't agree more. But, I would urge us to take that further and remember that much like children themselves, fatherhood comes in all shapes and sizes, all colors of the rainbow and, that in whatever form its found, biological father, uncle, grandfather, "big-brother", sister, aunt, mother or grandmother, it is the love, the nurturing, the support and the guidance that matter.

On this Father's Day let us celebrate all of those in our lives and in the lives our kids who willingly take on the role of father. Let us revel in the diversity of our community. All of our kids can and should have someone with whom they can share this Father's Day. To paraphrase a famous movie line: father is as father does. 

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