© Jeremy D. Nickel 2012. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
June 17, 2012
When I was a kid there was a song from a Bill Cosby comedy routine that my sister and I would sing all the time. It was from a hilarious bit he did about being a dad, and I think it does an excellent job of illustrating the archetype of the modern father.
As Mr. Cosby told the story, one morning he was awaken by his wife at six in the morning. She asked him to go downstairs to make the children breakfast. They go back and forth for awhile, with Bill telling her that six is far too early for the children to eat, that he does not know how to find the necessary implements to make the food, and dozens of other excuses why he can not and should not make breakfast. Finally, after being threatened with an involuntary early morning ice-water bath, he goes downstairs to make something.
After a few minutes of stumbling around complaining to no one in particular, his adorable four-year-old daughter comes tromping down the stairs. Facing her, with his back to the open refrigerator, he asks his daughter what she would like for breakfast. Thinking like a four-year-old, and eyeing the contents of the open fridge behind her father, she goes for it, and asks for chocolate cake. Now, as Bill says, his mind went through a quick mental rolodex of the ingredients of chocolate cake: eggs - that's good he thinks to himself; milk - another breakfasty food; and flour - that sounds healthy. So, quick as can be, out comes the cake, and fwoop, he cuts a big old slice and gives it to her. Chocolate cake for breakfast.
Just as he serves his daughter the cake, down the stairs come his other four children. You know how kids come down the stairs in the morning when they know they have to go to school: all droopy and zombie-like. But when they saw what their sister was eating, the energy quickly changed.
"Dad, dad, why is she eating chocolate cake? Dad, dad, where did she get the chocolate cake from?" And so, fwoomp, bang, pop, pow, quick as a cowboy draws his gun he slices up that cake and serves each one their own piece. And as the children begin to vibrate with the frequency inevitably created by combining chocolate cake and several young children before 6:15 in the morning, they began to sing. At first it was an excited humming that vibrated from deep within their ecstatic bellies. But as it grew, it gained form. "Hmmm, mmmm, hhhhmmmmm," they hummed with gummy chocolate morning mouths. "Dad is great hmmm mmm mmm. Dad is great hhmmmm mmmhhm mmmh, he gives us the chocolate cake, hmmm mmmm hmmmm." And then they found their rhythm and all loudly took up the song: "Dad is great, hmmmmm mmmh, he gives us the chocolate cake!" And so it was to this chaotic scene that mother finally descended down the stairs. Immediately, the singing stopped and all the children said at once: "Daddy made us eat the chocolate cake!"
There, in that moment of chocolate frosted domestic comedy, you have the portrait of the modern father. Why is he great? Not because of anything truly great that he did, but rather because he gave into his child's whim - parenting that is actually so bad, the kids themselves sell him out the instant the presence of bad-cop mom makes an appearance. It is this fact - that fatherhood has, at least in popular culture, devolved into such buffoonery - that I want to talk about today as we celebrate Father's Day.
I should say at the outset that I myself was a Father's Day gift - or so my pops says. I was born on June 19th, 1976, a Saturday, and on the next morning, Father's Day, no one needed to buy my dad anything because he had exactly what he had always wanted: a child. I consider myself to be a very lucky son. My father has always been so much more than the pop-culture cliche. He is a best friend, a great traveling companion, a patient teacher, and an inspirational role model as I grew and developed and became a man myself.
So, it was with a lot of trepidation that I approached this service, as I am acutely aware that my experience of abundant love is far from the norm when it comes to father-son relationships. I have plenty of friends whose relationship with a male parent was everything mine was not - angry, abusive, non-existent, full of resentment about what could be, or hate because of what had been.
How does one possibly honor such a huge breadth of experience? How does one speak to all the ways a person could be affected, influenced or changed by one of the people who provided half of their genetic code? I will tell you that the very history of this particular holiday bares the scars of just these questions.
Although it is now a popular cliche to complain about the commercialization of Mother's Day, that holiday took off with a bang from the start. Not so much Father's Day. The first Father's Day ever was held a little over 100 years ago in Spokane WA on June 19, 1910 by a young woman who had been raised, along with her 5 brothers and sisters, for most of their lives, by just their father. She felt that it was an injustice to recognize mothers, but that hard-working and amazingly dedicated fathers like hers went unnoticed.
This selfless act of love was met nationally not by the open arms that had celebrated mothers, but rather with laughter. In early 20th century America it was considered laughable that a father would need, let alone want, such a day. A popular rhyming joke of the day went as follows:
The old man wept, and his teardrops swept
Like rain on the summer hills.
T'was Father's Day and his hair turned grey
For he knew he must pay the bills.
This was a very different America than the one we know today. There was a very real hierarchy in the homes of this country, and at the top of every families org chart was dad. He was King and the family was his subject. Mom worked so hard taking care of him and the kids, and received so little compensation for her blood, sweat and tears that no one questioned the need to set aside a day for her pampering. But dad - he was the King of the castle, in charge every day. If he wanted something, he could and would buy it himself. A day set aside for a father's pampering felt a little too much like kabuki theater, I suppose. Although, on the surface the rhyme appears to be a joke at the father's expense `that he will have to pay for his own gifts. But really, the truth that supplies the joke with its potency is the underlying inequality and financial dependence of women and children on men. They had to spend his money even to buy him a gift.
Fast forward 100 years and America is a very different place. I am certainly not saying that all the gender wrongs have been righted; I am making no claim that the playing field has been perfectly balanced, or that women and men now compete equally - this is certainly not the case. But at the same time, one would have to be an ostrich with their head in the sand not to notice that the landscape has indeed shifted.
In most 21st century American households, you are just as likely to find a mother that is the number-one bread earner - not to mention households and families that have no father at all, whether due to there being two mommies, or because dad is somewhere else. Dad is no longer King, certainly not in the way he was in 1910 when everyone knew he had to pay for his own Father's Day presents.
Our universally agreed-upon archetypes and assumptions about dad illustrate this very thing. On television - the most common repository of our archetypes and assumptions about any number of things - most fathers are more likely to be portrayed as bumbling buffoons, a la Homer Simpson, than they are as the leader of the household. Dad has certainly been taken off his pedestal. Unlike the old rhyme I read earlier, the joke now is most definitely on him. Yet Homer Simpson is not the true measure of 21st century fatherhood. The fact of the matter is, it's a murky and confused puddle.
This is a higher stakes game than it might appear on the surface. When we are developing, we look for models to aspire to. Hopefully we find healthy models of man- and/or woman-hood in our homes. But for many, this is simply not the case. So we look to other places for our models - teachers, mentors, bosses, friends. Certainly, whether we care to admit it or not and whether we do it on purpose or not, we are heavily influenced by the models presented on TV and in other modern media.
When I look around at all the images and stereotypes of fatherhood these days, the best thing I can say for fatherhood in the 21st century is that it is under construction. There is no clear picture of where this role is going. I ponder this all as I myself begin to wade deeper into those murky waters of fatherhood.
My stepping into this role began to come into focus for me shortly before Nicole and I left Cape Cod to move out here. One day I was taking the recycling out of our house to go to the transfer station and one of the corners of the thick blue plastic bins hit the center of a window in the back door and broke it. It wasn't anything dramatic, but it was a broken window and - guess what? I couldn't fix it. So I searched around town for a well-recommended handy man and when everyone told me about the Honey Do man I gave him a call.
A few days later Drew, the Honey Do man, showed up at my house., As I unloaded the groceries in the kitchen and began to prepare dinner, my Honey Do man was in the next room fixing the window. It gave me a real moment of pause. Clearly this was something that I should be able to do. I had hired a Honey Do man because I myself am a Honey Can't man. I wondered for the first time, what does this mean for me as a father?
Sure, I love sports as much as any stereotypical man is supposed to, but that is about my only man's man personality trait. I am not particularly good with tools, I am not a skilled carpenter or electrician and, beyond checking the oil and adding gas, everything else that happens with a car is a complete mystery to me. So, does this lack of man's man personality traits mean I will be any less of a father? Will my child suffer because I would rather teach them how to make the world's best chocolate chip cookie than take apart a cam shaft - whatever that is?
I certainly don't know for sure, but my hunch is that it is much less about the kind of man that a father is than it is about the time a man puts into being a father. That is what I hope for the trajectory of fatherhood in the 21st century. As we get further and further removed from a time with strong gender role expectations, my hope is that men realize they are free from having to be a certain kind of father - the strong, unfeeling bread winner who holds the family on his shoulders - and can, rather, share the kind of person they truly are with their child and to share the load of running a family equally with their partner. What will fatherhood look like in the 21st century? I don't know for sure, but I am pretty sure I can do better than chocolate cake for breakfast.
May it be so. Ashe.
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