I am not a father. I am not even a man. I am a woman who had a loving, involved dad who loved my mom. When I was in high school, my friends and I would share about our home-life, and after a new friend commented on how strange it was that my parents loved each other, I started to compare my dad to the dads of my friends. I realized just how lucky I was. I have beautiful, wonderful memories of my dad throughout my childhood, events that make me smile, that make me proud that he was my dad.
He made me a much better person than I could have been, a more complete person, and my life, even now into my thirties, would not have been as rich without his influence. So as I look around me and see entertainment making their efforts into jokes, the cultural undertone suggesting mothers are a sacred part of a child’s life, people assuming a man with a child means that child harm, family courts distilling down their importance to how much money they contribute, I think of my own dad.
I used to create movie reviews for my YouTube channel and that practice made me look a bit closer at how entertainment depicts different social roles. The one that entertainment takes the most jabs at is the role of father. This is not a new issue. It seems to have started when women started going into the workforce as a matter of course in the 1980s. The jokes are typically centered around one idea: the dad’s ineptitude at child-rearing usually accomplished with efficiency by the mom. Mr. Mom (1983) immediately springs to mind as the best example; however, a good cross-section of these movies has the men becoming good at the domestic side of child-rearing by the end. That’s good, but we also have to acknowledge how played out this idea is.
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We’re still making them the butt of jokes in movies, memes, and TV shows. While the idea of clueless dads was new when men started taking on the domestic side of things in greater share in the 1980s, we have to face the fact that forty years have passed. Men are fathers now whose own fathers were part of the domestic part of their own childhoods. Men can and do know how to help their children with their math homework, do their daughter’s hair, get their toddlers through bath time, and change their babies’ diapers. This is not new anymore.
Dads are not bumbling buffoons that we can all get a laugh out of, especially considering the rise of the stay-at-home dad, gay men raising children, and single fathers. Every parent stumbles, especially first-time parents, but when the majority of the jokes are at the expense of only one of the parents, we have a problem. There’s no reason to play this joke again in a movie like The Incredibles 2 (2018).
If a story or joke isn’t directly about fathers, it may include a missing father, negligent father, or abusive father as a back story for a main character. And while all of this experience is common enough to warrant a depiction of such here or there, what we aren’t seeing much of is missing mothers, negligent mothers, or abusive mothers. If a mother isn’t in a story, she’s most likely deceased, and tragically so, see Love Actually (2003), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), The Holiday (2006), and many, many, many Disney movies.
Why? Because motherhood has become sanctified in Western society, so if a man is a single parent, it can’t be because his wife left. Even though Ann Patchett’s novel, The Dutch House perfectly depicts this very scenario and many children in the real world have been abandoned by their mothers. Movies, the medium with the largest audience, cannot show this kind of broken family even though they have no problem showing when the father has abandoned his children.
Often when a mother is emotionally abusive, as in Lady Bird (2017), it’s played as completely acceptable within the narrative, with tertiary characters justifying her behavior to the abused child. But the Mother’s Love tropes of storytelling do not just brush aside toxic parenting from women, they also put mothers on a pedestal, such as in the movie Mother’s Day (2016) which literally has a character state that a mother always knows what exactly her family needs.
This point is not to say that mothers are not important. They are, but being a mother doesn’t mean a woman is automatically a good mother, or even just an adequate one. Mothers are important, so important that we need to stop acting as though they are all perfect at it or that any imperfections can be justified by their supposed love.
Matronly inadequacy is often only brought up to evoke sympathy for the hard work of being a mother. I have no problem with this except in contrast to paternal inadequacy being played to evoke laughter. If they were both played for laughs, or both played for sympathy, especially within the same narrative, I wouldn’t have an issue with this at all. Same as I would not have an issue with negligence and abusive parenting being depicted in both equal shares and similar tones. But right now, the majority of the entertainment content plays fathers as inadequate, abusive, and unimportant while playing women as amazing, nurturing, and all-encompassing. There is not enough cultural acknowledgement of the opposite situations, which do exist.
All this cultural influence has an effect on the real world. Fathers out with their children have had the cops called on them because men . . . never go out . . . with their children? What is the thought process here? If our society believes that A) men are dangerous and B) fathers are not involved in child-rearing, we end up with people assuming the absolute worst about fathers being out with their children.
My father went grocery shopping with me, took me to basketball games, took me to the mall or a bookstore, and I grew up in the 90s. To be fair, once when I was going to a new daycare, my mom dropped me off in the morning and when my dad came in the afternoon to pick me up, the woman behind the counter took one look at my dad and yelled to the back, “Alex’s dad is here.” This speaks more to how much I look like my dad than anything else, so maybe it was obvious to people that he was my dad whenever we went out together.
Maybe other fathers aren’t so lucky. Or maybe the constant barrage of “men bad, fathers bad” has taken a severe toll on society in the last twenty years, creating an environment wherein men are doing more domestically than pervious generations but people assume the worst about them in public. Fathers have gotten pushback from women for taking their children to the family bathrooms, as if he is not the child’s family. Predatory people have used unisex bathrooms to assault people, but a man with his child should be able to go into the family bathroom without harassment. Either way, it’s dangerous to use sex as a guide over who is a predator. A very small percentage of men are dangerous. The majority are good people, and fathers who are willing to grocery shop with their children are more likely than not good fathers.
Not only is there an issue of the public making assumptions, but the court system in the event that custody must be decided. Fathers are often reduced to the amount of money they can provide for their children, with no regard for the emotional support and guidance they can provide for their children given the opportunity. Not only is male bonding with children ignored or downplayed during most custody cases, which is bad enough, but sometimes even abusive mothers go unacknowledged in the court system.
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While family court is supposed to prioritize the well-being of the child, some judges can act on some downright archaic premises: men are not good parents, men are dangerous especially if accused by a woman, women are good parents, and women are not dangerous. This can leave children in the hands of their abusers. Honestly, there is no other word for it but sexism. It assumes intent and morality based on sex.
While statistics show that this is changing with more men becoming the primary caregiver, it would be wrong to suggest that the issue has been resolved. The focus of family court is split between custody and financial support. Currently, more women have custody, and more men pay child support. This isn’t to say that it should be evenly split to meet a quota, but that family court needs to prioritize emotional well-being over other concerns.
A child with an emotionally abusive mother with primary custody and a father with less custody time but paying more will probably have a worse childhood than a child with a lower income parent of either sex who loves him or her. As long as a child has decent food and shelter, the love will have a greater impact than the money. Not everyone will agree with me on this. But then, not everyone had loving parents.
My parents never could afford to buy me a car, send me on the senior class trip, pay for my college, or give me the down payment on a house, but because they loved me and taught me well, I’ve managed as an adult to take care of myself. I can make healthy decisions and use critical thinking to navigate my work and my personal life.
This may be allegorical, but comparing myself to my friends in high school and college who didn’t have two loving parents and how they fared, and seeing the data that backs this situation up, I’d say my story is a point in my favor. I’m even of the generation who is having one of the hardest times breaking into home ownership, but I did it. I even had some obstacles to overcome that some people are now using as a way of coasting through life, such as a learning disability (in literacy actually) and an anxiety disorder.
Sure, it would have been easier without those issues, but the methods I used to overcome them worked so well that I’m often better than average in the areas of impact. My parents were a big part of being diagnosed and given the tools to surpass my learning disability. My dad would help me as I struggled with my homework. He was there for me, along with my mom. That was more important than whether I had the latest toys. He could have worked a second job so that we had more money. Instead, he spent time with me, and that was so much better than any extra money could have brought.
I have a lot of good memories of my dad. He used to take me into work with him. He hung my first painting at his desk and told everyone I painted it. He would take me to the greyhound track and despite all his spreadsheets over which dog was going to win, I baffled him by just picking a winning dog by sight. He would dance in his chair while singing along to music. He used to quiz me about classic rock music, which we both loved. He took me to see the Backstreet Boys Millennium concert (the same year my mom took me to the Korn Issues concert). He’d talk to me about social issues and politics like I was an adult. He taught me how to play blackjack and gamble responsibly.
He taught me how to bowl. He taught me how to putt. He took me with him when he went golfing and sometimes let me drive the cart, which was dangerous since I drove it like I was playing Mario Kart. He once got tired of me asking permission for every item I wanted in the grocery store and told me to put anything I wanted in the cart, which made that trip particularly expensive.
He woke me up the morning of 9/11 to see the news. He loved the occasional fruity, frozen cocktails and salsa so spicy no one else could eat it. He told the dentist’s receptionist about the play award I won at 17. He once when driving me to a relative’s house turned up the radio on Queen’s It’s a Kind of Magic so loud the whole truck shook because we both loved it.
He loved my mom more than anyone in the world. He was funny. He was kind. He made me feel smart. He made me feel loved. I am a lot like my dad in many ways. I sing quietly and dance in my own chair while working, and I don’t care if my coworkers see me do it.
Father’s Day is hard for me, because eleven years ago my dad passed away. Even now, remembering him to write this makes me sad, because I miss my dad. Every time I read or see an attempt to write fathers off as unimportant, I think of my dad. Not everyone is so lucky as me, and not every dad is so lucky to be there for his child. We should not devalue fathers’ emotional impact on their children. Good or bad or just okay, it matters. It has a large impact.
Even just the void of not having a father has a large impact, no matter how much society tries to downplay it. I love my dad for being there for me and for being the man he was. We should not turn fathers away from their children. We should not delude ourselves into thinking they don’t matter to children. Fathers are important. Cherish and celebrate our good fathers because their love is valuable.