This year Father's Day celebrates its 100th birthday. It began in 1910, when an outspoken woman from Spokane, Washington decided that her father, a single and devoted parent, deserved to have a day dedicated to him similar to Mother's Day. The idea became a bill in 1913, but then struggled for nearly six decades before reaching official national holiday status in 1972. During that long stretch, the notion of a day dedicated to fathers was typically satirized, derided, mocked and dismissed -- attitudes that can be seen as being less about the proposed holiday and more about the perception of fatherhood itself.
Why should fatherhood be treated so badly for so long? Simply put, fatherhood as we know it is one of the most confused, misunderstood and nearly invisible concepts in our culture. It is a role that has been shaped by history, biology, ideology and necessity, yet most people know very little about it. What we do know is the pervasive social message: "Fatherhood is important. Now, back to work, dads!"
When it was suggested to me that I might make a documentary exploring the American Dad in a serious way, my first reaction was something like: "What more is there to say about being a dad other than that it is important?" Being a father myself, I figured that I must know something about the role ... but then I began speaking to as many people about it as I could, including several well-known experts on fatherhood and parenting.
I was initially surprised by how little I had known about the subject, as well as by how many people in our culture have either a nonexistent or bad relationship with their fathers. It made me look at people in a different way, knowing that so many carry this hidden burden around with them, shaping their lives in ways they don't even realize.
But this shouldn't be taken to mean that it's all bad news when it comes to fatherhood. Those lucky enough to have dads present in their lives benefited greatly from it. It's pretty clear that dads of today are far more involved than ever before. Unlike previous generations, hands-on activities from changing diapers to reading stories at school to cooking dinner -- or coaching football -- are expected, as opposed to disproportionately lauded. There are far more dads working flexibly or from home than before and at-home dads are on the rise.
During the three-year process of making the film, I encountered all types of dads and marveled at the lengths to which some men will go to stand up for their families. Dads like Kevin Knussman, a former state trooper, who fought a ten-year-long legal battle with the Maryland State Police when they refused to allow him to take paternity leave while his wife was seriously ill. Or Jeffrey Eilender, a New York attorney, who changed his entire work schedule in order to achieve 50/50 custody of his kids. And then there are the many working dads I met who, every day, continue to make tough choices about balancing work and family. I am inspired by them all.
Indeed, fatherhood is finally beginning to grow up, but dads still face so many obstacles -- whether it's our collective mindset that a father who wants to spend a little less time at work is not committed to his job or the lack of support from our government. (We are the last industrialized nation not to have mandatory paid parental leave for anyone!)
What it comes down to is that, as a culture, our ideas about what it means to be a dad may be lagging behind the reality of fatherhood. So many people are still caught up in just being the provider and nothing more -- and we are all forced to pay in some way for that misperception. Substance abuse, teen pregnancy and gang violence are only a few of the issues that would see measured improvement if dads were to spend more time with their children.
Of course, this is not something that can be easily or comfortably achieved for a great majority of people. It would require a major cultural shift in how we view the relationship between work and family on all of our parts, whether we work for the companies or own them. This sort of change cannot be dictated or imposed, but that doesn't mean it can't happen. Dads could start working towards gaining more flexibility in their schedules while companies look at how they can balance the needs of the business with the satisfaction of their employees. And what if dads supported each other in taking time off from work to spend with their families, and government policies supported that, too? Amazing things could happen.
Until recently, discussion about these issues has been nearly non-existent. In making this film, I have tried to make the role of fathers, and fatherhood itself, more visible. And I am not the only one -- there are many dads out there who have taken to the blogosphere and print media and TV/video to share their experiences. We are all in this together, and together we are honoring fathers.
Which brings us back to Father's Day. In the nearly 30 years since it became an official holiday, its significance has remained about as deep as a Hallmark card. In addition to celebration, it would be wonderful if Father's Day also became about self-reflection and contemplation -- a day used to measure our collective progress as dads, when we can not only look back but chart a course to where we're going.
So, happy 100th birthday, Father's Day. You are finally starting to grow up.
Dana H. Glazer is the award-winning director of the documentary film, The Evolution of Dad. Please visit www.evolutionofdad.com.