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Elizabeth Gregory

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Morphing the Daditude: Father's Day 2008

Posted: 06/14/08 05:26 PM ET

Parents had a big year in 1908 -- our modern Mother's Day had its start that May in a church in West Virginia. Inspired by that service, and in the shadow of a mining disaster that killed many local dads, the first Father's Day followed fast, two months later and 15 miles away.

After that florescence of filial feeling one century ago, Mother's Day (which had an earlier post-Civil War pacifist moment) zoomed on and became an official national holiday in 1914. Father's Day had a slower momentum. In 1910 Father's Day reappeared, across the country in Spokane, backed up to the third Sunday in June. That date has been celebrated since then, but it didn't become an official holiday until 1972.

Why the 58-year gap? Difference in sentiment toward mom and dad? In our sense of what was appropriate? (Did the manly men of yore seek or even accept recognition for love -- or did that seem too Lear-ishly needy?) Difference in our levels of guilt? (Mothers have historically had to deal with lots more daily dreck while sacrificing other ambitions, and the special holiday served as a bit of a sop.)

The officializing of the father's day holiday might link to the start of a gradual shift in the nature of the relationship between dads and kids. Or maybe it was all about commerce... with the official holiday arriving just in time to grab some of the cash increasing numbers of women were just starting to earn.

Whatever the reason, the dads celebrated today have come a big distance from the dads of a hundred years back, a trip they've made in concert with today's moms: As the moms have moved out into the workforce and established themselves there, the dads have moved into the home life in new ways.

While dads have always loved their kids, they haven't always been encouraged to know them well. Gen-X and Gen-Y dads spend more than half again as much time with their kids each day as their dads did, and they do loads more laundry. Modern dads are often "dual-centric" according to the Families and Work Institute (meaning they are both work- and family-centric). Of course that's not every dad--some still operate in separate spheres from their partners, and some don't participate in their kids' lives at all. But overall a huge culture change is in the process of remapping the gendering of work and family. Employers (especially employers of middle class workers) are increasingly having to rethink their HR offerings to accommodate the needs of both working moms and family-focused dads (while also finding ways to ensure that their child-free workers don't get overloaded when the parents head home).

These changes don't come without complexities. We hear plenty about "mommy wars"--a divisive misnomer for our continuing dialogue around the recent big shifts in women's roles.

Though we hear less about it, those complexities affect daddies too. There's the isolation stay-at-home dads can feel, or the stress of the careerist who's also an involved father--staying up late and cutting corners to operate in both worlds. There's the effort of inventing the relationships with our partners as we live them (or of parenting solo) rather than going an established route. Sometimes there's pressure from other dads to do what they do, even if it doesn't feel like a fit for you.

It's not easy for any party to this change, but the rewards can be considerable and the scene is shifting. In the workplace, employers increasingly build in flex options, move to results-based rather than face-time models, and recognize that a few years out of the workforce don't mean a loss in brainpower. While these innovations evolved initially to meet the needs of moms, once in place they can't be denied to dads as well. These options benefit families, so parents can be there for their kids when needed, not just at a time set by the employer. The workplace benefits too, with more available long-term labor force participants, when those who dial down for child care are allowed to dial back up when the kids demand less time (especially important as we approach the big worker drain that the Baby Boom retirement wave will bring), and a deeper (and happier) national talent pool.

Not least among the upsides of this shift is the new daditude that lets fathers get to know both their kids and themselves in new and often unexpectedly positive ways, even when and maybe because it sometimes involves some dreck. Today's fathers discover what moms have known all along: that kid care and interaction has many pleasures. The kids raised with lots of dad input move forward into the next decades with a new sense of possibility for the kinds of roles they can take in society and for the relationships they can have with their own kids. I know my children are immeasurably enriched by their dad's involvement in so many parts of their lives.

The process of evolving all aspects of our work systems--both inside and outside the home--has been ongoing for at least the century since Father's and Mother's Day began. The development and enforcement of OSHA rules (still problematic--but at least mining disasters that kill hundreds are rare) and the changes in the current daditude are enmeshed, linked through a shared pressure to recognize the importance of care and to compensate it with more than a bouquet and an annual dose of sentimentality. There remain lots of problems still to resolve, but we are all living the ongoing change.

Parenthood has never been simple, and we all do our best where we are. These days we labor together--men and women, parents and non, to re-function the work world for the 21st century, while raising the next generation - of workers, consumers and citizens. Happy Daddy Day to you and yours!

 
 
 

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