The Urban Man, Special to The Link
The Survival of the Father
by Marc Porter Zasada
HERE IN MODERN AMERICA, many talented and charismatic people want to play father to my children: Soccer coaches and guidance counselors, priests and ministers, rabbis and imams, record executives and gang leaders, child psychologists and military recruiters, scout masters and vice principals, the authors of children’s books and the smiling teachers who run after-school programs -- not to mention the folks who create video games and turn comic books into movies.
Each wants to spend hours of quality time with my kids: offer them wide-ranging advice, charm them with tall tales, and guide them through powerful moments of inspiration.
“Don’t worry,” they say to me. “Go to work. Pay the bills. We’ll take care of the father thing. We’re professionals.”
And of course, they are. Better at soccer and music and adventure and religion and maybe even advice. The Coach has been trained to sit down with my boy and look him deep in the eye: “Sometimes you just have to muscle through.” The scout leader knows how to make a campfire in the fashion of a pyramid, so it will light with a single match. He gets to say, “Never be afraid of the dark.” The violin teacher knows how to encourage my boys with words of extraordinary praise. He says, “I’m so proud of you.” And the clergy! Ah, the clergy hold those engaging youth meetings to explain about Osama and Saddam, Mecca and Afghanistan, Greenwich Village and the Castro District: “Kids,” they intimate, “you have to hold onto your core beliefs.”
In the life of any American family, these people number in the hundreds, and they make a formidable army. I know it would be wrong to deny my children their company, their insights, their skills, and their mentoring. I know it would be wrong to keep my offspring too close to my wife and myself or to try too hard to own their little hearts.
Yet even in a time when a bestselling book has the title, “Are Men Necessary?” the Urban Man continues to insist on his role as the undisputed father of his children. You see, I want to offer them my wide-ranging advice, I want to charm them with my tall tales, and I want my hand to guide them through their most powerful moments of inspiration.
You may call me selfish. You may call me pig-headed. But every day I plot the survival of my fatherhood with great guile. Gently, I undercut the authority of coaches and clergy and teachers and the institutions they represent. Ever so subtly, I seize the high ground, and lay crafty traps for my children’s emotions: I read them Harry Potter by candlelight. I take them skiing and body surfing and spirit them away to whatever adventures I can find. Worse, I actively reshape their opinions. Indeed, I insist on my views and dare to explain my own thoughts on G-d and the Enlightenment. And even if I see them only briefly, just an hour or two at evening – or even if I only kiss them momentarily before they fall asleep in their beds – I use each chance to hold onto their imaginations as tightly as possible.
You see, I think that fatherhood -- real fatherhood -- represents an irreplacable leverage that the present holds over the future. In this belief, I deny all anachronism and I especially deny all sexism: For I know that motherhood has an equal and irreplaceable, but different role in the emotional development of children. And if you don’t agree with that statement, I’m sure you will at least agree that motherhood is in less danger of becoming extinct.
ONCE UPON A TIME, of course, it was not hard for a father to hold onto the imaginations of his children. They feared him. They revered him. They followed him out to the field at dawn and brought him his cup of mead at dark. They sought his love and acceptance well into their thirties. They recalled his advice well into their forties. They retold his stories and remembered his darkest words and brightest laughter even after they went to lie in the arms of spouses or fell down onto their own deathbeds.
As a way of organizing a society, unbridled patriarchy had serious, even crippling limitations -- but no one can deny the power fathers once had to guarantee the shape of the next generation. In the modern world, that power has truly been scattered – blown like so many feathers into the hands of a many helpful and unhelpful institutions, until the actual person of the father threatens to become almost incidental: No more a source of wisdom and direction than that soccer coach or guidance counselor. He’s definitely unable – and increasingly unwilling – to guarantee the shape of anything.
You can attribute this change to the industrial age, to the rise of psychoanalysis, to the appeal of large-scale capitalism, the emergence of state socialism, or to the increasing force of professional classes and organizations. Fathers proved less powerful than machines, less wise than Freud, less able to provide security than CEOs, and less knowledgeable than professors, lawyers or ministers.
So naturally, our mythic force declined. Oddly enough, during the very same time period, the role of the mother actually grew much stronger. Feminism may briefly have celebrated careerism over motherhood, but it firmly established the moral superiority of women in the Western imagination. And when it came back into fashion, motherhood returned in greater force than ever: Despite the rise of day care and women V.P.s, dozens of books now explain all about bonding and nurturing. Hollywood starlets go on talk shows to explain how they willingly sacrifice their careers to pamper their infants. Single motherhood has become an heroic staple of movies and television, and the legal power of mothers has reached an historic peak. Modern mothers rarely need to plot anything with guile.
Meanwhile, fathers lost ground on all fronts. They spent more and more time at the office. They saw themselves belittled by academics, contemporary novelists and television comedies. The media began to portray fathers as irresponsible fools, overgrown adolescents, power-mad goons or workaholic careerists. In your average modern film, the role of the father proves more often destructive than constructive, more often laughable than respectable, and with rare exceptions, fatherly advice can easily be ignored.
I’m not quite sure how or why this happened. Future sociologists will no doubt explain whether these stories sped the decline of fatherhood or merely reflected that decline – and they may someday tell us if the media culture consciously decided to eliminate its staunchest competition. All I know is that by the time I was born in 1957, the role of the father had already been greatly dispersed, and fatherhood itself was fast losing its intellectual and moral weight.
Soon, it may become a lost art, like blacksmithing or glass-blowing. Are fathers necessary? I will make only one argument: As the power of fathers wanes, so does the influence of civil society over the ethical and spiritual life of its children. For some reason, the soccer coaches and guidance counselors just don’t carry the same clout.
TODAY, THE URBAN MAN takes his four children on a hike along a creekbed in a deep canyon here in Southern California. It’s late November, but it hasn’t rained much yet, and we see only a trickle of water as we pick our way among the dry rocks and crackling underbrush. The little boys are leaping and fighting and working hard to get their feet wet. Often they run far head or fall far behind, so mostly I walk with my two eldest. My 14-year-old daughter has become serious of late, and recently left homeschooling to enter high school. My oldest son will turn 18 in a few weeks, and every time we go out somewhere all together, I think how rare these moments will soon become – the stuff of winter breaks and holiday gatherings.
Along the way, these two talk of many things: Of politics and Bible, of cabbages and kings. They know I am a man of countless opinions, and surely I sometimes annoy them with my unequivocation. My daughter is taking a history class, and I make sure to tell her where I think the Greeks went wrong. The 18-year-old is reading poetry from the Beat Generation, and I try to convey both the excitement and catastrophe of those years.
My children have the benefit of many fascinating and learned views, expert advice, and outside wisdom. Trolling the library or sitting at their computers, they can access the ideas of the whole planet. And surely, once they’re off at college, I will have little access to their souls.
But just this afternoon, while I have them trapped on this narrow trail, I intend to be their father. ■
Marc and his wife Martine have homeschooled their four children for the last 11 years. You can read more from Marc at www.theurbanman.com, or write to him at email@example.com. He plans to release a book of essays for the Link conference in June 2006. © 2006 Marc Porter Zasada.