The Moral Force of Fatherhood
I have been seriously reflecting of late on my Father's passing, and in doing so, mining the precious nuggets of who he was and what his relation was to our family. Like all kids who grew up and became aware of life in the late 50's to late 60's time range, the TV provided a cultural lodestone by which we measured ourselves and our circumstances, and it was here that we assimilated the subliminal cues and mores about what we should expect from life and how we should go about living it. Thinking back, the long line of "TV Daddies" produced in me a longing for this breed of stable and rational father-type who came home from the office and sat down in his chair while enjoying his pipe. I truly pined for this version of life, though even then I knew it was a mirage of sorts. Concealed within this dream was Life without the worry of paying the next utility bill or bereft of the palpable tension of impending financial ruin hanging over our heads -- never fully articulated to the children by my parents -- but ever present as we hoisted ourselves from one calamity to another. You see, I never did realize it at the time, but for a great multitude of families that inhabit the earth, this is the default position of everyday life.
My Dad worked cutting huge rolls of steel into strips and when he destroyed his back at work, our family moved from working class to just hanging on by the skin of our teeth. So many children and so little money. I'm ashamed to say that I resented my mother and father for putting me in this situation. I wanted to have that TV life so badly and it would never come to be. Meanwhile, seeing my father at home attached to traction weights as he suffered in his bed of pain cast me into a bleak despair as I silently contemplated what would become of us.
My parents did eventually lose their home after a long drawn out erosion of finances, but to my surprise, our family did not centrifugally fly apart. By the time I started college, my younger siblings and my parents delivered the local newspaper for needed cash and muddled through. Both I and my brother Gary had helped out with jobs of our own. The black cloud that loomed on the horizon and threatened to destroy everything rained hard upon us, but through it all we escaped intact.
I view this now distant memory against the backdrop of a society wherein the notion of father is becoming an extraneous item: a theoretical good but inexorably becoming obsolete -- like an extra leg on an amphibian. The explosion of single-mother households bears this out, and if we look deeply enough at the pathologies that have eaten away at the American family structure and the American culture writ large, we must come to grips with the diagnosis that the Invisible Father lies at the root of our dysfunction.
It is by now a well-settled postulate, at least amongst honest minds, that the Great Society project and its War on Poverty produced the unintended consequences of missing fathers. Although conceived in compassion, programs such as AFDC had the perverse consequence of driving the male from the home and causing the role of provider to fall upon Uncle Sam. Moreover, rates of illegitimacy skyrocketed as recipients became savvy to the nuances of playing the system. Young girls could now escape the "tyranny" of their home lives and acquire Section 8 housing by bearing children and setting up households where they reaped the largesse of a dozen Federal and state programs but in reality, enmeshing them and their generations in a web of learned helplessness and structural dependence by eviscerating the natural family -- the fundamental institution of nature.
In the minds of huge swaths of our society, the Optional Father is an accessory and not a necessity. The Unnecessary Father, once relegated to the Inner City, now is a common phenomenon in every socioeconomic and cultural niche in America, although Black America has suffered disproportionately from this pathology. The absent or crippled Father accounts for nearly 70% of all black households and in the larger metropolitan cities, the illegitimacy figure exceeds 90%. In some Housing Projects, an intact family is as remarkable as a Unicorn. It has become agonizingly apparent that poverty, in real terms, has grown while the broken family structure statistics have skyrocketed, all due to the unintended consequences of well-meaning theories supplied by social scientists in their project to equalize the unequal. But this is by now ancient history.
The truly pernicious consequences of the optional father are its effects on both boys and girls. The Free-floating father and its subliminal messages to children are: Men exist as biological donors of DNA. Their presence is appreciated, but not imperative -- in either the maintenance of the household or in the formation of their children's personality. If anything, their contribution is at bottom only a financial obligation. This view of the male, denatured from his traditional role, renders him a serial pollinator -- living for pleasure and at best, a feature in serially-monogamous relationships with women. Women, through their fallen expectations of men, either accept and reinforce this procession of serial-cohabitation, or learn to make due by absorbing the male archetype role into their own role as mother; and consequently, transfer the lowered expectations of the male unto their sons, thus perpetuating the contagion into the next generation of families. Subliminally, both boys and girls acquire subtle and unmistakable cues on their place in the dysfunctional broken family: Boys can become predators and users of women and girls learn that males are often unstable and untrustworthy candidates to give love to because of their capriciousness. Regardless of what society externally says about the ideal nature of romantic love, the well has already been thoroughly poisoned for young men who intrinsically crave the strong caring father and adolescent girls whose quest for companionship and completeness is tainted by the dissatisfaction of an unrequited yearning for their Daddy.
In a healthy world, it is the Moral Force of Fatherhood that binds together the ties of the family. It establishes the promise of familial justice by serving as a masculine curb to young males who otherwise learn that oppressive will and power alone are the highest goods in men. The strong father thus serves as a figure of reason that ameliorates the glandular surges of testosterone while imposing a sense of honor and strength of character in boys. Young men will ideally learn how to honor, cherish, and affirm women either consciously or subliminally and his good example ultimately establishes the bar that will allow young girls to judge their potential suitors by.
There are many types of affirming fathers. Some are Captains of Industry and others manage only to scrape a hard days wage before returning home at the end of a long day. But money and prestige are ephemeral qualities in the man who would be a Father. Most importantly, he must be there in the home and he must be entrenched in the lives of his wife and children. He must take an active interest in every aspect of his children's development: moral, educational and physical. He must balance on the fine line of doing too much and doing too little and he must be as wary of crushing his children's confidence through criticism as he is of giving carte blanche acceptance to all of their behaviors. In becoming a great fatherly example, a man must be willing to diminish himself so that his sons and daughters may learn the lesson that love and duty often entails submission of one's interest and self-sacrifice: virtues that are dripping out of the fractured American family -- where the summum bonum has been interpreted as the exploration of every corridor of self-expression, no matter to which dead end it leads.
Looking over these lines I have written, I am amazed that it has been necessary to write them at all. It is not as if I am translating wisdom from a foreign arcane culture. Most everyone of my father's generation at least understood the relationship of male masculinity, fatherhood, and living the honorable life of sacrifice, even if they failed in the practice of it. In my neighborhood of middle and working class families, I did not know a single boy who did not at least have a father in their life, even amongst the handful who were families of divorce. Whether through: the decay of traditions and morality, the infantilizing hand of government, or as the result of an educational system and popular culture that portrays the father as bloody fool, American families are wrestling with a crisis of epic proportion that threatens the warp and weft of our social structure. Because men are not firmly integrated into the family structure, poverty for one-parent households is a practical byword, as is the disintegration of the confident hope of our young men and women. A dark spirit of confused anxiety ultimately ravishes a culture which affirms that the natural roles of men and women are interchangeable like batteries. The edifice is indeed cracking and you do not have to look too deeply into young people's eyes to see a general hardness and loss of joy because they do not feel safe or secure that they are loved or that their ultimate interests are being looked after in their family setting. A great chasm exists and is widening between families who have a connected at- home Father and those where the males have merely gone through the motions of breeding and offering token alms in guilt ridden alienation.
I have wandered far from my initial thoughts to explain the distinction between fathering and becoming a father. For a man, it will be the most arduous and fulfilling task of his life -- and it will go on the entire remainder of his life. It is a responsibility that should leave you trembling in your thoughts at night: the knowledge that God has placed into your power the charge to help Him form and cultivate the soul of His priceless children -- and with that responsibility goes the necessity of getting your own life in order- for you are your child's first and greatest earthly template in which to emulate. It will take many years for you to reap the ultimate satisfaction of seeing your children thrive, but there are countless little joys to gather along the way. It is the Moral Force of the Father that is necessary in our families and our towns and cities. Together we form that great chain of loving support and protection for youth we both know and do not know. We are there to uphold the first things of being a Good Man that are fading from the streets and suburbs and of the American collective memory. We are more than a living wallet and seed bearer: we are God's own hands to uplift, protect, and civilize our communities. We are far more than the sum of our singular passions and desires--we are the next generation's visible and morally accountable blueprint for virtue and civility.
My father would have liked reading this and to know that I had written it. You see, fathers above all desire to be proud of their own, as children long to hold their Dad as a hero. For a time I stopped thinking of my father as heroic, but that was long ago when I knew little of what being a real man was all about. It has been less than a year since he has been gone and I find that his lessons, whether he understood them at the time as such, have indelibly imprinted themselves on my character. I don't think I ever sacrificed for my children the way he did for us, but I understand now in my very marrow the rock hard importance of who he was, and I try to instill those virtues in my own children. I miss my Dad now more than I did when I held and kissed his hand as he passed from my brothers and me. I want to tell him that I get it now; now that I understand that his entire life was one huge lesson, unheralded by fancy words or spotlights. My family was fortunate enough to share and enjoy him. He was always there for us and as I conclude these thoughts, I am convinced that he always will be there; still radiating that moral force of what a man and a father truly are, and resting in the knowledge that he was loved beyond all words.
Glenn Fairman writes from Southern California in the shadow of Leviathan's gaping maw. He blogs as the Eloquent Professor @ www.palookavillepost.com and may be summoned at firstname.lastname@example.org.