The Father’s Day Paradox That Isn’t

What in the world is going on?

Yesterday was Father’s Day, and my feminist- and gay-rights-supporting social media feeds were full of praise. For partners, for husbands, for fathers. My friends and colleagues were changing their Facebook profiles to pictures of themselves with their dads, even to pictures of their dads. They were posting Thank yous and I love yous and You’re the bests. My social media feeds became a parade of dadliness! A festival of fatherhood! A party for paternity!

How can this be? I’ve been told over and over that these people hate men. They’ve made war on gender differences. They think men and women are interchangeable. I’ve been told that celebrating Father’s Day is diametrically opposed to everything that the cultural left holds dear.

Remember? Anthony Esolen solemnly intoned that we no longer live in a world where “when the women look upon men digging ore out of the heart of a mountain, or laying roads, or bending their strong arms and large hands to shave the marble one grain of dust at a time, and give it the smoothness of a baby’s cheek, they are grateful, not envious.”

But yesterday, one of the most-shared articles on my twitter feed was Elizabeth Alexander’s “A Father’s Day Ode to Strong Black Hands.”

Whoops. Wrong again, Esolen.

And last week, Fr. Robert McTeigue told us that if you really want to annoy certain feminists (the type that talk about “male privilege” and “rape culture”) all you have to do is say “Happy Father’s Day.”

But yesterday, those words were springing from the keyboards of virtually everyone I know and follow. Even–no, especially–the academic feminists who talk about male privilege and rape culture!

And yesterday morning, Ryan T. Anderson posted an article at the Daily Signal asserting that supporting gay marriage “signals that men and women are interchangeable—and that mothers and fathers are replaceable.”

But I didn’t see any signals of interchangeability on my Facebook feed. To the contrary—I saw loving, exuberant celebrations of a variety of men and moving recognitions of the irreplaceable parts those men have played in my friends’ and colleagues’ lives.

Did feminism end? Are the gay-rights activists conceding defeat? Did the Sexual Revolution go away?

Or are cultural conservatives full of it with their strawman notions of feminism and gay rights?

Well, yeah, they are, but the answer goes deeper than that.

Everyone agrees that children generally do best with their (specific) mothers and fathers, although most people recognize that’s not always true, which is why we have adoption. But Anderson et al turn that universally accepted truth into an insistence that children need a(generic) mother and father. See the difference? Their father vs. a father. Specific vs. Generic. The left celebrates fathers; the Catholic Right celebrates the Father.

I don’t mean that in the religious sense, as in God, the Father: I mean that they think of fatherhood not as what individual fathers do, but as a Platonic ideal. And, as with all ideals, their version of fatherhood is a mark from which all individual fathers necessarily diverge.

You can see the implications of these two views in Scott Brand’s recent Mockingbird post on “Fishing and Fatherhood.” In it, the Brand writes (lightheartedly) about the shame he has experienced in life because his father didn’t teach him one of those ideal manly tasks. He confesses:

I don’t know how to fish.

On the scale of things that have caused shame in my life, being unable to “cast a line” (is that how you say it?) is slightly above being unable to swallow pills until I was 16 and considerably lower than wetting my pants in second grade. And yet I am far more willing to admit both of those factoids than I am my complete lack of knowledge when it comes to angling (let’s be honest, I had to google synonyms for fishing).

He’s only sort of kidding. It’s easy to see from his example how the generic view of fatherhood can stigmatize real fathers. In another essay republished this week at the Atlantic–very much in line with Anderson’s–W. Bradford Wilcox says that fathers are valuable because, on average, they roughhouse more than mothers, allow their kids more risk, and discipline them more sternly. But what of fathers who don’t fit those averages? What about fathers who aren’t stern disciplinarians? Who worry more than their wives about their kids’ bodily safety? What about fathers who don’t teach their sons to fish?

“The most profound memories I have from my dad,” Brand writes, “come from moments when he showed weakness. He taught me and my siblings what it looked like to confess sins by confessing to us. He admitted over and over again to us that he didn’t know what he was doing.”

Rather than teaching his son independence—which Wilcox and Cardinal Burke, and even Pope Francis, say men are supposed to do—Brand’s father taught neediness. He differed from the masculine norm, and Brand says this is what made him irreplaceable. “He is the best father I could ever ask for,” Brand writes.

Ironically, Anderson is the one making fathers interchangeable, by reducing them to a role. For him, fathers are valuable because of what they do: “[T]here are,” he writes, “on average, differences in the ways that mothers and fathers interact with their children and the functional roles that they play.”

For writers like Brand, though, fathers aren’t valuable for what they do, for how well they fit into the role of Man, but for who they are, in all their gloriously messy individuality. That’s what I saw on my Facebook and Twitter feeds yesterday: posts celebrating an immense variety of men—big, burly men fixing cars, yes, but also nerdy, quiet men reading to their kids; men leading their kids on outdoor adventures, but also men tenderly rocking infants to sleep. I even saw posts praising men who parent together.

My own dad made me lots of dinners. He read me lots of books. He tucked me in lots of nights when my mom, an ER nurse, was working late. Yes, he taught me to throw a curve; he wrestled with me. Because that’s who he is. But throwing a curve means a whole lot less to me than the fact that he spent time with me—I would love him just as much if we had spent that time playing Scrabble or learning to knit.

And, for the record, my dad never taught me to fish, either. But don’t cry for me: I learned thatfrom my mom.

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