National Opinions

Don't praise fathers for doing what they are supposed to do

Sunday was the 100th commemoration of Father's Day. You know what that meant, don't you?

Really nice ties.

And when father finished admiring the ties, saying thank you for the socks and reading the cards, he might have opened the paper or turned on the TV news and there encountered something else that has become a staple of the day: the tender, uplifting profile of some heroic single dad raising his children alone.

The reporter relays the tragic circumstance (divorce, death, abandonment) that left him in this situation and the camera shows him dressing the kids for school, combing the daughter's hair, preparing dinner or doing some other chore more typically done by moms.

The viewer or reader will be invited, tacitly or openly, to venerate this singular man.

Note that Mother's Day brings no corresponding report on the heroic single mom. This is a column about why.

There is, let us hasten to say, nothing dastardly about the disparity. The calculation seems to be that fathers don't get much good press overall. Rather, the news where dads are concerned is usually about failure and abandonment, about statistics that say nearly one in four American kids grows up without a father in the home and about studies documenting the dysfunctions we can expect as a result.

So Father's Day becomes a day for news media to counterbalance that bleak picture with laurels and bouquets for fathers who are still doing the job -- both as a way to remind us they are out there and to encourage men with evidence of their own necessity.

That impulse is honorable. As fatherhood becomes ever more shrunken in the public mind, as it is diminished until it is no bigger than a turkey baster or a child support check, it is good to be shown that there are still fathers for whom the role is larger than that.

For all that, though, this staple story of Father's Day also reinforces a view of father's role that is as ubiquitous as it is regrettable.

There is, after all, a reason no one does tender and uplifting Mother's Day features on the heroic single mom raising her children alone.

It's because this is what she is supposed to do. What are her other options? Abandon her kids? Run out for milk one day and never return? Skip out from all maternal responsibilities?

Women -- yes, there are exceptions, but we are speaking generally here -- don't do that. They can't, not if they ever expect to hold their heads up in polite society. We have great scorn for the mother who refuses to be a mom.

By contrast, we impose little or no social sanction upon the father who declines to be dad. Consider former Rhode Island Gov. Bruce Sundlun and basketball icons Larry Bird and Julius Erving, whose public esteem was not appreciably affected by the news that they had daughters they had not acknowledged or even been involved with.

The point being that a father has choices about whether to be a dad. A mother has no realistic choice about whether to be a mom. So when you see those profiles of the heroic single father, what you are really seeing is a seal of approval, a social attaboy, that some man made the right choice.

Maybe, though, we should begin to wonder at the cultural mind-set that allows him that choice.

Again, it's good to be reminded that there are fathers out there who raise their children and defy the statistics. But the very need for that reminder speaks to how profoundly our vision of fatherhood has changed in the century since Sonora Dodd of Spokane, Wash., organized the first Father's Day in honor of her dad, a widowed Civil War veteran who raised six kids.

By all means, give Dad his due. But also understand: there is something cockeyed and sad about an era where you get pats on the back and your picture in the paper for doing what you're supposed to do.