See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

An Ambivilence for Father’s Day

I have trouble with Father’s Day. I mean, I shouldn’t. I’m part of three traditions that all honor parents in their own peculiar ways. I don’t really buy it anyway. Why are we honoring people for doing what they’re supposed to do? No one’s ever offered me an award for not beating my wife, nor for not stealing from the office, nor for not irresponsibly fathering and abandoning children. No one should. It is a basic obligation.

Parenthood is an obligation first and finally. No child is brought into the world due to their consent. Not one of us is alive because asked to be born, none of us consented to enter the lottery that determines our circumstances. Our lives begin in pain and terror. The cry of a helpless baby is not merely a request, it is a demand. Feed me! This is your fault! That fault is born by mother and father, and gender roles are accidents of history and efficiency in meeting that obligation.

That is a moral obligation, not a biological one. To end a pregnancy may require special intervention for a mother, but upon birth the instinctive bonds and hormonal imperatives are just one of many: food, safety, shelter, companionship. The demands of a child have only the power of shrill voices: blackmail of the heart, not of genetics. There will always be the chance to have another. Fathers can walk away long before the cries, before the belly’s swell, long before his biology begins to ask him to stay.

Sometimes, often even, morality isn’t enough to make fathers stay. The gratitude that we feel – that I feel – towards our own fathers and fathers worldwide does not come from them exceeding their basic moral responsibilities. It comes from a recognition that in the world-that-is fathers fail their moral responsibilities all the time. So we honor the better fathers in the world-that-is because the world-that-is is so far from the world-that-ought. If giving out cookies is the price we pay for less of that, then, well, that’s what we’re going to have to do.

My father never needed that cookie and never asked for it. No one takes his obligations with the same seriousness that my father does. I don’t know that he has done them well, but by God, he has done them. In a world of muddling through, my father never threw up his hands and asked for sympathy, no excuses for his fallibility. When he did wrong, it was because he thought he was right and when he learned otherwise, he tried to make amends. I learn more every day how extraordinary that really is, even if I now think (in imitation of him) that it is the very least that people should do.

Fathers and sons have complex relationships. It is truth not because it is written in the bedrock of humanity (genetic, spiritual or memetic) but because it has emerged again and again across time and space. We’re no exception. As a child I gave up on asking for affection and set my eyes on a higher prize, that of his respect. That’s driven me since in more ways that I’d care to admit, but I think ultimately for the better. We agree on nothing. Verily, we are disagreeable and that could not annoy the other more. He looks at me and he sees all his fears. I once looked at him and I saw mine. Now, I hope I finally see him clearly, a man who never shirks and never expects forbearance or praise or gratitude for simply doing his job. In the world-that-ought, it’d be the least. That makes it worth all the more in the world-that-is.

In this world of failures and excuses, he’s a specially great father indeed.

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