Let’s talk about fathers.
Did you know that Father’s Day is a much more recent holiday on the calendar than Mother’s Day? Back in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the second Sunday in May as the official observance of Mother’s Day.
But it wasn’t until 1972 that Richard Nixon established Father’s Day on the third Sunday in June as a permanent national holiday. That time difference makes sense when you consider that traditionally mothers have always been regarded as children’s prime caregivers. While fathers held the power in most families, mothers evoked warmth and sentimentality. That balance began to change with the feminist revolution of the 1970s.
Recently I watched, again, the 1979 movie “Kramer vs. Kramer.” It tells the story of Joanna, a young mother who walks out of a stifling marriage to Ted, a successful advertising executive, leaving behind her 7-year old son, Billy, while she tries to find herself. After a period of anger and adjustment, Ted and Billy finally bond with each other. Just at that point Joanna returns. With a new job and sense of security, she seeks custody of Billy, and gets it after a vicious legal battle. At the end, however, she realizes that Billy would be happiest remaining with his father. Superbly acted by Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, it was the quintessential film of that revolutionary period, dealing as it does with women’s quests beyond the family, and men’s new domestic roles. Yet this time around, I found myself disturbed. Although the plot appears to be sympathetic to both Ted and Joanna, she comes off as the heavy. The underlying message is that mothers belong at home with their children, and fathers who take on major parenting responsibilities are to be lionized for extending themselves far beyond what is expected of them.
The film comes to mind as I think about the approaching Father’s Day. We’ve changed a great deal since the 1970s, of course. Women make up almost half the American work force now, and today’s young fathers are so much more involved in child rearing than men ever were. Yet some of the most basic issues have not changed. Still today there seems no end to books, articles and blogs about women being torn between their careers and their children. No end to media coverage of women who opt out of high-powered positions to stay at home with their children. How many books have been written about fathers’ struggles between career and family? And how many fathers, even today, know their children’s daily schedules? How many are in constant text contact with their offspring, make sure school or camp lunches are packed, organize birthday parties? Plenty of mothers, even in top jobs, do all these things.
Years ago I wrote a column for Newsweek defending the proverbial Jewish mother. I argued, for example, that her so-called overprotectiveness was also a form of deep caring that could make children feel loved and important. My favorite responses came from readers who said such things as, “I’m an African-American man who is a Jewish mother” or “I am a Chinese father who is a Jewish mother.” What these men meant was that they were no less engaged in their children’s lives than any good mother, and they didn’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the Jewish mother traits.
Sadly, it’s hard to find models within our tradition for Jewish fathers who were Jewish mothers in that sense. Abraham sent one son, Ishmael, away and almost sacrificed the other, Isaac, as a burnt offering. Isaac couldn’t distinguish at a crucial moment between his sons Jacob and Esau. Jacob created so much antagonism by favoring his son Joseph that his other sons sold the boy into slavery. But then there is King David. To be sure, he was no poster Dad: he did nothing after his son Amnon raped his own half-sister Tamar. Nevertheless, David’s love for his son Absalom puts him in a special category. When Absalom rebelled against him and a battle ensued between them, David ordered his officers to “deal gently” with the boy. And when Absalom was killed in the battle, David wailed inconsolably, “O my son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you!” His words have echoed through the ages as the most soul-stirring expression of a father’s love.
My message for fathers, then, is to consider being Jewish mothers. Nag your son to do his homework, make sure he completes it all, and praise him lavishly when he does. Worry over your daughter’s every sniffle, see to it that she gets enough rest, and buy her ice cream for that pesky sore throat. Your attentions will not go unnoticed. You will be rewarded on Father’s Day with … well, you can always use another necktie, can’t you?
Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.