My father, who died two years ago, had a difficult but close and even intense relationship with me. From my perspective as a boy and young man, he seemed overly judgmental. I grew up thinking that I could never make the grade, never be good enough to satisfy his lofty expectations. And his standard for honourable manhood, which he applied to himself no less than to me, did seem unattainable. Worse, it seemed to me, his notion of manhood focused heavily on duty and sacrifice -- not things that most people, certainly not children, are eager to embrace. Worse still, perhaps, he expected me to learn skills that didn't interest me.
Dad played with me and took me to museums, sure, but he also tried to help me with my arithmetic homework -- and was visibly exasperated, night after night, by my inability to understand what he considered common sense.
To be blunt, I usually preferred my mother, who gave me uncomplicated and unconditional love. Dad confessed, many years later, that I had disappointed him at first. And I can see why.
I was an outsider for several reasons in childhood. Apart from anything else, I was both unwilling and unable to absorb prevalent but superficial (and ultimately both destructive and self-destructive) notions of masculinity. I had to invent myself, therefore, and I'm proud of my ability to do so. But it was Dad who first taught me to be independent -- that is, as I eventually understood, to think for myself but within a larger moral context. He taught me to become more fully human, in other words, not to embrace either conformity or "autonomy" (an overused and misused word these days).
Dad lived long enough to see me take my place in the world. I knew that he respected me as a scholar. One day, in the middle of some argument, he suddenly turned to me and said, "Paul, you're a learned man." Okay, I was much too old by then for those words to give me a sense of self-confidence. But we both realized immediately that this was a moment of profound fulfillment; a father had symbolically conferred manhood on his son. I never did learn arithmetic, but I had made him proud of me in other ways. This was my secular bar mitzvah.
Dad still blamed himself, however, for not pushing me hard enough to become more financially secure. Fortunately, we had time to talk about that. Having spent many years doing research in the humanities on manhood (including fatherhood), I told him that he had done exactly what every father needs to do. I didn't have to add that he had done so not by consciously adopting the approach of this or that expert but by subconsciously absorbing the legacy of human experience after countless generations.
Fathers, unlike mothers, must require their children to earn love -- respect, which is a form of love -- in order to leave home mature enough to give and receive it as adults. And fathers, unlike mothers, cannot measure their effectiveness adequately in terms of immediate emotional gratification. Spontaneous displays of affection from their children do not necessarily mean, after all, that fathers are doing what's best for them.
Young children know very little, in any case, about what their fathers do for them behind the scenes. Moreover, they often resent having to meet expectations or endure constant testing. As for fathers themselves, they find it hard to feel unconditional love for their children without always revealing it directly for fear of sending a double message: "I love you no matter what you do or don't do" versus "I love you for being worthy of love."
In short, fathering is inherently more complicated, more ambiguous, and more perilous (though not, of course, more important) than mothering. It requires a massive cultural effort to promote fathering and not merely to bribe or threaten fathers into providing material resources.
I'm dismayed, therefore, to find that our society seems hell-bent on undermining the culture of fatherhood (or whatever remains of that culture). My research with Katherine Young indicates that every person and every group, to have a healthy identity, must be able to make at least one contribution to society that is distinctive, necessary, and publicly valued. Now that women can take over two of the three historic functions of men, provider and protector (if necessary with the state's help), only progenitor remains. And to be a progenitor in any meaningful sense is to care for children in the ways that I've outlined here, not merely to contribute a teaspoonful of sperm or even a monthly cheque. Boys must know that society will indeed need them to make at least this one contribution.
For the time being, they don't. At best, in this age of Oprah Winfrey and sperm banks, the message is that fathers are assistant mothers and therefore luxuries. Boys now learn directly or indirectly, that there will be no room for them as men in family life and that they will therefore have no moral stake as men in the future of society. If that isn't an ominous sign, what is?
And yet, even now, most men do care for their children. Congratulations, then, to all the confused and beleaguered fathers out there for continuing to do what is often a thankless job.
Paul Nathanson is a research associate at McGill University's Faculty of Religious Studies and co-author of the books Spreading Misandry and Legalizing Misandry.