I’ve been a parent for less than ten months, yet this Sunday will be my second Father’s Day as honorand. That’s because Italy, where I live, pays tribute to its papas on March 19th, the feast of Saint Joseph.
Joseph was of course not actually Jesus’s father but a stand-in, which tells you something about the Italian conception of my new role: as important as any a man can assume, yet unmistakably secondary to that of mamma.
Italians are only emphasizing what everybody knows. If it weren’t a truth universally acknowledged that fathers are dispensable in a way that mothers are not, people wouldn’t go to such trouble to deny it.
Think of all those books about how to be a “super dad.” I haven’t read any of them, but it’s clear that they’re more about reassuring us that we can “make a difference” than about imparting any practical advice.
Literature of that kind is rarely aimed at mothers, since few would bother to read it. I’ve never met a mother who betrayed any doubt of being the most important person in her infant or small child’s life.
One proof that fathers are optional (except at the very start of the process) is that their roles vary so widely from culture to culture: from Afghan patriarchs to Scandinavian househusbands. The tasks and interests of mothers, on the other hand, are basically the same all over the world.
I saw a demonstration of this a few months back, in the waiting room of an Italian pediatric clinic, where women from Europe, Africa and Asia, communicating in smiles and gestures when they didn’t speak the same language, compared notes on their kids. It’s impossible to imagine a similarly diverse group of unacquainted men getting along this way, at any rate outside of a bar.
This is not an argument for matriarchal world government, just a reminder that motherhood is the common denominator of human society. For the historian Eric Hobsbawm, mothers are the world’s “common people” (a distinction, he says, that till late in the twentieth century had always belonged to peasants). Hobsbawm is a Marxist, so he means that as a compliment.
We fathers shouldn’t let our inferiority get us down. It should hearten us to think that we can distinguish ourselves more easily than mothers; so many of us do our job so badly. Nobody ever talks about “deadbeat moms”; the idea is practically unspeakable. Men, though, are so unreliable that we earn points just for acknowledging our progeny, to say nothing of changing their diapers or walking them to the playground.
(I should note that none of this is a comment on my own father’s performance. It would embarrass him if I extolled his virtues here, so suffice it to say that he did far more than change my diapers, and did it admirably well.)
It’s not till kids have three or four years on them that, according to the stereotypes of Norman Rockwell’s America, they have many dealings with dad. That’s when we’re supposed to start pampering little girls, and fishing or playing catch with boys. A little spanking will also be in order now and then.
I’m fairly confident of my spanking abilities, though I doubt my son will ever take me seriously as a physical threat, since my (admittedly light) practice blows on his rear end have so far elicited nothing but infantile giggles. He’s already better at catching a ball than I am. And as for fishing, the one time I tried my hand at it, the sight of the wretched little catch wriggling at my feet drove me to toss it back in horror. In these classic pastimes, I fear I’ll prove as klutzy a dad as I was a kid.
Yet when it comes to the most important function of all — the one respect in which fathers will always be useful — I reckon I’ll do as well as any man. That function is, of course, to serve as an authority figure for kids to rebel against.
Had I been planning to raise the All-American Boy (and I’m beginning to suspect that such was my unconscious intention), I could have done no better than to sire him in a foreign country, and with a foreign wife. All I need to do now is turn into a Europhile, and start droning on over dinner about the virtues of the Common Agricultural Policy. The kid will be waving the Stars and Stripes before he’s six.
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