An (evolving) day for Dad?


It doesn’t get the fanfare or the same type of marketing media blitz as other holidays and, judging from a very unscientific, informal poll conducted on the Beacon’s Facebook page, a majority of dads don’t even give it a thought when it arrives.

Yes, Father’s Day is about as subdued a holiday as a hard-working dad during a much needed Sunday afternoon nap. There’s really no glitz or glamour attributed to it, and excessive showings of love are more likely to be received with friendly awkwardness than outright appreciation - depending on the dad, of course.

Historically, Father’s Day in the U.S. actually began as a reaction to the existence of Mother’s Day. The story goes that a woman from Spokane named Sonora Smart Dodd began what officially became Father’s Day in Spokane, Wash. in 1910 as a way to honor her father, who was a Civil War veteran and a single father to six children (his wife died during the last child’s birth).

The day was criticized as a cash grab by marketers wanting to once again capitalize on another gift-giving day, as many felt Mother’s Day, which began in 1908, had already started to become. A battle waged between politicians about whether or not to declare the day an actual holiday until 1972, when Richard Nixon signed a bill making the national holiday official.

On the surface, celebrating fathers in addition to mothers only seems fair, and it is somewhat surprising the capitalistic government of the United States waited so long to make official a day that, certainly, is good for the economy. However, there is more to the day that makes it special besides getting dad a Bluetooth speaker/spatula or a putting green bath mat to use while he’s on the john. Yes, those are real gifts.

“These holidays are hugely significant for society and for people. We have them for reasons that are important to us,” said Geoff Harkness, assistant professor of sociology at Rhode Island College. “Parenting, both mothers and fathers, is a part of that.”

Harkness, a parent of two young children himself, talked about the numerous important physiological, emotional, societal and introspective personal changes that occur in people who have recently become parents, and the changes do not only occur in new mothers as some may think. Such physical changes include testosterone levels dropping and senses such as hearing sharpening in order to be better able to hear your child crying if something is wrong.

“It's a very profound experience. The cliché that becoming a parent is life changing is true,” Harkness said. “In a lot of ways I wasn't sure what to expect. You read the books and listen to what people have to say about it. In some ways it's a test that's difficult to prepare for. A surprising part for me is that there is some sort of instinct that kicks in and you're like, okay, I'm going to be able to take care of this baby.”

Harkness mentioned another aspect of becoming a new father is an elevated sense of responsibility, which manifests throughout his life in various ways.

“I'm on call 24 hours a day, and I have to be prepared at any time during the day. That's a real game changer,” he said. “It makes you think in different ways like, maybe I won't have that second beer.”

As a sociologist, looking at how the holiday has been celebrated and continued to be celebrated, Harkness said it is interesting to note how our culture has advanced beyond the antiquated model of parenting where the dad is the gruff, emotionless disciplinarian who provides financially and the mom takes care of the children and provides the emotional care.

“The roles of a mother and fathers in society have certainly changed in the last 40 or 50 years,” Harkness said. “What we see [in dads] now is something that sociologists call hybrid masculinity, which doesn’t do away with the old model of strength and providing financially, it just adds an emotional component and being nurturing and caring to it...Ideas about parenting have changed dramatically in the last generation or two.”

Despite these advances, the gifts normally given on each parent’s respective holiday haven’t similarly adapted. Harkness said it is still much more common for mothers to receive flowers and gender-specific gifts such as beauty products, and that men more typically get things they can utilize - the “manly” gifts, such as tools and business attire.

“The gifts haven't caught up with the evolution of these roles,” Harkness said. “That reflects something about what we think are the appropriate roles for mothers and fathers and women in society.”

Once certain that he never wanted kids, Harkness now struggles to imagine life without children. He and his family have taken joy in celebrating multiple Mother’s Days and Father’s Days, and he said the first celebration is especially profound as a new dad. To him, Father’s Day provides an opportunity for the kids to show creative ways to express their love and appreciation - which he believes are the most special gifts to get.

“Last year both of my kids painted me a little canvas painting. It’s something still hanging up on our wall,” he said. “The best gifts are always the personal gifts and being able to spend time with your kids. I personally would much rather have that than a tie.”

Despite the ever-present belief that Father’s Day is just one more way to sell more greeting cards and consumer goods, Harkness reiterated the belief that these holidays come into exist, persist, and have variations in hundreds of countries across the world for a good reason.

“It's meaningful,” he said. “It’s meaningful for me and I think it's true for a lot of people in general, that becoming a parent was a hugely life chancing experience. I guess it reminds me of how important being a father, or a parent in general, is to me."


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