Media coverage of Father's Day was a virtual lovefest, a celebration of how fabulous and involved todays dads are. According to a survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly half of men said they'd take a pay cut to spend more time with their kids. Even hands-on grandfathers got a nod. And yesterday Boston Globe columnist Beverly Beckham marveled at what unbelievable fathers her sons-in-law have become: They bathe their kids, load the dishwasher and sing lullabies.
These are things neither her husband -- nor his father -- ever did, she writes rather wistfully. Rather, her father-in-law served as a disciplinarian, policing his children's table manners. "But he never sang a lullaby to his children. Fathers didn't used to sing lullabies," she writes of the former generation of dads. "They didn't know the names of their children's teachers. They didn't help with homework. They didn't take time off in the middle of a workday to go to their child's school for a concert or a field day or to eat chicken kabobs in the school cafeteria. And they certainly didn't cart their babies everywhere or stay home and play with them while their wives went out with friends for an evening."
Her own father did do some more traditionally female tasks, like cooking her dinner and ironing her school uniform, but Beckham says she regrets that he could never comfort her when she fell off a bike or calm her when she couldnt'sleep, the way her mother could. Now, Beckham says, her grandbabies run to both parents. "We wonder how we lived without [involved fathers]. And we're grateful that we don't have to anymore," she writes.
At the New York Times, Daphne Merkin wrote in the Sunday magazine about her lifelong ache for the kind of fatherly love she never received as a child, saying that her "father hunger" shaped her romantic attachments to men. Her portrait of her father conforms to the stereotype of an emotionally compartmentalized older man: He was distant. He was self-absorbed. He never told her she was beautiful. Merkin bemoans their strained relationship and uses it as a call for more attention to the importance of father-daughter intimacy. "I'm not through yet with this daddy stuff," she writes, "and my unclaimed daughterly heart is still up for grabs."
Perhaps our celebration of the new superdads can't help being somewhat bittersweet, tinged with longing for what many of us never got. It's wonderful to witness the evolution of fathers as more emotionally involved caretakers. But it's also a stark reminder to older generations of just what they missed -- and how lovely it could have been.