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Father’s Daze

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Henry David Thoreau once famously postulated that "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." He despised a life in which one could not do exactly as one wanted all the time, a life which most of us men do not have. This would be easy for him to do as he had no steady employment, no wife, no offspring, and no "future". His sole responsibilities were only to himself and his simple needs. This left him a great deal of time to ponder the shortcomings of the rest of the world which marched out of step with him to their detriment.

Most men do not seek to follow Thoreau's path. We aren't so enamored of solitude that we prefer it to all other experiences. We marry and create children, yet too often we discover that we men end up in Thoreau's fortress of solitude in spite of ourselves and our strenuous efforts.

There is an old aphorism which avers that a man isn't complete until he's married — then he's finished. A brief examination of the facts demonstrates that there is truth to this assertion that a married man is lost to himself. Men are poorly prepared for being husbands and fathers when the only training and education we get from all sources is to be tough and strong and ready to fight to the death at the drop of an insult. To marry, a man has to change everything about himself, as society frowns upon such traditional masculine behaviors and deems them dangerous. Such behaviors are banished from the workplace. Such behaviors are frowned upon in the family domicile. A married man thus becomes a stranger even unto himself.

As a single man, one is free to do what one wants (withing certain physical, legal, and economic limits) and answers only to those he pledges to obey in return for remuneration. Spontaneity and immediacy tend to rule a single man's life. Responsibility to anyone or anything is minimal. He is exhorted at all levels to compete with others, and his favorite entertainments are centered in an individual or group besting another such in contrived contests. There are only two outcomes: win, or lose, and don't YOU be the loser. So do what it takes to win, and to hell with the Marquis of Queensbury!

Not so when a man marries. He has taken on the responsibility of providing for a wife, including the times when she cannot contribute due to the gestation and care of offspring. He has also taken on the responsibility of providing for those offspring, which means that spontaneity and immediacy are things of the past. A man has to become cautious and careful, and to avoid contests as much as possible, for he no longer can be certain that he has the means and ability to triumph and cannot risk defeat. It's no longer just about him.

But this doesn't mean that the world isn't still a cold and harsh place which would challenge a skilled and experienced warrior. A man has to spend the majority of his time meekly subjected to another's control, unless one is a soldier or a policeman. Treating everyone else as competition to be defeated inhibits individual bonding, yet he still attempts to maintain his ties to his family against the many impositions upon his available time. Despite heavy downward pressure on wages, he has to bring home enough to adequately provide. He has to find the time to improve his future employment prospects to be able to earn enough to cover the expanding needs of his family as they grow. He can no longer rest assured that he will retain employment, for employers seek more flexibility and are looking to only hire temporarily, which puts the family hero into a constant mode of looking for that next job. Thus more time is eaten up in providing for one's family at the expense of spending time with the family. Eventually, they hardly know who he is that provides for their creature comforts.

This is one of the sub-themes in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Protagonist Willy Loman represents many of us who surrendered our lives long before we were ready to, taking on more than we were able to comfortably without knowing where it would lead or how much it would cost. We had no preparation. Like Loman, we are gone so much working to provide that we have to compete for our children's attention once we return home. They don't know us. Our children have discovered so many fascinating things like war games and sports that are far more interesting than Dear Ol' Dad. They aren't aware of what it takes to provide the Nintendo and the PS III and the Internet they so enjoy, and they really don't want to hear about it anymore than we did at their age. We don't represent the world as they see it, nor are we anything they want to emulate.

Yet we have to get some kind of recognition or we would begin questioning why we put ourselves through all of this torture. This is why Father's Day exists, to serve as a reminder of why we men live as we do. One day a year people pretend to respect us for our service to our families. One day a year is about all we men can get at any level, unless you are a dead soldier. Then you get three – Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Veterans Day. Living veterans tend to be ignored on such days. Why? Maybe it's because they represent another failure by society to support its male population.

Living veterans who never managed to put down their warrior personae and become productive drones in the workforce make up a huge portion of the homeless population. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans explains:

[The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] estimates that 107,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. Over the course of a year, approximately twice that many experience homelessness. Only eight percent of the general population can claim veteran status, but nearly one-fifth of the homeless population are veterans. About one-third of the adult homeless population are veterans…with roughly five percent [of them] being female. The majority of them are single…

To address this situation, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will provide $58.6 million to some 8,000 displaced veterans for housing. That works out to $7000, or about 64.5% of the official 2009 U.S. Department of Health & Human Services individual poverty level of $10,830, which Congress generously kept in effect until at least May 31, 2010. This is roughly half of the average of the 2010 US Minimum Wage according to a calculation of the figures provided by the Wage and Hour Division of the US Department of Labor. Assuming for the moment that this sum is all used for rent, this works out to $583.33 a month. Such funding would JUST provide for a one bedroom apartment in Des Moines IA, but it's still cheaper than a homeless shelter! They don't need food or medical care, after all! They survive on the honors accorded them by a grateful nation!

Men endure this abuse because it's expected of us. We aren't to complain or gripe about it because that's how it goes. Suck it up and walk it off. It's all part of the neglect our society shows toward its men. In 1995, George A. Parks, Ph.D., was the former Program Director for Seattle M.E.N. when he wrote this:

We live in a society without a positive image of the father or of men in general for that matter. Most of what we read, hear, and see in the media concerns the immature or shadow father who will not pay child support, who is absent, who is a workaholic, who is unfaithful, who is a wife batterer, who is an alcoholic or drug addict, or who abuses or molests his children. It is as if we have collectively come to believe that all that is male or masculine including fathers is ridiculous, toxic, or evil. Rarely do we hear stories about the sacrifices of fathers, the teaching of fathers, the affection of fathers, or the devotion and loyalty of fathers. Surely most fathers try to father well, but in our society today it is difficult to know what it means to be a good father and even more difficult to be one with all the economic, social, and emotional pressures that challenge most men who are fathers.

It hasn't changed all that much in the ensuing 15 years since Dr. Parks wrote this list of male pattern bawdiness. Men still die earlier than women, and are more likely to commit suicide when they have had enough [source article Last Updated Jan 11, 2010].

Other nations clearly value their men much more than does the US. In Sweden today, men get paternity leave with pay and job protection guaranteed to them by law. Swedes are also not as likely to end up in some shit hole like Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan making the world safe for companies like BP to squander mineral wealth as they rake in financial wealth. I would love to compare the male death statistics of the US I present above with those of Sweden.

Things may not have changed all that much in the US, but at least there is evidence of change! This is the best gift I could have had for Father's Day: Mom Gets Jail Time for Berating Ex-Husband to Kids. I accept this gift on behalf of my own father, now deceased, who had to endure this embarrassment from my mother repeatedly. These events did negatively affect the respect we held for him. We ended up being very distant to him and didn't really know him.

[Now before you readers begin to think that my relationship with Mrs. Realist is bad and prompting this comment, it isn't. We are fine, if a bit stressed due to my illness. My relationship with my children is also good, even if it could be better had I had more time when they were younger to spend with them instead of working.]

In many ways, my father could have been Willie Loman. No matter how much abuse he had to endure in his life (far more than most of us I assure you. I may tell you about it sometime), he lived up to his role as provider as best he could, sacrificing himself for his family as society expects we men to do while complaining about it far less than many. It eventually cost him his health and his sanity.

I wish I could have read him Dr. Parks' essay, but he had already died before it came out. Had I been able to do so, it might have let him know that all of his struggle and pain were in the end worth it after all.

Happy Father's Day, Dads! Take this and run with it. It's as good as it's going to get for a while.

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About pessimist

  • Sometimes I think, “I wish I could go back to those carefree days.” But then I look at my children and say, “Nah!”

  • I’m glad to see you’re still kicking, Realist, although some of this piece makes me a little sad for you. It’s not much better on this side of the gender bus, believe me.

  • John Wilson

    Our society relentlessly persecutes both men and women along the gender divide. It’s good for business. I guess if we could ever get together we could overthrow our slave-masters, but it always seems like individuals seek advantage through gender.

  • “A man has to spend the majority of his time,” you write, “meekly subjected to another’s control, unless one is a soldier or a policeman.” Obviously you’ve never served in either capacity. There is no more hierarchical organization than the military. And the police force, which is paramilitary, is only marginally less regimented. Soldiers and policemen have been glamorized by Hollywood, but in real life are as quietly desperate as any gaunt, unshaven, shabbily dressed man standing forlornly in a breadline during the Great Depression. You note correctly that men are more likely to commit suicide than women, but fail to acknowledge that vets and cops kill themselves at a far greater rate than men in other occupations.

    “A man has to become cautious and careful,” you go on, “and to avoid contests as much as possible, for he no longer can be certain that he has the means and ability to triumph and cannot risk defeat.” That’s inadvertently an excellent description of both combat psychology and urban policing. For every Rambo or Dirty Harry, there are 10,000 uniformed non-heroes just trying to stay alive from one miserable day to the next.

  • John Wilson

    Excellent article and comments.