I always enjoy it when a look beneath the surface of things reveals the unexpected. As the often sentimentalized Mother’s Day originated with women’s concerns for a just and peaceful world, Father’s Day actually arose from an appreciation of male nurturing. Upon hearing a Mother’s Day sermon in 1909, Sonora Smart Dodd of Spokane, WA, decided that fathers also should be honored, inspired by the sacrifices and devotion shown by her father, who raised his six children after the death of his wife giving birth to their youngest child. Ms. Dodd wanted the celebration to be on June 5, her father’s birthday, but the first Father’s Day in Spokane was celebrated on June 19, 1910. On the other side of the country, in West Virginia, religious services honoring fathers were held July 5, 1908, to remember 361 men who died in a mine explosion. The concept grew steadily in popularity, and in 1916, President Calvin Coolidge recommended that Father’s Day be a holiday. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson issued an executive order proclaiming Father’s Day as the third Sunday in June, and President Nixon made it a national holiday in 1972.
As I write this, ensconced in the shady serenity of our back deck, the fragrance of garlic and herbs waft through the screen door from the kitchen where my husband chops and sautés vegetables for dinner. I know that we are fortunate. Our family life is blessed daily by Joe’s participation in all manner of domestic tasks, not as a “favor” to me but simply because that’s what comes naturally to him. In the early days of parenting, I learned to let him handle things in his own style. I was working full time and he cared for our infant son; of necessity, he developed his own strategies for comforting, bathing, etc. that differed from mine but worked just fine, and the confidence that resulted for him has enhanced our joint parenting through the years. While I am deeply grateful, such male nurturing is not unfamiliar to me. Like Ms. Dodd, after the loss of my mother in childhood, my sister, brother and I were cared for not only by our dad, but in significant ways by our older brother as well. Male caregivers are not unusual today. Among married couples with working wives, 32% of the dads took care of their children at least one day a week in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which looked at families with children under 15 years old, up from 26% in 2002. Of those with kids under the age of 5, 20% of dads in 2010 were the primary caregiver.
More often we hear about the negative effects on children caused by not having a father or other male presence in their lives, and these are serious. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one out of every three children, 24 million, live in homes without their biological father. Father absence has been linked to higher rates of poverty, poor health for women and children, incarceration, drug and alcohol abuse, childhood obesity, and lack of education.