On a rainy Sunday morning in May, I drove more than an hour out to a small church in Sanilac for the morning service. I asked the greeter at the door for an extra bulletin, something I could tuck away to remember this special day. I made my way down the aisle to the pew where my father sat with his sisters, who drove hours from different parts of the state to be with us. Their presence among the regular congregation of about 30 members made the assembly seem larger than usual.
After the scripture reading, sermon and hymns, my father was called forward. Before the assembled members of the branch, the elders of the church ordained him to the office of Priest. I remember being particularly proud of my father just then; he had felt a calling for this responsibility to the church and acted on it. More than that, he lives the values and beliefs that he stands for in his new office. I’ve always known him to be a man of integrity, someone who adheres to his code of values.
On Father’s Day, I thought about how fortunate I was to grow up with the father I have. He and my mother were high school sweethearts and have been married for 36 years. Raising five children together must have been difficult, but we could tell that he put his family first. Even with the stress and financial pressures that came with a large family, my father was always hopeful, hard-working and above all, honest. He stuck by us and provided for us. I never got the feeling that he was a good father because he felt he had to be, but rather because he wanted to be. By making good choices in his own life, he set a positive example for us children early on.
When I think of fathers, I think of men like my dad: the devoted family men, the men who coach their children’s T-ball teams, attend parent-teacher conferences and firmly but patiently discipline their children. In everyday interactions we often take for granted, they’re the good role models. Our homes and communities are full of fathers like these, but if we accept the narrative about fatherhood as presented in the images and stories circulating in our culture, we could be convinced otherwise.
In the news headlines of late, we tend to see fathers who don’t give us such good examples: Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Edwards and the now infamous Anthony Weiner, just to name a few. Schwarzenegger fathered a child with an employee while still married to Maria Shriver. Edwards has been accused of using campaign funds to support his mistress and her child. Weiner resigned in disgrace after lying to the press, his constituents and his family about graphic pictures and chats surfaced on the Web just as news surfaced that his wife was pregnant. Each of these men, while professing to be dedicated to their families, made choices quite to the contrary.
When I read these stories in the news, I think first about the effect on the families, particularly on the sons and daughters. Weiner’s disgrace is a lesson that will live longer than our short-term fascination with his scandal, thanks to the Internet. Years from now, when Weiner’s children are old enough to understand his choices (and their consequences,) what will they think about their father? How will they react when they see their father’s lewd pictures and chats in online archives or blogs? Surely a father that teaches a child virtue by example is a better leader than a father who teaches a child virtue by the lesson of his failings.
Television and movies also present poor models of fatherhood. Programs tend to portray fathers as impulsive, dim-witted and childish, ala Homer Simpson of “The Simpsons” and Peter Griffin of “Family Guy.”
Prime-time sitcoms also make fathers a comic figure, often in the dark about important matters in the home and the predicable punchline of the joke. In addition, TV dramas often depict them in the clichés of the absent father, the deadbeat dad, the neglector, the addict or the abuser. While family-oriented programming appears to present a more positive view of fathers, these men are often two-dimensional, undeveloped characters brought in at the end of an episode to deliver the moral of the story.
These poor representations of fatherhood in our culture are dangerous and can perpetuate lower standards for fatherhood if we accept them to be the norm. And when we’re exposed to the negative images long and often enough, it’s difficult to imagine that they are not true of the fathers we know.
The next time we’re presented with a negative stereotype about fathers, we should question just how well that stereotype really represents the fathers we know. Rather than taking in more coverage of the Weiner show or sitting through another tired rerun of “Family Guy,” we should spend more time filling our consciousness with positive images of fatherhood that better represent the men most of us grew up with.