Given that I’m one half of a two-dad duo, I should probably see Father’s Day as double the pleasure, double the fun. After all, Mother’s Day is a somewhat awkward time for us—more on that in a minute—and Father’s Day would seem like a good chance to offset our May discomfort with some extra June celebration.
Also, it still seems to be the case that fathers as parents are taken less seriously than mothers, which ironically serves to justify the fact that women still do much more childcare than men; at my kids’ public elementary school, mothers still do most of the volunteering and organizing while a Dad’s Club invites the menfolk to “work hard and play hard,” to “get your hands dirty” with “light maintenance,” “campus cleanup,” and to raise funds through A’s game outings and the auctioning of manual labor. So Father’s Day seems like a nice chance for us to exhibit a more expansive view of fatherhood, in which men are necessarily full-on, competent parents rather than assistants, both “fathering” and “mothering,” clean- and dirty-handed, lifting heavy things and also doing hair. Plus it coincides with LGBT Pride Month, which I’ve often taken as an opportunity to parade around with my family basking in the cheers of people who are excited by the very fact of us.
This year, the state of my birth and upbringing, Michigan, has just passed legislation making it legal for adoption agencies to discriminate against prospective parents on religious grounds, so apparently some people still don’t want us to be the fathers we are. We gay parents may have something to teach the world about being parents, though: There’s evidence that we operate with a more equal division of childcare labor than straight couples, and have a tendency to be “more motivated, more committed than heterosexual parents on average.” So there: We’re awesomer! Two Dads are better than one! Father’s Day should really be my favorite day of the year.
Still, somehow I have a hard time getting into it.
One problem, of course, is that Father’s Day is basically bullshit. It began in the early 20th century, as Ian Crouch has written (drawing on the work of Leigh Eric Schmidt) as a “celebration of the father’s engaged and able participation in the family” and “a sentimental corollary to Mother’s Day,” but was rapidly commercialized. From the beginning it was seen as a bit of nonsense, since giving gifts to the higher wage earner “created a kind of anxiety about gift-giving that still lingers,” but it got a big boost in the 1930s from a New York menswear trade group, which created the National Council for the Formation of Father’s Day and aggressively promoted the holiday as an explicitly commercial one. By the time Richard Nixon signed it into law in 1972, my own father was twelve years into parenthood. At that time, it was all about neckties and booze, symbols, as Crouch notes, of the middle-class “dad as a man apart.” Even now, when advertising suggests a kinder, gentler father—the soccer dad or nurturing diaper-changer, eligible to consume skin care products, vaguely emasculated and checking his phone for instructions from his wife—the commercial representations still “emphasize fatherhood as a fraught and unsettled emotional enterprise.”
Though I could certainly use some more Kiehl’s products and some Macallan single malt—email me for my mailing address—those Father’s Day origins don’t have much to do with what I understand as parenting. More importantly, it’s hard for me to see myself anywhere within this scene. I am neither the traditional father bringing home the bacon, nor the new Mr. Mom stay-at-home dad frying it up in a pan. There is no Mother in my home to whom I am a corollary, sentimental or practical. My fatherhood is basically a settled and unfraught, if also exhausting and sometimes tedious, emotional enterprise. My identity as a father is very strong, I love my kids like crazy and I think I’m pretty good at parenting, but Father’s Day seems to be made for other people and for other reasons.
It also seems wrong to treat Father’s Day as a solution to my ambivalent relationship to Mother’s Day, as if the doubling up on dads makes motherhood irrelevant. Mother’s Day brings some stuff up in my household. We don’t refer, for instance, to the women who helped bring our daughters into the world as their “mothers,” mainly because they are not. We refer to them by their first names, or as aunt so-and-so, and to the fact that they carried our kids inside them and gave birth to them. (We don’t talk yet about their egg donors, but when we do, it will certainly not be as mothers but as friends and people-who-helped-you-become.) Sometimes we call them “belly mommies,” to remind the kids that they came into the world like everyone else; “gestational surrogate” doesn’t quite have capture the relationships’ intimacy.To varying degrees and in different ways they are family—one, an old friend from way before the girls were born, is taking the girls to her annual family reunion in a few weeks. Still, these women are at once present and absent. We talk to them and about them, we see one of them occasionally and the other regularly. There are other mothers aplenty in our lives, of course, including my mom and my husband’s mom (who lives in our house), not to mention the many other women who love our children. But our daughters don’t have a mother.
Usually that’s not especially relevant—our kids are well loved, well adjusted, and lucky. But Mother’s Day serves as a potent reminder of our family’s difference, and of our different status in other people’s eyes that is tied to our children’s apparent motherlessness, about which we and our children do have feelings. Our older daughter once came home from Mother’s Day week in tears. Despite a Family Diversity curriculum and a queer principal, teachers and children can’t help but reinforce the notion that not having a mother in your life makes you somehow lesser. Reasonable accommodations are made: a shift in terminology when you’re in the room, some extra discussion, an alternative to the assignment of making a Mother’s Day card. Yet the message resonates, perhaps because it’s obvious that we are statistically rare—the only two-dad family in a school of several hundred—and even more because the one-mom/one-dad family is still ideologically dominant. Our kids watch television. They live on this planet. These girls know what the culture thinks of us, and sometimes it hurts, enough that I wonder if it’s ethical for schools to even celebrate Mother’s Day.
The politics of chucking out Mother’s Day without addressing gender inequality seem iffy, though. Especially in the United States, childcare remains an institutionally undervalued—if culturally romanticized—form of gendered labor. As Vivian Gornick and Marcia Meyers have shown, in Canada and much of Europe, family leave policies, labor market regulations, publicly funded early childhood education, and so on “encourage gender equality by strengthening mothers’ ties to employment and encouraging fathers to spend more time caregiving at home.” In the U.S., “parents—overwhelmingly mothers—must loosen their ties to the workplace to care for their children,” negotiate for leave or flex time, and buy private childcare or scramble for it, all of which exacts “a high price in terms of gender inequality in the workplace and at home, family stress and economic insecurity.” Behind this, the reproductive freedom of women in particular—the freedom not to reproduce, for instance, or to do so as a single woman—is under constant attack. In that context, rejecting Mother’s Day, or replacing it with the Parent’s Day nobody knows about but that has been on the books since 1994, seems misplaced. Adopting a gender-blind approach to the inequality between (in this case, heterosexual) mothers and fathers makes about as much sense as adopting a color-blind approach in a relentlessly racist society.
And so, each Mother’s Day, I am stuck, not just because of what it means to my kids but because of what it means to me: between resisting what Adrienne Rich called the patriarchal institution of motherhood and honoring the potentially empowering experiences of mothering. Father’s Day, even double Father’s Day or supergay Father’s Day, does nothing to resolve that tension.
Sure, Father’s Day is an outmoded, Hallmark-serving holiday that reiterates sexist gender role divisions and tired gender binaries, valorizes a narrow, class-specific, heterosexual version of family, and implies that people who choose not to have kids are less worthy of admiration and should at best be ignored. It’s part of a regime of normalcy that offers elevated social status and advantages to those who conform. I’ve experienced quite a bit of that since becoming a father; like marriage, parenthood is a status that, whether you want it to or not, legitimizes you, makes you easier to assimilate, and in doing so, positions you against those who do not want to (or cannot) conform in the same way. Father’s Day feels partly like a self-congratulatory celebration of that status hike, and that feels cheap and wrong to me.
And yet, I will not insist that Father’s Day be banned at my house. That normalcy is part of what makes Father’s Day meaningful, if only for a few minutes, for my children. For them, probably more than for kids in more conventional families, it’s a chance to participate in the parent-focused holidays around which they observe considerable hoopla, and to remind themselves that our family is like other families, which is also true. Father’s Day is an affirmation, maybe some kind of relief from feeling outside the circle, and an opportunity to express gratitude. I want that for them. They deserve it.
Perhaps the trick is to balance all that normalizing with queerness, to celebrate not just a respectably-gay version of fatherhood but also the ways in which our fathering is different, to align ourselves not so much with the Dad’s-Club-and-aftershave vision but with those parents who aren’t trying to be and will never be in that club—for instance, the genderqueer dads among us, the women who are fathers and the men who are mothers and the folks in between. Perhaps it’s not just about toasting the fact that we are fabulous fathers, but taking another moment to look at the ways so much of the world, including a lot of this country, still deny reproductive justice to so many, including (but not only) to people like us. “We are not having that,” the toast might be.
For now, I’ll still take breakfast in bed. It took a lot to get here, and parenting is hard, and these girls owe us. Then I’ll call my dad. I might be wearing a wig.
Joshua Gamson is Professor of Sociology at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship (forthcoming in September 2015 from NYU Press).