Thursday, February 8, 2007
"Father Knows Best" - Part 1
Over the last year I've had a chance to talk with several dads, usually at our favorite playground here in Greenwich Village, and between the typical "dad-speak" about our spouses, sports, the weather, schools, and our kids, we began to chat about the difficult job of being a father in a place like 21st-century New York City. Moreover, we realized that our role - from the more general expectations to day-to-day responsibilities - deviated markedly from that played by our own fathers.
Like my father, born in 1930, most of our dads had been born around the onset of the Great Depression and experienced fatherhood - at least in the context of shepherding their children from birth to high school graduation - during the height of the postwar "baby boom." They had been very typical as "boomer" fathers in the sense that they attended college, worked regular "9 to 5" jobs as professionals, and, in realizing the "American Dream" of that heady period, enjoyed unprecedented job security, affordable health care, the widely advertised amenities of middle class life, and the promise of comfortable retirement.
The principal role of the postwar father was as breadwinner. They also maintained the cars - since we were two-car families now - the house, and the yard. They rarely cooked, unless called upon to man the grill at backyard cookouts, never ferried us to doctors, dentists, or after-school activities, and only occasionally accepted the responsibility of "babysitter," particularly if very small children were variables in the family equation. When necessary, they resolved sibling disputes, were consulted as disciplinarians, and offered sage advice and admonitions on myriad topics, including the triumvirate of education, dating, and sports.
Beginning in the 1950s, television gave viewers a steady parade of father figures who fit neatly in this mold: Ward Cleaver in "Leave It to Beaver," Jim Anderson in "Father Knows Best," and a bevy of bumbling dads that included Danny Thomas, Ozzie Nelson, Dick Van Dyke, and Desi Arnez. Even the single fathers - Bill Bixby, Andy Griffith, Fred McMurray and Brian Keith being the most obvious - had female help from housekeepers or wise "aunts" who assumed the mantle of motherhood.
Conservative pundits and trumpeters of "family values" borne of the Reagan-era would have us believe that these family sitcoms mirrored the reality of that "golden age." Moreover, the apotheosis of the American family of the 1950s continues with a deluge of reruns. (One could also argue conversely that these shows constituted a significant portion of FCC Chairman Newton Minow's "vast wasteland" assessment of TV programming.) Yet in her groundbreaking study on families, The Way We Never Were, Stephanie Koontz declares that "Leave It to Beaver" was "not a documentary." And of course the reality of family life in the 1950s and 60s was rarely as simple as depicted in the world of sitcoms. Still, the boundaries within which television fathers operated reflected the general expectations for fathers at that time. Hence my father, and the dads of my playground peers, acted within fairly obviously defined parameters. What many of them likely did not realize at the time - unless their spouse worked full time outside the home - was that those parameters were changing and that succeeding generations of fathers in the U.S. would play a far more active role in the daily routines of parenting.
To be continued . . .