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What Modern America Expects of Its Dads


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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Bob Doughty. And I'm Shirley Griffith. This week on our program, we look at modern changes in the American father.

Father's Day will be observed this year on Sunday, June twenty-first. This special day to honor and celebrate fathers has one hundred years of history behind it. In nineteen hundred and nine there was a woman named Sonora Dodd. She was in church at a service for Mother's Day, which is celebrated in May.

She thought about how difficult it had been for her father to raise six children all by himself. Her mother had died in childbirth, leaving her father to raise her and her five brothers and sisters. She decided that since there was a day honoring mothers, there should also be one recognizing fathers.

Sonora Dodd campaigned for the idea in her home state of Washington, in the Pacific Northwest. The first Father's Day was celebrated in June of nineteen ten in the city of Spokane. June was the month her father was born.

At first Sonora Dodd had found little support. But in the years that followed, the idea of Father's Day spread across the country. It gained the approval of President Woodrow Wilson in nineteen sixteen. Yet he never signed an official proclamation, as he did two years earlier for the first Mother's Day.

President Calvin Coolidge in nineteen twenty-four added his support to a national observance of Father's Day. Then in nineteen sixty-six Lyndon Johnson declared it the third Sunday in June. Finally, in nineteen seventy-two, Richard Nixon made it permanent.

Other countries also celebrate Father's Day, some on the third Sunday in June, others on a different day.

OK, let's be honest. As holidays go, Mother's Day in America is still a bigger deal than Father's Day. But millions of dads will get at least a card or a call or maybe a necktie or some other gift from their family. And much has changed since that first celebration in nineteen ten.

Kevin Roy is an associate professor in the Department of Family Science at the University of Maryland. Professor Roy says fathers today are expected to do more than just provide financially for the family's needs.

KEVIN ROY: "Cultural expectations have changed kind of dramatically, where now we have what's called a package deal. Which means that fathers are now expected to not only be providers but also caregivers for their kids."

That change could be seen in the differences between two television  fathers from different generations.

In the nineteen fifties and early sixties, Robert Young played Jim Anderson on the family comedy "Father Knows Best." He was an insurance salesman who worked hard to provide for his family. He did not cook or clean much -- that was his wife's job -- but he was a thoughtful father and husband.

FATHER: "Well, Kathy, I don't want a million dollars, or even a half a million.  I only want enough money to have a nice home like we have, good food, good health…and enough money to help those less fortunate than ourselves from time to time."

DAUGHTER: "And enough to raise my allowance a little."

FATHER: "I might even arrange that."

By the time "The Cosby Show" began in nineteen eighty-four, it was common in American society for mothers to work. Bill Cosby played Heathcliff Huxtable, a loving husband and father who was a doctor married to a lawyer.

They were partners not only in marriage but in managing the household and parenting their children. Here, Cliff Huxtable tries to teach his son an important life lesson.

FATHER: "How do you expect to get into college with grades like this?

SON: "No Problem.  See I'm not going to college.

FATHER: "Damn right.

SON: "I am going to get through high school and then get a job like regular people.

FATHER: "Regular people?

SON: "Yeah you know...who work in the gas station, drive a bus, something like that.

FATHER: "So what you're saying is your mother and I shouldn't care if you get Ds because you don't need good grades to be regular people.

SON: "Right.

In the nineteen seventies, Harry Chapin sang a song about a father who never seems to have time for his son. Then, when the father gets older and wants to connect with his son, the son is the one who is too busy. The song was called "Cat's in the Cradle."

(HARRY CHAPIN – "CAT'S IN THE CRADLE")

In the early nineties, Reba McIntyre described a similar situation between a father and daughter in "The Greatest Man I Never Knew."

(REBA McINTYRE – "THE GREATEST MAN I NEVER KNEW")

Mike Kaufman is a radio broadcaster based in Washington, D.C. He considers himself a modern dad who got involved in parenting early. He and his wife have a new baby boy.

MIKE KAUFMAN: "We both wanted to take on equal parts of the challenges, equal parts of the joy, equal parts of the burden and equal parts of the preparation. So we did things like take classes before the baby was born.

"We took a class on basic baby care, you know, and that will cover everything from how to change those diapers and how to give the baby a bath, and all those things which frankly we didn't know a whole lot about. We're both only-children and so we sort of started from scratch. We figured these classes would be a good thing to do to prepare."

As only-children, they had no baby brothers or sisters to take care of, so every day for them is new. Like many other couples, the Kaufmans took pregnancy and childbirth classes together. They took another class that taught them life saving skills to use in an emergency.

So how does Mike's experience compare with the way he thinks of fathers when he was growing up?

MIKE KAUFMAN: "You have this vision of dads back then pacing in a waiting room, you know ready to hand out cigars, you know, as a congratulations. 'I just had a boy, just had a girl -- whatever, we have a new child!' Now dads, they go to all the appointments with their wives, prenatally, all the doctor checkups. They're in the delivery room when the baby is born. That's definitely something that's new."

Today men are often more involved than their fathers were in parenting their children and helping with housework. Still, it is not always smooth sailing.

Julie Shields is the author of "How to Avoid the Mommy Trap: A Road Map for Sharing Parenting and Making It Work." She says creating a balance between partners takes work.

JULIE SHIELDS: "The problem is, in the old days when people had a traditional division of labor, it was very clear as to who should do what. Mothers should stay home, be in charge of the house and, in fact, did much more housework than they do now, and be in charge of the children by and large. And fathers should go out to work and be gone most of the day and not be as involved in what is going on with the children, except maybe as a disciplinarian if things get to be too much."

Author Julie Shields says couples today often have a hard time trying to decide how to share responsibilities. Women often talk about needing more help from their husbands, she says, yet some women have a hard time giving up control.

JULIE SHIELDS: "Once we try to get our husband to do something and he starts to do it, we critique the way he does it. And then a lot of times the men will pull back. So it's very important once you've given up something, to stay out of it and not fix it if it goes wrong."

When it comes to parenting, she says, men may not do things the same way that women do. The "Mommy Trap" author says that does not mean they are doing it wrong, just differently -- at least at first.

JULIE SHIELDS: "A lot of times fathers have to catch up to mothers. You just have to allow your husband to have that on-the-job training that women get."

The Census Bureau says fathers regularly care for one-fourth of children of preschool age whose mothers have jobs outside the home. These fathers generally also have jobs. But in two thousand eight, the United States had an estimated one hundred forty thousand stay-at-home fathers.

These are men who have stayed out of the labor force for at least one year, mainly to raise children while their wives go to work. Stay-at-home dads are a small number compared to five million stay-at-home moms.

But right now, the recession seems to be adding to the number of fathers staying home with their kids. Job losses have been a lot higher for men than for women. The Labor Department says the unemployment rate for women was eight percent in May; for men it was ten and a half percent.

Mike Stillwell is a stay-at-home dad by choice. He is also the head of a support group in the Washington area known as DC Metro Dads. He says the group has about four hundred fifty members. Most of them stay at home by choice, he says. But there are times when the decision is simply a question of economics.

Mike Stillwell and his wife decided early that if the cost of child care got to be too much, one of them would quit work. That time came twelve years ago. Mike has been a stay-at-home-dad ever since. He says most of the dads in his group have the same responsibilities, questions and concerns that stay-at-home moms have.

MIKE STILLWELL: "The only thing that we try to stress is that a stay-at-home dad can do all the things a stay-at-home mom can do. I always like to joke with some of the new dads that come into the group that there's really only two things that a stay-at-home-dad can't do, and that's give birth and breastfeed."

(LUTHER VANDROSS – "DANCE WITH MY FATHER")

Our program was written and produced by June Simms. Transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs are at voaspecialenglish.com. I'm Shirley Griffith. And I'm Bob Doughty. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. We leave you with Luther Vandross and his Grammy-winning song of the year from two thousand three, "Dance With My Father."


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