In the American landscape, there is a creature that has attained the most delicate balance. It has essentially been able to achieve a dual identity that straddles almost exact opposite themes. This creature is a cultural icon that enjoys a well established reputation cradled by media and perpetuated throughout society. It is described in a gently mocking yet warmly accepted way. This creature gets the best of all worlds, while branding itself an incorrigible failure.
The American “Dad” role we have come to know and reinforce in our daily lives is one of many facets.
In one way the Dad remains the provider and definitely holds the final say in family matters. Regardless of how strong an adjacent female character may be, she will at some point refer or defer to the father figure. He is the one who “puts his foot down” and “means business”. Dad retains claim to the most resources as well – and that’s seen as earned or justified (this refers to food, control of TV or travel choices, etc). Dads are still widely painted as the strongest and most productive member of the family.
Somehow, despite being the strongest member of the American family, Dad has some supposedly inherent weaknesses of character. These are apparently not his fault, and not on purpose… they are shortcomings that appear to arise despite Dad’s best efforts. He’s strong enough and powerful enough to make final decisions, and protect the family in cases of emergency, yet he seems unable to carry out daily tasks at all. Any sort of chore, errand, or obligation of any kind manages to be avoided entirely by Dad – and that’s endearing. He can save everyone, but he just can’t seem to remember to get the recycling in the right bin.
We like Dad’s fanatical devotion to avoiding responsibility at all costs, largely because it’s played off as being child-like. This childishness is not exposed as hypocrisy or selfishness, immaturity or lack of respect for Mom. Instead, she reinforces that he doesn’t participate in family duties. She treats him as one of the children, refers to him as such, and in no way holds him accountable for behaving like a child. She parents him and makes open references to that, and the hardship it places on her. Despite that hardship, she endures it and even excuses him for it. She shrugs it off, maybe rolls her eyes, and then proceeds to do not only her own work but his as well – and apparently we can rely on her to do all that work, yet we have no support or credit for her accomplishments.
Dad is even so child-like that he encourages the children to avoid participation in family support and to build resentment around the practice as well. He teaches the children to do an inferior job if he does take action, sometimes even explaining and employing a tactic of doing a bad job to be excused from responsibility in the future. Dad is a bad example for the children, and although Mom may lightly chastise him for it, there are no real consequences for his disrespectful behavior, and the dynamic continues to reinforce itself.
Dads’ laziness is well established and exalted. Mom wishes she could act like Dad, but she is trapped not only by her role in society, but by the obligation to engage in moral and ethical behavior that somehow does not apply to Dad. It is up to her to teach the children to abide by these moral and ethical standards, and since he’s lumped in with the kids, she has to teach him that lesson too. If Dad is magnanimous enough to learn a lesson today, he does so very begrudgingly, overtly displaying his dissatisfaction with being forced to comply with Mom’s demands (it’s painted as her demands rather than mutual responsibility for the family’s welfare). He will not go quietly – he is only being responsible under protest.
This Dad simultaneously being our last resort for strength, while otherwise leaving us to provide for him and ourselves is akin to the male of the lion pride who does not hunt or rear children (that’s for females) but who does take the “lion’s share” of the food, and proceeds to enjoy the rest of his time unless circumstances are ridiculously dire – only then may he deign to come to our aid. Oh, but he’s proud of his family and feels deeply connected with its members, despite his outward displays of indifference.
Women have long allowed this type of behavior to continue and flourish – even perpetuated it themselves. This role is shown to us in the media, talked about between friends, and obvious in public. It doesn’t take very much for anyone to recognize this pattern if they spend a few moments gathering memories. Most folks immediately come to defend Dad’s honor though – explaining and supporting his actions. If they do admit this is what he’s doing, they justify it or downplay it as some insignificant tangent.
No one seems to realize how damaging this is to men’s identities and self-esteem. People don’t seem to recognize that it makes men out to be manipulative, deceptive, uncooperative and dysfunctional. It tells men they don’t respect their partners, their families or themselves. It tells them that they don’t want to do what’s right, and that they don’t want to participate in their own commitments. It tells them that they don’t want to or have to strive to support their partner or their family.
Worse, this depiction of the modern Dad is one that teaches men that they are not even capable of mutual respect, compassion or true commitment. It tells them that they aren’t capable of achieving maturity or stability. It tells them that even if they wanted to accomplish those things, they can’t achieve them.
How can men ever achieve greatness if we constantly cut them down to a child’s level? How can they ever fulfill dreams or build a future if they are forever at the mercy of their own whims and shortcomings? How can Dad ever really be a Dad that we can count on? How can a boy grow up to be a man who can handle business or make tough choices if he is forever pegged as a miscreant?
Until we show our children and ourselves a Dad who does the right thing without being nagged, he will remain in a state of uselessness. Men are not useless or inferior; they are not incapable or even unwilling. They simply need to see that every day great men stand up and make healthy decisions on their own, while supporting those they care about, because it feels great to be the guy people can count on.