What is a Father?

“It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.”

–Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

As millions throughout history have discovered, it is easy to become a father—a few thrusts done in love, lust, or violence, and the biological act is completed and the father can walk away if he chooses to. It is much more difficult to actually be a parent to the child that arrives nine months later.

         Concepts of fatherhood vary across the globe. Through the ages, concepts of fatherhood have changed in Western culture. When British colonists came to what is now the United States, families were idealized as “little commonwealths.” Fathers were considered to be the head of the household, as a king was the head of a nation. By the mid-eighteenth century, the concept was changing, as were ideas of marriage, and many couples expected to be equal and loving partners within the marriage. Although men still had charge of business and politics, the domestic sphere became women’s domain, and so did most matters regarding child rearing.*

         Concepts of American fatherhood have changed within my lifetime. I was a quiet ninth-grade student when I first met my future father-in-law; I was a bit terrified. He was a stern father to his two sons, the epitome of the button-downed fifties man, the man in the gray flannel suit. Yet, there was no doubt that he loved his sons deeply. He mellowed as a grandfather, allowing our two little girls to wrap their arms and whims around him, as they prattled about things he was clueless about. What did he know about little girls? But he would sing, “C is for Cookie,” and played with them. Later, he became the adored “Grandpa With a Cane” to my brother-in-law and sister-in-law’s son.

         A blogger friend and I have both commented in separate posts that our fathers did not know how to do laundry. My mother said that my father never changed any of our diapers, and she handled the household duties and childcare arrangements (as well as working full-time in their antique business). But my father played with my little sister and me. He took us on field trips—and after they were divorced, he took us on journeys to museums, movies, and historical sites. He even took our friends with us on vacations to the Jersey shore.

         My own husband was a “hands-on” father from the beginning. While women of an older generation marveled at this, I expected it. One summer when I had a fellowship and he was home from teaching, he would take the girls to the pool each afternoon, and I would meet them there later. “Isn’t he a wonderful father, taking the little girls to the pool?” they gushed. Well, yes, it was wonderful—in the same way that it was wonderful, when I, their mother, took them when he was at work. I guess that shows how times have changed.

         Fathers of all sorts are found in mythology, religion, history, and literature. For example, there’s Zeus, father of the gods, to the ancient Greeks. Often pictured with a thunderbolt, he ruled gods and humans–and fathered many of each. The Judeo-Christian-Muslim God is also portrayed as a father, and the bible is filled with patriarchs, such as Abraham. Kings and tyrants (sometimes one and the same) are often referred to as fathers of the country, but their literal fatherhood has been an issue when it came to succession—think of Henry VIII and his six wives.

         Here in the US, we refer to the Revolutionary Era leaders as “the Founding Fathers.” We know now that they were both ordinary and extraordinary. Many of them had lofty minds, but feet of clay—they were human, not demigods. George Washington, “father of our country,” was tall, imposing, and popular. He was elected unanimously to be the first president of the United States. He suffered from dental problems, and he and his wife Martha never had children of their own, although he helped to raise the children from her previous marriage, and then two grandchildren. Washington was a slaveholder. He freed his slaves in his will but was unable to free the slaves belonging to his wife.

         Fathers abound in literature, and they are as varied as literature itself. The tragic King Lear descending into madness to Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Bennet trying to cope with and marry off his daughters. Jean Valjean raises a daughter as his own and crazed Jack Torrance of The Shining tries to kill his own son. The heroic Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird is probably my favorite literary father.

         What is a father? I don’t know. Perhaps to paraphrase the famous phrase by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart on obscenity, “I know one when I see it.”

         What are some of your favorite literary or historical fathers—good or bad?


*This is vastly oversimplified. For more on marriage and family in colonial and Revolutionary America, here are just a few suggestions:

Morgan, Edmund S. 1944. The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in Seventeenth-Century New England. New York: Harper and Row.

Morgan, Jennifer L. 2004. Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Norton, Mary Beth. 1996. Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800, with a new preface. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Smith, Merril D. 1991. Breaking the Bonds: Marital Discord in Pennsylvania, 1730-1830. New York: NYU Press.

Wilson, Lisa. 1999. Ye Heart of a Man: Domestic Life of Men in Colonial New England. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.


11 thoughts on “What is a Father?

  1. Enjoyed this. Even though I became estranged from my father, it was over my step mother, not anything he actually did. He was a good man and did the best he knew to do.

    I laugh about the double standard in child rearing. Fathers getting praised for doing simple acts a mother does everyday. I needed emotional support when I was raising my kids, and I didn’t get it. I make it a point to tell my daughter she’s a good mom when she does neat stuff for her kids.

  2. A scholarly treatise that reads like a story. That’s you, Merril.

    I like your surprising turns of phrase as in the description of your father-in-law allowing your girls to “wrap their arms and whims” around him. Neat!

    You ask: What are some of your favorite literary or historical fathers—good or bad? I don’t know who to add; you’ve covered the bases. I will say my husband has been the best father possible to our daughter and son. Before Joel left home, he presented Cliff with a photograph depicting Christ on the cross with an inscription on the back referring to his Dad’s sacrificial love.

  3. I enjoyed the post, especially since you had me with the TKAM quote. 🙂 After teaching that novel for years, I feel fondly toward Atticus and the father he tried to be for his kids. My least favorite fictional father would have to be The Great Santini. From the moment he ran over a turtle a few pages into the book, he was down for the count.

    • Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Traci. I think my younger daughter also just finished teaching TKAM. It’s definitely one of my favorite books.
      I heard Pat Conroy on NPR talking about his father–seems like The Great Santini was very true to life!

  4. Atticus Finch, the dad/lawyer in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” does rank very high as a literary Dad. I also loved Edward Bloom in “Big Fish” (actually I loved the movie more). He was a teller of tall tales and his son, William, was left to sort out what was real and what was not as his dad lay dying.

    Thank you for your post, Merril. You’ve described perfectly Dads thru the ages and how they’ve changed over time. Thank goodness they’re more hands on. I’ve been fortunate to have several wonderful Dads in my life. Among them: my Dad, my husband (step-Dad to our two daughters), my son-in-law and many male friends. Hats off to all of them. 😉

  5. Merril – I come by way of Marian Beaman’s blog and I’m glad I did! I enjoyed reading your post about fathers (and the wonderful distinction between fathering and parenting).

    My husband, Len, is a wonderful parent to our now-adult son, Evan. If Evan ever becomes a parent, he would do well to emulate his dad’s model.

  6. Thanks for reading, Laurie, and thank for taking the time to comment, too. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

    You–and your son, of course–are fortunate to have a wonderful parent/co-parent and role-model in your lives.

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