MARTHA THOMASES: Daddy’s Home
My husband really liked the column I did on Mothers’ Day (Brilliant Disguise #4). My stepmother also liked it. As a result, I feel a huge amount of pressure this week, as Fathers’ Day approaches.
Perhaps this is as it should be. Fathers, at least in literature, exert pressure. So do mothers, but fathers are much more stern about it, and send out much more of a mixed message. Zeus’ father ate him, for crying out loud. Jesus’ father sent him to die for our sins. Lear punished the only daughter who dared to tell him the truth. Jor-El proved his love by sending his son a universe away.
Fathers are stern. Fathers are cruel but fair. Fathers are distant. Tony Soprano? Please. Even today, on television, the best father, on Everybody Hates Chris, proves his love by working so many jobs he’s only home long enough to sleep and offer a bit of advice, if he’s lucky. In comics, the kindly fathers (or father figures) of Ben Parker and Thomas Wayne are all dead, inspiration only or motive for revenge. Jonathan Kent is the exception that proves the rule, depending on which continuity you’re in.
Why are fathers considered to be so, well, frightening? There is a school of feminist anthropology that suggests that fatherhood is a relatively recent concept. According to them, primitive peoples did not at first understand men’s part in conception and thought that women bore children, as trees bore fruit, when they were ripe. It took a long time for them to understand that what happened between men and women caused babies. At the time, the men who helped mothers with children were the kids’ uncles, not fathers. Once men discovered fatherhood, the issue became all-important. Children became part of a man’s estate, a sign of his wealth and power.
Is this true? I don’t know. I haven’t looked at the research upon which these academics base their theories, nor would I know how to evaluate it if I did see it. I like it because it is another perspective on our society, and other points of view are valuable and interesting, and also, this explains so much of what happens on those “Who’s the Daddy?” Maury Povich shows.
And yet fatherhood is so much more than authority, envy, and punishment. Men may not experience pregnancy, childbirth, or providing milk through their nipples, but they can share in every other part of the experience. There is nothing gender specific that physically compels or denies one the opportunity to change diapers, bake brownies, drive carpools, pitch a ball in the back yard, review homework assignments, or any of the myriad other mundane tasks that make up being a parent.
So why are fathers and mothers viewed so differently? Why does Jor-El take the baby from weeping Lara’s arms, being strong enough to perform the painful task? Don’t we trust men to be around children?
There is also a school of thought that posits a rivalry between adult men and pubescent boys. The boys want a place in the pack, and the men want to keep boys in their place, as children who don’t compete for food or females. Comics traditionally appeals to an adolescent male audience, and caters to its readership by portraying fathers as strict, cruel, possibly fair but always judgmental.
My dad was a 1950s success story. He was one of the first shopping center developers, driving around the Midwest looking for towns that needed grocery stores, pharmacies and other retail conveniences. With his partners, he created one of the most successful commercial development companies in the country. And yet, at the same time, he came home every night at five o’clock, and he took my sister and me with him when he had to go to the office on a Saturday. We would walk the dog after dinner, and he would explain compound interest and collateral. In college, when I was so depressed I had to take a break, he made me laugh by suggesting I might go shopping for a hat.
When my son was born, my husband and I were both freelance writers, so we were both involved in feeding, diapering, going to the playground, finding pre-schools and the like. After a few years, I got a day job and my husband was the one at home. He took care of the apartment, made the doctors’ appointments, did the grocery shopping and the other “motherly” tasks. As a result, we had the only three year-old you ever met who could tell a Chuck Jones Bugs Bunny cartoon from a Friz Freling Bugs Bunny cartoon. As the years went on, it wasn’t easy for us to divide the responsibilities in this way, and we weren’t always successful about it, but I know our son is better off for having two parents so involved with his life.
These aren’t the only way to be a good father, and I’m sure that other ComicMix readers can supply their own stories about their dads. I want to recognize all the fathers who go out of their way to do what works best for their own kids, instead of relying on stereotypes.
And I want to say thanks to mine.
Writer and creator of Marvel Comics’ Dakota North and contributor to their Epic Illustrated, Martha Thomases also has toiled for such publishers as DC Comics and NBM before becoming Media Queen of ComicMix.com.