Father’s Day – Have We Got It All Wrong?

I remember the day each of my sons was born.  Seeing them enter the world (literally, with the permission of the attending obstetrician), I was overwhelmed. 

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[ Photo credit: Isaac Quesada/ Unsplash]

We sit in the mud…and reach for the stars. ~ Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons

Father’s Day falls on  the third Sunday of June each year in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Europe, India, Pakistan, and many other countries. It is celebrated on 18 June this year.  Conventionally, on Father’s Day, children are expected to express their love, gratitude, and respect for their fathers, stepfathers, grandfathers, and other paternal figures who have played a significant role in their lives. The operative words here are “significant role”.  Historical origins of this day are vague, and some ascribe its origin to 1908 when a woman named Sonora Smart Dodd honoured her father, a Civil War veteran who raised her and her siblings after their mother’s death. In 1972, President Richard Nixon signed a proclamation making Father’s Day a national holiday in the United States.

We seem to have got it upside down. We owe our children: not the other way around.

A  statement that epitomises this view is in the song “Everything I Do, I Do It For You” from the title soundtrack of the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.  It resonates dedication and love and the desire to do everything that pleases another.  When applied to the relationship between father and son, the role of a father can be gleaned as a deep dedication to the child of a duty that is an inherent right of the child: of sacrifice and support; of unconditional love; of guidance and nurturing. This duty lays the groundwork for an inarticulate but deep emotional tie between the two.  

One’s role in life changes when one becomes a father.  When one is single, one just floats around without a role.  Marriage turns strangers into relatives and partners.  But fatherhood changes our role into one of leadership, mentorship, and that of a provider. It establishes the timeless bond between a parent and a child through the enduring power of love, enabling father and child to cherish every moment, and through shared experiences pass wisdom from one generation to the next. A father shapes his child’s life  with his presence, unconditional love, and sacrifice.  He teaches values and provides security.  Someone once said that  a father is neither an anchor to hold us back nor a sail to take us there, but a guiding light whose love shows us the way.

I remember the day each of my sons was born.  Seeing them enter the world (literally, with the permission of the attending obstetrician), I was overwhelmed.  The vulnerable bundle filled me with a profound sense of trepidation and diffidence, but also with a strong and spontaneous conviction to protect, and an inviolable pledge to be there for my son  at all times, unconditionally.  A father’s gratitude is for elevation to a status of self realization – an exalted  sense of being the protector.  However ugly a father may seem to society, to the child this matters not. And to the father, the protection of his innocent child from an insidious and opportunistic force, whatever it may be, is the priority, irrespective of the danger the father may face. I remember becoming immediately aware of my own vulnerability and the deep and overwhelming sense of responsibility I felt towards my newborn child.

It was only a few days later, carrying the infant, that emotional thoughts flooded my mind:  of  the shared adventures we could have and milestones that lay ahead; dreams of teaching my son to ride a bicycle; to drive a car. I had the inner strength to implacably hold his hand through the vicissitudes of adolescence, and the inevitable transformation into a strong, compassionate adult. I held the power and attendant responsibility to shape my son’s world, and I would leave no stone unturned to carry out my task  with love, patience, and an unwavering belief in my son’s potential.

31 years later, I realize that   Father’s Day is a “deal” between father and child which epitomises caring for one another in times of vulnerability and infirmity. It is also about keeping promises; of an inarticulate reciprocity that also gives the child a sense of purpose and gratitude. This is where the dichotomy begins. 

In my view, Father’s Day should be a day of introspection.  For the father.

If love is the essence of life, Father’s Day is the apogee of this essence.  And this is where the dichotomy of the meaning of Father’s Day begins.  Let’s start at the beginning.

The child, (if everything goes well in the family unit) starts life with a father and mother.  The origin of life is biological, where the mother produces estrogen (a hormone that promotes nurturing qualities toward the child) which increases at childbirth and the father produces testosterone (which is a hormone which has nothing to do with nurturing).  Although the male does produce estrogen, it is in smaller quantities compared to the woman.  At the incipient stages of babyhood the mother naturally becomes the primary caregiver.  It has been found that a baby attaches himself to the mother almost immediately after childbirth he attaches to the father only after 18 weeks.  However, if the father makes efforts to attach himself to the baby from the start, he could produce as much estrogen as the mother does.  This has been developed into a theory by psychologists as the Attachment Theory.  Psychoanalyst John Bowlby who formulated this theory has opined that  a father has a dual attachment role in a child’s development : one is to deliver love and security, and the other is to participate in exciting and challenging practices. There has also been the view that the  mother-child attachment was important when assessing the quality of attachment into adolescence, but this was not the case for father-child attachment, suggesting the role of the father is less important.

Be that as it may,  it is incontrovertible that the sense of security and example a father gives a child is a significant driver of the child’s development into a stable and mature human being who has the confidence to face the world. The child sees how the world respects the father: in what he does and what he pursues: in what the child’s purpose in life should be as well as the child’s sense of direction and dignity.

It is in this context that I ask myself the question on this Father’s Day: Have I passed the test? Socrates is known to have said that an unexamined life is not worth living.  Father’s Day gives us fathers an opportunity to look inwards at ourselves.  It is more than a matter of performing one’s duty and being recognized for it.

At this stage of my life, although I begin to value  the shelter I gave  my children from the harsh reality they faced, I am not entirely certain how they feel about me. I wish I knew. Even though my protection is no longer of use to them, I pray that, at the end of the day, when darkness falls with the promise of a fresh dawn for me elsewhere, my sons would retain  life’s continued bond  with me and will not allow it to pale into a pathetic mime  as we look at each other just one last time.

Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aerospace law at McGill University. Among the numerous books he has published are Air Navigation Law (2012) and Aviation Safety Law and Regulation (to be published in 2023). He is a former Senior Legal Counsel at the International Civil Aviation Organization.

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