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My most painful memory of my father is from his last days. When he was dying, my father finally answered a question that I had never dared to venture. He asked me, “Why do you have to try so hard?” I countered, “If you had a son, would you say the same to him?”

Silence. Then, slowly, “No.”

He loved me very much, but his unspoken assumption about my potential had a lasting effect. This year, when Women’s Voices for Change asked me to write about my father for Father’s Day, I decided instead to ask men and women of my generation (born during World War II and the postwar years) about their fathers. I also asked about their sons, who are now fathers and husbands themselves. [Please note: With the exception of Chris Hyams, all the people named in this article are of my generation.]

I began by asking if my interviewees’ fathers had changed diapers. The question, I thought, was emblematic—an indication of the degree of the father’s involvement with the baby and his willingness to share the unending housekeeping chores with his wife. The answers ranged from “I’m sure he did” to “I don’t know” to “I would have been shocked if he had” to “Absolutely not!” The big surprise for me was that two men of my father’s generation actually did change diapers. But it turns out that these anomalous men were each part of a brood of 13 children; presumably they’d been required to help with the younger children.

Chris Hyams (now 45) embodies the differences between our fathers’ generation and our sons’. Chris was so excited at the prospect of becoming a father that he deferred starting his new job to stay home with his wife until his daughter was five months old. He shared all the responsibilities and all the joy with his wife. She nursed and he changed diapers.

Chris’s mother, George-Ann Hyams, compared him with his father. “My children,” she said, “knew the right thing to do. My husband—he did not do getting up in the middle of the night. He did the happy stuff.” It was the 1960s, “and guys were not really doing that.”

By the time George-Ann’s third son was born in 1981, “things had started to change.” Her husband learned to bathe the baby. Today George-Ann says, “I think my husband has learned a lot from his sons. When the kids were little, he never did dishes.” Now he does. He goes to the market. “When we were first married, dads didn’t do that.” George-Ann’s husband does more with his grandchildren than he did with his sons.

Perhaps our fathers would have pitched in, too, had gender roles not been so differentiated at the time. Tom Ruth, for example, said his father had a “locked-in model” in his head: There were “certain things that a man did and certain things that a woman did.” He believed that “it was a man’s job to buy a car, so my mother never had any input on buying a new car.” Today Tom’s son and his daughter-in-law “alternate being home with the baby,” because both of them work.

Daughters and Rising Expectations

I wanted to know what aspirations fathers had for their sons—and for their daughters. I asked Kevin Duffy what his father’s expectations were for his sister. “Not high enough,” he said. Kevin’s father was one of 10 children, the son of “Irish immigrants from an Irish ghetto” in South Boston. He believed that “a woman didn’t need education because she was just going to get married and have babies.” He did expect Kevin and his brothers to go to college, and every one did.

If Julie Willyerd’s father thought about her future or her sister’s, he never told them about it. “I just don’t remember really ever having any big discussions about future plans or going to school or anything like that.” But when she and her husband became parents, they let their boys know right from the start that “they were going to go to college.”

Joan Kramer’s father expected her to go to college, “but not to leave home. That was a big issue.” Joan found a way around the problem by choosing a school in the same town where her uncle lived. He was to watch over her. But “my uncle was a sweetie pie and I never saw him,” Joan said, smiling. Her father expected her to work after college. “I was going to be a schoolteacher, and it wasn’t just him, it was the times,” she said.”Women had women’s jobs.”

George-Ann Hyams “never thought that women in any way were discriminated against, because in my family, women were really strong.” She told me, “My dad would always say I was going to be the next senator from New York. Or whatever I wanted.”

Fathers Reserving Their Affection

When I was growing up, it was unusual to see a father kiss or embrace his son in public, especially if the boy was an adolescent or older. Tom Ruth was “very young, probably less than 12,” when his father would kiss him. “After that, it was the occasional hug. Not a lot of display of emotion,” he said. “Men don’t cry, that sort of thing.”

Mike O’Neil doesn’t think his father ever kissed him as a boy. Mike had to wait until he was about 21 to receive “a manly abrazo” from his father.

Kevin Duffy had to wait even longer. “I don’t remember ever getting a hug from [my father] until he was probably about my age [65]—and maybe [I] initiated the hug.” Kevin suspects that “part of it was because of the fear of turning his kids gay,” recalling that “for those of his generation, I think [this worry] was not an uncommon thing.” But times and people change. “When he was older, he recognized that you’re basically born that way.”

Kevin regrets that “with our son, Kevin Jr., his mom was more affectionate toward him. I was never a big hugger of him when he was a child.” Years later, Kevin told his son (now 40), “If there’s one thing I’d have done differently, I’d have been more demonstrative in showing my love for you. I would have hugged you more.” Kevin paused. “He just kind of looked at me. ‘I know you love me, Dad.’ Then he gave me a hug—’cause we hug all the time now. The human contact, the touch of a hug, is something I didn’t get as a kid from my dad. And I didn’t really give it to my son, but he’s better than I am, and he gives it to his sons all the time.”

Michael Gold grew up in England, where there was much more formality in the father-son relationship.  “I didn’t get the kind of superhugs that I’ve always tried to give my son,” he said, though “I always knew that my father loved me.” Michael explained, “Not that my father wasn’t warm—he was—but it wasn’t the kind of affectionate bond I have with my son.” Like the other men, Michael didn’t see his father express strong emotion until he was entering adulthood. “When I went into the Air Force, which meant I was leaving home—finally!—he kissed me good-bye at the station, and when the train was pulling out, I saw him wipe a tear away.”

Even with daughters, some fathers retained their reserve. Tory Roschen’s father had no sons. He hugged and kissed his daughter “politely,” not with “a great, big, deep hug.” He didn’t break tradition even with his grandson. “He didn’t ever kiss Steven,” said Tory. “He wouldn’t really hug him after he was about 10”; he’d shake his grandson’s hand instead.

Joan Spinner‘s father was virtually absent. Joan thinks it was his reticence, not a lack of love, that inhibited him. On one memorable occasion, her mother was in the hospital. “I had the best time of my life, because I was alone with him. He took me out to dinner and kept me up late. We went to the movies at night.”

Our husbands were a generation in transition. The civil rights and women’s movements were forcing people to consider and accept new ways of relating to each other. Women were taking control of their lives, so men had to adjust to a new reality. When women began to work outside the home, these men had to pick up the slack created by their wives’ absence. (A  recent analysis by the Pew Research Center shows just how much the roles of mothers and fathers converged from 1965 to 2011. For example, mothers spent less than half the time on housework in 2011 than they did in 1965, while men spent two and a half times more. The hours men now spend on childcare are almost triple what they spent 46 years ago.)

All the men I spoke with consciously tried to be different from their parents. They gave their children the hugs and kisses they didn’t get from their own fathers. Everyone I spoke with – even those whose fathers did little or nothing in the nursery, the kitchen, or anywhere else in the house – all have sons who are, in Joan Spinner’s words, “totally involved with everything.”

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