The adverts have been piling into my inbox since last week – while the shops have been full of suggested gifts – urging us to mark Father’s Day, celebrated in 48 countries on the third Sunday of June.
I regard many of these “special day” events as largely a merchandising opportunity – how many “best dads/granddads in the world” can there be? And how do you honour feckless dads, absent dads, abusive dads or even rogue sperm-donor dads, like the recent case of James MacDougall, who fathered 15 offspring without telling the mothers of an inheritable genetic condition?
Small wonder feminism has long been critical of “the patriarchy” – the word itself deriving from the Latin word for father, “pater” – as something oppressive.
And yet I’m glad to see my grandchildren lovingly drawing and painting cards to gladden their dad’s heart for Father’s Day.
Motherhood has always been accorded a saintly air, but it’s pleasing to see men being encouraged and rewarded as parents.
A younger generation of fathers now seem much closer to their children than the traditional paterfamilias – carrying their infants around in a papoose and being expected to share much more of the childcare.
Back in the day, men didn’t push prams or buggies – a researcher at Lancaster University noted that men who took care of babies in working-class English life were traditionally mocked as “the Mary Annes”.
A man lost status by attending to childcare, just as he would if donning a pinny. But the current generation of fathers seem ready to embrace more equal parenting.
Even Boris Johnson – who few would suggest is an ideal father (some of the children of his first brood have been bitterly critical) – says he is adept at changing nappies.
Boris may turn out to be one of those interesting cases where men become good fathers later in life, having been rather heedless ones earlier. He took time off recently from the political storms swirling around him to be present at his youngest daughter Romy’s christening in the Catholic Westminster Cathedral.
Yet the daddy relationship is full of paradoxes. Some bad men have surely been bad fathers: Ghislaine Maxwell, now serving a long jail sentence for her part in abetting the paedophile Jeffrey Epstein, was beaten by her father Robert from the age of 10 and showed a biographer the hairbrush, strap or slipper he would use to thrash her.
Yet some bad men, strangely, seem to have been good fathers – at least in the eyes of their offspring. Edda Goering, who died in 2018 aged 80, was the daughter of Hermann Goering, the leading Nazi and Germany’s biggest ever art thief, plundering priceless collections all over Europe. She devoted her life to his memory and to claiming her father had been wronged (and he may have been the least worst of the top Nazi gang, being privately sceptical of Nazi race ideology).
Some great men have been indifferent fathers, but some have been admirable. General Charles de Gaulle was dedicated to his youngest daughter, Anne, who had Down syndrome. He insisted on keeping her within the family and spending time with her, in an era when people with intellectual disabilities or children with disabilities were often locked away in institutions. Perhaps she gave something special to him in return: known for his aloof demeanour, De Gaulle spent time playing and performing little pantomimes for Anne. Significantly, she could only say one word: “Papa”. She died aged 20. He is buried next to her.
Not all good fathers are necessarily biological fathers. Some of the most dedicated and caring fathers I’ve known have been adoptive dads. Adoption is a long and painstaking process, and parents who have gone through it are often the most committed ones.
I would nominate Bob Geldof, too, as a terrific father. When his former wife Paula Yates died so tragically, Geldof moved to include her youngest child with the late Michael Hutchence as part of his family. He fought for her, adopted and raised her and, by all accounts, formed a loving fatherly relationship with Tiger Lily. Underneath all that effing and blinding, Bob really is saintly.
Good fathers, say psychologists, give daughters self-confidence and self-esteem – and perhaps act as an exemplar for making good choices in adult relationships. Absent fathers can create a “father hunger” that prompts unsettled behaviour later – biographers claim Marilyn Monroe’s emotionally disturbed life was prompted by a lifelong search for her father. Perhaps significantly, she put her heart and soul into performing My Heart Belongs to Daddy.
My own father died when I was five, and I think that has been a palpable absence all my adult life. But even if there’s no card to send, Father’s Day is a warming prompt to remember the role a father can play in our lives.