The UK adores its cultural idiosyncrasies but many worry that we are being consumed by an American tidal wave that has us tripping over MacDonalds and Starbucks on every street as we watch another Hollywood TV box set on our smartphone designed by, wait for it, Americans.
Certainly, Halloween is bigger and ‘badder’, our kids go to school proms and ‘Sweet Sixteens’ are demanding more attention. Personally, I enjoy seeing pumpkins lining the streets and why not enjoy a prom after the stress of school exams. However, what really turns the British stiff upper lip limp are the endless calendar celebrations keeping novelty gift companies in the black. From World Pasta day to International Send A Greeting Card Day, there is a sense, possibly unwarranted, that these have a definite American flavour.
Perceived as a millennial problem, our esteemed elders endlessly scold us, “it was different in my day”, but they need to upgrade their rose-tinted spectacles. As the male elders complacently await new slippers on Father’s Day this June 17, let’s use this particular holiday as a case in point. Father’s Day, born more than 100 years ago, was resisted by some remarkably similar complaints. Where did it begin you ask? Well the USA, of course.
In fact, there are two origin stories for Father’s Day and both concern American women. Most historians credit Sonora Smart Dodd with the inspiration. Sonora lost her mother to childbirth and was raised with her five siblings by Civil War veteran William Jackson Smart. Given the precarious nature of childbirth in the past, there must have been a significant number of single dads raising their children, yet we seem to pay less attention to them than we do to discussing the role of the single mum. After listening to a sermon for Mother’s Day, Sonora reflected the same honour should be given to fathers. She lobbied hard and chose her own father’s birthday, June 5th to be the annual date but bureaucratic fumbling delayed celebrations to the third Sunday in June 1910. That day Sonora arranged for children to show respect to their fathers by presenting them or wearing a red rose. A white rose was laid for those whose parent had passed. Depressingly somewhere along the timeline, these roses have been replaced with the slogan-encrusted tat cluttering seasonal supermarket aisles. More depressing still, we have no modern equivalent for the white rose. As someone who has lost a parent, I understand very well how the marketing hype around these days can be so upsetting.
Other historians believe Grace Golden Clayton, an orphan from Fairmount, West Virginia was the first to celebrate Father’s Day. In 1907 America experienced its worst mining disaster when an explosion at the Monongah Mine in West Virginia killed more than 300 men. Grace, who desperately missed her own late father, was deeply affected by the tragedy. She was determined her Methodist community should honour those men who had left behind 250 widows and more than 1,000 orphaned children. However her special day planned for July 5th 1908, the Sunday closest to her dad’s birthday, was overshadowed that weekend by the town’s largest-ever July 4th celebrations and the tragic loss of a local child. So the first father’s day took place with little fanfare, barely making it into the footnotes of history.
However, neither Sonora nor Grace was able to persuade the general public to embrace their concept. While Mother’s Day has been around for centuries and was unquestioningly accepted as an official holiday in 1914, Father’s Day faced ridicule and opposition. Despite support from various Presidents it took until 1972 to make it an official public holiday, exposing the damage sexual politics inflicts on men. Men were providers and leaders, too vital to participate in domestic life. So a day advocating the nurturing dad, a role seen as lesser, faced the full force of media derision. Let’s face it these attitudes still lurk in pub corners, dusty greeting card stands and under the bonnet of male-affirming sports cars.
It’s fascinating that many of Sonora and Grace’s contemporaries were opposed to their idea because they saw it as another meaningless anniversary to grease commercial greed. Clearly, this is not a new issue. In fact, Anna Jarvis, who was responsible for making Mother’s Day official, spent the second half of her life trying to remove it from the calendar because she was so appalled by its commercialisation. That’s got to hurt the “it was different in our day” generation.
Unfortunately, those naysayers got it right. A day that began as a poignant reaction to grief and a desire to honour the role of fathers has, it seems, fallen to the dark side of consumerism.
However, try as they might, card companies can’t seem to create the same momentum (read that as guilt-inducing) about Father’s Day as Mothering Sunday enjoys. Perhaps it’s because we are still stuck in a 1950’s wormhole where parenting is just code for mum. Or maybe it’s just easier to buy crappy bits of tat for women. After all, there are only so many socks, mugs and mouse mats sporting ‘Best Dad’ a man can own.
And while we have evolved slightly further than the Father’s Day pioneers, we still seem to have different expectations for our respective parents. While women reasonably anticipate a burnt breakfast in bed, Prosecco lunch and, if they are lucky, a spa treatment, it is generally agreed mums most deserve unequivocal alone time to rest and recharge their batteries. In contrast, dads can expect far less me-time. Their well-worn clichés include flying kites with the kids; a day at the seaside with the kids, playing in the park with the kids… a pattern is emerging.
Dressed as light-hearted banter, it’s socially accepted that mums need a day off whereas men are domestically useless and/or absent so their special day should focus on quality family time.
Before I am bombarded, I fully acknowledge that too many women still do the majority of childcare regardless whether they work full time or not. Times may be a changing but it’s at a pace similar to the evolutionary period it took for apes to replace picking fleas off one another with comparing the size of their “car” engines. However, if we want more men like Sonora’s dad, we need to honour each day equally because good parenting is not dependent on gender. Better still, merge them and celebrate Family Day instead.
Copyright by Sonia Picker