Every Saturday morning, my father and I welcome the weekend with breakfast at a suburban cafe. Over blueberry-lemon scones, we chat with other regulars. We also often enjoy watching a solicitous young father and his toddler son as they work their way through a plate of scrambled eggs. Occasionally Mom joins them, but mostly it's a heartwarming guys-only scene.
This twosome is the first of many dads-and-kids sightings as we make our Saturday rounds. At the cleaners, a father carries a bundle of shirts in one arm and a young daughter in the other. At the bank, another dad hoists his preschool son to the ATM and lets him "help" make a deposit. Other men with children in tow show up at the post office, hardware store, and CVS.
"This is dads' day out," my father sometimes says with a smile, his voice registering obvious pleasure and admiration as he watches these families. What a change, he adds, from the days when men of his generation were young fathers. However devoted they were to their children, their domestic role was far less visible to others.
Today's modern, hands-on dads have been celebrated in recent years, and rightly so. But in the process, their own fathers and grandfathers have come up short by comparison. Rightly or wrongly, members of the older generation have been typecast as loving but remote. Some perpetuate that image by bragging that they never changed a diaper.
Yet these are men who played by the rules and expectations of a time when gender roles were more rigid. Theirs was an era before dual- career couples and paternity leave, before the days of jogging strollers, masculine-looking diaper bags, and changing tables in men's restrooms. Househusbands and stay-at-home fathers were unheard of.
That was also a time when husbands were still barred from the delivery room. Their role was to hand out cigars and accept congratulations after the birth, and then retreat to work. These men didn't have the benefit of the child-rearing manuals that now crowd the Parenting sections of bookstores, bearing titles such as "The Expectant Father" and "101 Secrets a Good Dad Knows."
Even working hours made a difference. Like many of their contemporaries, my father and my father-in-law both worked 5-1/2-day weeks when their families were young. Instead of spending time with their children on Saturday mornings, they were stuck in the office.
In his 1955 bestseller, "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," Sloan Wilson created a prototypical post-World War II father. Tom Rath, a 33-year-old veteran, is married with three children. He loves his family, but works so hard to support them that he has little time to spend with them.
This month, as the country observes the 60th anniversary of D-Day, members of Tom's "Greatest Generation" are earning praise as war heroes. Perhaps they also deserve more credit than they've typically received for their role as fathers. By 21st-century standards of parenthood, not all of them would have earned medals at home when their children were growing up. But neither would some fathers today. Studies show that despite all the rhetoric about change, even in two-career families women still do more child-rearing and housework than men.
Today many of these World War II-era men are getting a second chance at child-rearing by being actively involved in the lives of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Children today - the ones making the rounds hand-in-hand with Dad on Saturdays - may grow up with different memories of their fathers than adult sons and daughters of my generation. But that doesn't give the younger group a corner on loving relationships.
As Father's Day approaches, two newspaper ads for the occasion sum up the sentiments of offspring of all generations: "Dad. Always a Hero," reads one. The other asks, "Who needs superheroes when you've got Dad?"