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Father (Financial) Figures

William Richards

NEW YORK (MainStreet)—This week, the white heat of Father's Day promotions threatens to melt all of our faces through in-store signage and e-mail blasts. If Groupon.com functions at all as a cultural barometer, my local Washington, D.C. "gifts for dad" search rendered half-off copper mugs for something called a Moscow Mule cocktail, half off a 50-inch television, half-off the "Rusty Wallace Racing Experience," and—you guessed it—$50 off your next Brookstone purchase.

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There's little doubt that Father's Day is a retail holiday—in fact, even ever-reliable Wikipedia categorizes it as "commercial" event. But, outside of deals for dad, what's the real deal with Father's Day?

Is it a time to fire up the grill, hug your kids, sip your Moscow Mule and reflect on the perfect moment to flip the burgers? Or, is it a time to consider that fatherhood is much broader concept than our retail overlords might have us believe? Dads come in all shapes and sizes now, and an alarming number don't come at all.

Classified Project

David Michael Perez, the co-founder of the Brooklyn-based, dad-centric magazine Kindling Quarterly, outlined his "desire to explicate the creative project that is fatherhood," in a New York Times profile six months ago. It shouldn't matter that the first issue of Kindling had something about Michel Foucault, offered a recipe for pumpkin gnocchi, and was created, ex gratia, by and for Brooklyn's creative class. "That whole hipster thing," Perez reasoned, "seems like an empty demarcation."

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It's true that hipsters, however you define them, have become cannon fodder for people who are less hip. But, that doesn't diminish the attempt of Perez and his co-founder, August Heffner, for Kindling to define fatherhood with the same laser focus that Parenting, Family and Child, Parents, Family Fun, Working Mother, and other magazines have defined motherhood for years.

Despite the steep cover price $14 , Kindling may succeed as a wildly popular, perfect-bound, full color expression of the modern father's deepest cultural interests and loftiest culinary ambitions.

But, to call fatherhood a "project" falls short of an activist model of parenting that is a more urgent concern—and the difference is more than semantic.There remains a very real deficit of engaged fathers in every city and state in America—far, far beyond Park Slope and Williamsburg.

At the moment, about 24 million American children live in a home without a biological father, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. Children in what the National Fatherhood Initiative calls single-parent, "father-absent homes" are four times more likely to be poor than their counterparts in two-parent homes. To counter that and other equally grim statistics (related to crime, mental health, and behavior among children), secular and faith-based groups like the National Fatherhood Initiative, the National Center for Fathering, D.C. Metro Dads, NYC Dads and Stay At Home Dads, as well as more than 430 Meetup.com have set up education networks for fathers to figure out basic things like accountability, involvement, as well as find comradeship.

So, what's going on here? On one hand, you've got a lot of concerned people encouraging dads to accomplish simple tasks like just showing up. On the other, you've got a panoply of retailers encouraging anyone who will listen to get the father in their lives something battery operated or consumable. Considered together, a fairly grim picture of fatherhood emerges: the guys that don't care probably not running to a Meetup.com event (and aren't reading this anyway), while the guys that do care get a Hoover shop-vac or a wacky tie on Sunday.

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Are fathers really that one-dimensional? Are they either totally unreliable or, on the other hand, completely predictable?

I think that depends on the father—hipster or hopelessly unhip, golfer or gamer, Missourian or Minnesotan—to define, for himself, what it means to be called "Dad," "Yo," "Pops," "Papa," "Papi," or as my own daughter is fond of saying, just plain "Daddy."

Surely it means something more than a shop-vac, right? And, to borrow from Kindling's Perez, surely it's worth some explication.

--Written by William Richards

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