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What happened to the fathers of the babyboomers?

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Father’s Day has come and gone. I can sigh in relief until next year since it has never been a good day for me. In the days leading up to the celebration of fatherhood, I have always chosen to ignore the commercials broadcast on television and tuned out the images of happy fathers and sons sharing moments that only a father and son can share. The holiday has always been somewhat bittersweet for me because my father wasn’t there throughout most of my childhood, teen-aged years and all of my adulthood. He has missed out on most of my birthdays, have no idea how handsome I looked when I attended my senior prom, bypassed my graduation from high school and most recently, chose not to attend a my book signing. We still talk. I have a friendly relationship with him, but it isn’t a loving, father/son relationship. I guess in many ways, that ship has sailed and the time lost can’t be recaptured no matter how hard I try.

Over the past weekend, I had a conversation with a cousin who described to the letter his relationship with his father and I was surprised how much it mirrored my own. He described him as a disciplinarian, but not the image that we see on the television commercials for Hallmark cards. During the years when my parents were still a couple, I also remember my father as being a strict disciplinarian; one with a quick and heavy hand. But I don’t remember hugs or “I-love-you’s.” My father is in his seventies now as is my cousin’s father.

And then I began thinking about some of my other uncles who are also approaching their late sixties or early seventies. These men have become older and somewhat bitter…at least externally. One of my uncles lives in a house that my grandparents had owned, and upon their passing, left to all of their nine children to enjoy as a place to visit when they come to South Carolina. One uncle moved into the property, refuses to leave and no one can come to stay as he has made this house his home. He has become a recluse by choice. To my knowledge, he has no viable relationship with his children.
The one common denominator that these three men share is that they are all adhere to the old school of thought. They were brought up to believe that a man’s role in the family is to lead and they are the disciplinarians while nurturing is the woman’s job. How many times have you heard the saying, “Wait til your father gets home?”

As a result, some of these men have not been taught to experience the true joy of fatherhood. They were not equipped to handle emotions or provide love and support to their children. This is not to say that they did not love their children; I’m not saying this at all. It’s just that they may not have been emotionally or mentally prepared to express it.

Being a product of the Forties is very different than being a child of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. Times and thought processes have changed. Father’s now may be more inclined to hug their sons and show outward displays of affection as well as fostering the relationships that will produce well-rounded children. But in the Forties and Fifties, the rules were different and the roles were clearly defined. Men were the breadwinners, caretakers and providers. The man’s needs were expected to be catered to because he was the head of the house. Or at least he was in theory.

The social and economic climate in the Forties and Fifties were different in areas of opportunities…especially for African American men. They may have been used to disappointment if not outright discrimination. Some men in their sixties and seventies may feel as though while things are good now, life may have dealt them an unfair hand because things are easier for their sons and daughters currently than it ever was for them. They may view their wives as commodities that aren’t worth the effort to pursue as they once did because they have gotten older.

This is not reflective of all men from this era, but it certainly is indicative of some and for these men, I wonder what circumstances changed in their lives that they have become bitter, isolated and in some cases unforgiving?
Is it the combination of coming up in an era where rules were clearly defined and not being equipped to change as time moved forward? Is it something as simple as not being taught how to display love to your children and now that you are a grandparent, you find that you simply can’t do it at all? Or is it that the role of a man has changed to the point where they can no longer identify because what was socially acceptable three or four decades ago is now improper if not downright intolerable?

I know that there are many good men out there. There are millions of men in the autumn of their lives who still love the woman that they married and raised children with. There are grandfathers who give plenty of hugs, compliments and kisses, and those men are fortunate enough to have that love returned to them ten-fold. I would like to believe that they are in the majority.

But I can only look at the circumstances that surround me and my immediate family. Sadly, my brothers don’t know nor do they acknowledge my father as their father. My cousin, while he knows that he is the son of my uncle, does not have a loving relationship with this man. And while I’ve heard that you can teach old dog new tricks, I wonder if it is too late for these men to capture and enjoy something as simple and wonderful as showing, giving and receiving love. After all, everyone knows that love is one of life’s greatest gifts.

~ J.L. Whitehead

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