Fatherhood is a sometimes exasperating, frequently humbling experience, one which constantly forces us to see the world through our children's eyes, and in which our enormous wisdom sometimes goes unappreciated.
I remember once when my son, Albert, was six years old and trying to clean up after dinner. He laid a strip of detergent down the length of one knife. I explained he had enough soap to wash an entire sinkful of dishes. He looked at me with pity for my incompetence and said, "Dad, I've been doing it this way since I was a little boy." Images like the ones we saw on the screen awaken these kinds of memories.
Of course, for many of us, we see fathers with the perspective of people who both have fathers and who are fathers. And so, as I thought about my children during the film, I also thought about my own father: of taking long walks with him along the Caney Fork River; of watching his hands guide the birth of a calf; of my marvelling in a Senate hearing room when I discovered that the same strong voice that called me to dinner could determine the color of the signs on the nation's highway system.
I'm sure the film awakened memories in you -- memories as diverse as our childhoods. City streets, country roads, affluence, poverty, happiness and sorrow. Fathers who pumped gas, who healed the sick, who drove an eighteen wheeler, who worked the night watch in a factory. Fathers who were around to hug their grandchildren, those who left without a backward glance, those who died too soon. Fathers who made us feel that we could do anything, fathers who only found our faults. Fathers who instilled fear with every word, fathers who reached far beyond the family to surround many children with love.
It is an experience at the heart of the human experience. There can be nothing more noble than to see a father succeed. And there can be nothing more tragic than to see a father fail.
And that is why this conference is so important. Because for too many Americans fatherhood has been a failure, whether for the father himself or the child on the receiving end.
Soon, you will hear from a large and varied group of men who will share their personal feelings about fatherhood. Later you will hear from children and from women. Woven throughout the day are panels about some of the most important issues families face. We urgently need such discussion. For the statistics make it chillingly evident. More than 40% of the children in this country do not live in a home with a biological father. Every 26 seconds during this conference, remember: a child has been born to an unmarried mother. Every 59 seconds to a mother who is a teenager. Every day, the parents of 2860 children get a divorce.
Does this matter? Without question.
The data indicate that babies born to unmarried mothers are more likely to die in infancy. The ones who survive are more apt to have emotional and behavior problems. They are six times more likely to be poor. They are more likely to end up on welfare, end up in prison, get pregnant as teenagers -- and start the tragic cycle all over again.
But as Arthur Koestler said once, "Statistics don't bleed." To fully understand you also have to read entries like those in the Minnesota Father of the Year essay contest. It is one full of essays about fathers that watch out the window as their kids go off to school, and sit down by their children's bedside at night for a talk.
But there was also this one by an eleventh grader:
I don't know what it is to have a father. I see people that have one and wish I had mine. Sometimes my days are bad and I cry because I need someone there to talk to, to share my troubles, my fears, and most of all, my dreams ... I feel empty inside. I just wish that parents who have kids don't forget that they ... have brought something beautiful into this world. And they must take care of that beautiful person that they created.
Much of our concern about "fatherlessness" has focused on the inner city. Many of you here today are addressing this problem in research and in programs in dozens of communities across the country.
We are right to be concerned -- and outraged -- at fathers who have abandoned their children, or never acknowledged them in the first place, or failed to support them and left their mothers to struggle in poverty. But that is not the only problem for the poor.
One of the saddest stories I remember is that of John John Kennedy, after
the assassination. He was introduced to Bill Haddad, one of his father's
"Are you a Daddy?" he asked.
"Then, will you throw me up in the air?"
No family can escape the pain of fatherlessness.
And the fact is, American society makes fatherhood difficult even for fathers who are in the house, who long not only to put food on the table and pay for college tuition but to take care of the beautiful person they helped create. They are taken aside by their superiors and warned against taking paternity leave. They work in an office where it is considered unseemly to leave in time to be home for dinner.
Even if fathers conscientiously write in their work number on school forms the school nurse looks down for the mother's number when their child has a rash.
How can fatherhood be meaningful in such a context? For a child does not learn to have an intimate, loving relationship with a father because once a week Dad awkwardly sets out on a walk around the block. Children don't learn from occasional efforts to help with homework or from looking up at the lacrosse game and sees Dad still in his suit, up in the stands, there for the final period. No, fatherhood becomes meaningful from the day-in-day-out experience of being home.
Ask your daughter if anything special happened at school and she may only look sullenly up at you and say "No." But if you are around a little later, putting dishes away or folding laundry, suddenly the words spill out and you hear story after story about band practice or the new teacher or a fight with her best friend. A loving relationship is built, stone by laboriously acquired stone, out of the tiny scenes of family life: making breakfast, driving and picking up from school, helping with homework, throwing a ball around, being around to tuck them into bed -- and doing that from the very first day.
At one point in our culture, such involvement was considered beneath men. It was women's work. In his early editions Dr. Spock cautioned against "trying to force the participation of fathers who get gooseflesh at the very idea of helping to take care of baby." And Ernest Hemingway once wrote that to be a successful father "when you have a kid, don't look at it for the first two years."
Now, we see a healthier trend. Richard Luov, author of "Fatherlove" points to one new poll that finds fathers playing a much more active role in their children's lives than a similar poll from a decade ago. Men in this poll spoke movingly of the way being an active father had made them more satisfied with their lives. 72% said they would like to spend more time with their children.
There is, of course, great debate about what should happen during that time. There are those who argue that we need fathers that demonstrate virtues different than those of motherhood: firmness and decisiveness -- rather than nurturing.
I must say my own experience is that firmness and decisiveness are not only masculine virtues. But I will listen with great interest to the debates today. What isn't debatable is this: that we must work to change our culture to make possible the involvement of men in the lives of their children.
We must instill in the next generation of fathers the belief that fatherhood is a sacred trust. That it is their nonnegotiable responsibility to support their children financially and emotionally. That children need and deserve a father's love. That all men have a responsibility to all children. I am confident we can do this in part because of the people in this room.
So many of you have dedicated your lives to children not your own. Simply by your presence here today, you create hope for the future.
Ralph Smith, for examples, whom you will meet shortly, has been working to re-connect young men in inner city Philadelphia with their children -- children on AFDC who may not even know they exist. To help us understand what it means to have no memory of fatherhood for generations he tells the story of a young man with whom he works. He decided to make a commitment to the young woman he loved. He presented her with an engagement ring. All the women in her family cried for joy -- none of them had ever known anyone who became "engaged." It was three days before she learned that she had the ring on the wrong hand.
There are many successes like Ralph's program -- another is the National Institute for Responsible Fatherhood, founded by Charles Ballard. A conference like this allows us to explore why and see what we can apply to our own work. This is a new field, after all. Some of the major researchers in it don't know each other's work -- or even their names. Equally important, those who labor in the trenches each day -- those running programs in the streets are eager to learn about each other's success and build on it.
This Conference will help. And we've created some new ways to do it.
Let's bring them together. Give me your ideas. Give me your insights. Lets capture the energy and experience that is in this room today and use it to fuel this face-to-face initiative.
The awareness of how parents influence their children is as old as recorded history, whether Euripides ("The Gods visit the sins of the fathers upon the children") or Horace ("For the sins of your fathers you, the guiltless must suffer.") or the Old Testament ("For I am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.") This century seems to have brought a sharpened awareness of how direct that influence is. The failures of fatherhood are not failures only for the fathers. They create failure for the children whether alcoholism, or violence or simply a rigid, inability to say "I love you." Now we do not think the Gods bring such failure. We create them ourselves.
But just as failure is passed along, so is success. I thought of that as I read through the other entries in that Minnesota essay contest.
"Without my father," one sixth grader wrote, "it would be like a ball
without any air inside. And you can't play without any air inside."
This is from a third grader.
"My Dad 'God blesses us' before we leave for school. Mom says he watches us walk to the school out the window until he can't see us anymore. She says he gets tears in his eyes almost every time."
And this one, from a fifth grader.
"The other night my dad came up to me and said, 'Good night, Carrie, I love you.' 'Good night,' I said. 'I love you too.' Then out of the blue he said, 'Best friends forever?' And I said 'Yes.'"
A few months ago I read an interesting story about the Baseball Hall of
Fame, up in Cooperstown, New York. Some workmen were renovating, and when they
removed a display case, a snapshot fell out.
There was no name on it. It was a picture of man in a Sinclair Oil
baseball uniform, holding a bat and smiling.
On the back was this note:
'You were never to tired to play catch. On your days off you help build the Little League field. You always came to watch me play. You were a Hall of Fame Dad. I wish I could share this moment with you. Your son Pete.'
The curators debated what to do with it. They thought about putting it on display. They thought about launching a search to find out who the man was. But in the end they decided to put the picture right back where it was, wedged under the display case, a secret memorial to every parent who has taken the time to play baseball with his kids.
The world we must work toward is a world in which children grow up wanting to model their own attempts at parenthood on these kinds of memories: of fathers not afraid to say 'I love you'; of fathers who feel blessed to have created children; of fathers who are the air in the ball of life; of Dads who belong in their children's personal Hall of Fame.
Yes, fatherhood is frustrating and humbling. But it can also be one of the greatest joys that a man can know. My hope is that this conference can help make that joy possible for fathers yet unborn -- or those of us like Albert who have been learning about fatherhood since we were little boys.