Published: Sunday, October 9, 1994
Section: NEWS
Page#: 31A

Raising Future Fathers is a Noble and Vital Task

It's 3:51 a.m. Benjamin, my 1-year-old son, isn't really crying; he's just wide awake. I want to go back to sleep.

My contingency plans, carefully developed while raising four sons, aren't working. Not Plan A - give him a bottle. Not Plan B - give him a clean diaper. Not Plan C - give him warmer clothes. Not Plan D - give him another bottle. Not even Plan E - bring him into our bed.

So now he's full, dry, warm, and with his parents. What more could he want?

On to Plan F, late-night television. Ben and I head downstairs, and I turn on the TV. As I channel-surf, Ben closes his eyes. The sound of the clicking remote control will always put him to sleep.

It's 4:07 a.m., and Ben is sound asleep. But I'm not. That's the problem with Plan F - I never get back to sleep. Lying on the sofa, wide awake, I use my remote control to fly across the vast ocean of American culture, dipping in every few seconds to test the waters. I watch bits and pieces of dozens of shows - late night talk shows, sitcom reruns, psychic hot lines, violent movies, and 24-hour weather.

My brief look at American culture is both unsatisfying and disturbing. None of it helps me make sense of the most important thing I'm doing with my life these days - being a father. In those nine years since I first became a father, I've changed 10,000 diapers, given 5,000 bottles, and gotten up 1,000 times in the middle of the night. Yet, every day, when I talk with professional colleagues, read the newspaper, or listen to the radio, fatherhood is rarely discussed. So when I finally hear a voice that speaks about fathers, I listen.

Last month I heard two such voices - Dan Quayle and Robert Bly.

Drumming up interest for his '96 campaign, Quayle revisited his famous "Murphy Brown" speech, saying, "What I was talking about then, and what I am reiterating today, is the importance of fathers. Raising children is not just a mother's responsibility."

Robert Bly, not exactly a political soulmate of Quayle, said nearly the same thing in a recent newspaper interview. "The black community understands it much more than the white community, but fathers and mentors are equally needed in both. There are very powerful forces that have gutted the father. Those are economic forces, social forces, sociological forces."

As the voices of Bly and Quayle merge into a single voice (yes, strange things happen to sleep-deprived fathers at 4 a.m.), an important question forms in my bleary mind: What message is society sending my sons about fatherhood?

Over the past generation, our society's attitude toward women in the workplace has slowly moved from resistance to acceptance to expectation. It hasn't happened easily or uniformly. It hasn't happened without pain, suffering, and lawsuits. Sure, there are still plenty of rough edges and unresolved issues. But when I look at the big picture, there has been a remarkable change - in just one generation.

As girls and women have moved toward equality in the workplace, they've created currents of change in our society. Currents are tricky things, because they set up crosscurrents and undercurrents that take you in unintended directions. One of the undercurrents is a powerful, underlying societal message - the workplace (with its enticing rewards of money, power, status, and career) is more important than the family.

It's time for our society to swim against that undercurrent and start sending more messages about the value of the family. And the place we need to send that message most loudly is with our sons, the fathers of tomorrow.

We can start by throwing out our outmoded definitions of fatherhood. What does it mean to be a father in 1994? I'm not sure, but I know that "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "Leave it to Beaver" didn't prepare me for dual-career family life.

If the "Father Knows Best" experience can't be re-created in the 1990s (and let's face it, guys, it's gone forever), what kind of fathers do we want our sons to become? If we don't provide some positive models and rewards for our boys, how can we expect to start turning the tide of violence, drugs, gangs, and anger that threatens to engulf us all?

Just as daughters experience thousands of different jobs every spring on "Take Our Daughters to Work Day," there are thousands of different kinds of fathers for our sons to become. If we decide to get serious about this fatherhood issue, there are lots of things we can do as a society to reward and model fatherhood - everything from tax credits to sitcoms, from paternity leave to video games.

And while we're at it, why not give boys a day of their own every October? Let's proclaim a "Give a Boy a Father Day." Men around the country would be given the day off work to spend with a boy, passing on their particular values about fatherhood - playing catch, raking leaves, paying bills, changing diapers or surfing cable channels.

I must have fallen back asleep, because this dream is getting a little unreal. It would never happen.

Maybe it's time for all of us to wake up and do something for our boys.  

Randy Wedin, of Wayzata, is a freelance science writer, environmental communications consultant and father.

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