… and Grandfathers, Uncles, and Scoutmasters, Mentors strong i’ th’ arm*
(c) 2014, Davd
This is no slur on my own father, whose name i share. He was not perfect, but i remember him fondly despite his faults. He stayed married to my mother until his death, which sometimes wasn’t easy; and most of what he taught me was good. Some men have, or had, even better fathers; some, not so good—and many men and boys, these years, have none. More children lack fathers, than have inadequate ones—and that lack lessens their hopes for good adult lives.
It is a wise child, went an old French saying from before DNA testing, that knows who father is. Fifty years ago, Americans and Anglophone Canadians could hear that and pat themselves on the back for marital fidelity, but no longer: It is widely agreed that far fewer children today than two generations or even one generation ago, are reared by their natural fathers; and that this has had adverse consequences for the children, for crime rates, and for societal well-being generally (Dafoe-Whitehead, 1993)
My grandfather was born around 1880, when more people died in young adulthood than today, and most stepfathers were married to widows. He never saw his natural father when he was old enough to remember it. He often praised the stepfather who raised him through boyhood.
Tom Lincoln, President Abraham’s father, was a stepfather also: He married Mary Todd when they were both widowed with young children, and his proposal to her is one of the most famous oral statements in English1: Mary,he said,I need a wife and you need a husband. If you [think me a good man for you and your children] I’ll come with the wagon on Sunday.” History knows nothing of their sexual life; their family life reared one of the greatest US Presidents. Abraham Lincoln praised them both, and especially his stepmother—perhaps because her concern and care were more by choice, Tom Lincoln’s, by nature—perhaps also, because stepmothers in general had a dubious reputation. (Cinderella is an obvious example.)
We have heard and read of bad “stepfathers” or more accurately, single mother’s bedfellows, in recent years. It takes more than a sexual entanglement with a mother, to make a stepfather—and it be very important to note, the sexual entanglement is not required. My fathering did not all come from my natural father: That same grandfather whose chief [but not only] mentor was a stepfather, served my boyhood in much the same way: There were things he knew and Dad didn’t, like the electrician’s trade and gardening (while Dad was a driver by trade and the better cook of the two)—and Granps was retired while Dad had a job, church, buddies from work, a wife, and a daughter to take up much of his attention. (Mother could be difficult; even Granps was rather quieter in her presence than her absence2.)
Uncles often do stepfather work, also church youth leaders, coaches, and Scoutmasters. What stepfathers have “best going for them,” uncles and grandfathers next, coaches and Scoutmasters least, is time under the same roof with the boy. 55-60 years later, i can remember my grandfather’s house as well as i can remember the one where my parents lived at that time, and from which i walked or bicycled to school… perhaps because when i spent weekends with Granps we had whole days together; while my parents didn’t have that kind of time for me, and their home was more a base camp from which to go to school, to Scouts, to church, to play with friends, even out to fish or garden.
After completing “high school”, Granps was urged by a local physician to go on to University, and offered a loan of [between two and five years’ pay for a tradesman at that time] to enable him to attend. He thanked the man but declined the loan, for the cautious reason that he could not forecast what work he might expect after graduation, that would pay enough more than a tradesman’s wages to enable him to repay the loan.
His caution is wise for boys today—many a university graduate can’t find work that’s enough better than what [s]he could have had without university study, to pay back student loans. In the 1980s, over a generation ago now, i advised the university students i taught and the adolescents who cared to hear my advice, to treat a trade license as more valuable for earning income, than an Arts degree: “A university education is good for you, but not usually gold for you—unless it carries a professional ‘ticket’.” The Spearhead’s W. F. Price (2014) seems to agree, writing of discrimination against boys in university admissions today, “it’s a blessing in disguise.”
Granps never complained that his stepfather did not give him money for university studies; and one reason may be that step-parents are not culturally expected to give money for that3. Dafoe-Whitehead (1993) points out that step-parents generally are less inclined to support step-children through higher education.. Another important reason may be, in the late 1890s, that the town physician might have had such money to loan, but not an ordinary working man.
Granps’ life was part of the basis for the advice i gave as a professor. He walked some two thousand miles over a few years’ time, learning trade skills as he worked to support himself, and eventually found a good job as an electrician. He became a master of that trade, and co-inventor with men who had engineering degrees. And while he was learning, he got some healthy exercise, and some pay—not classroom seat time and growing debts.
Today, boys (and also girls) still need fathering. Millions upon millions of them will not have it in the natural way—they will not be reared by their own biological fathers. Those of them who have grandfathers, uncles, and good4 stepfathers under their home roofs, are fairly fortunate—because the majority of fatherless boys, won’t have. Many millions of boys will need some kind of mentoring to make up for the lack of any such kin; and with marriage and divorce laws biased against men, with many men prudently avoiding marriage, we need to look for, perhaps even develop, ways for men to be stepfathers without marrying the mothers of the children they nurture.
Today’s situation calls us to support stepfathering that is free of the risk of “divorce theft;” to find ways to nurture boys independent of their mothers’ faults. No boy (and no girl, but let’s begin with boys) should be punished for his mother’s failings.
I encourage readers to look at stepfathering not just as something that tries to imitate natural fathering, but as mentoring comparable to that given by grandfathers, uncles, church youth leaders, Scoutmasters, and coaches, often combined with a shared residence of uncertain permanence and trustworthiness. That my grandfather’s stepfather was such a good mentor as Granps remembered him to be, is to his credit—especially when seen in context of his wife’s lifetime total of not two but four husbands.
Today, sadly, Granps’s mother’s “serial lifestyle” is more common than it was then.
For those who have good fathers nearby, and those who are, the obvious thing to do, is get together and choose how to celebrate Father’s Day. For them, this is a social rather than a personal concern.
Those who by distance or lack, don’t have that choice, might seriously consider getting together in the spirit of good stepfathers and step-sons5, and begin building not just the alternative to natural fatherhood, but one that also supplements and strengthens natural fatherhood as it was strengthened in Abraham Lincoln’s and my grandfather’s day. A few of you might be able to hold a Stepfather’s Day event this coming Sunday; others might get together to talk about how to work with boys year-’round and have something to celebrate next June. It might be reviving the outdoor-and-crafts Boy Scouts that i remember from the 1950s. It might be done through a church’s Sunday School programme, but not just on Sundays. Some of you reading this might have other good patterns to try, and to share. (There’s an e-mail address at everyman dot ca called replies—human readers should be able to put that together, spam robots, i hope, can’t—and i check it every week or so.)
It is no accident that the “Great Abrahamic Faiths” all pity the fatherless, nor that Father is the earthly title of the Creator [the First Person of the Christian Trinity]. The work of the stepfather is repeatedly blessed and indeed, the Psalms and the Prophets, who Christianity and Islam also honour, declare God’s care and protection for the fatherless. (Some might even say, given that God is not our sire, that He is our Heavenly Stepfather6.) Since we have arms and hands, and “God is Spirit”, our mentoring of those who lack good fathers, is part of what Jesus Christ blessed when he said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto [for] one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25: 31-40[-46])
It is no accident, either, that in strengthening our brothers and our nephews, in strengthening any boys and men who have been harmed by the misandry of this century whether kin or not, we strengthen ourselves.
Baskerville, Stephen, 2004. “Divorce as Revolution:The Government Has a Vested Interest in Destroying Marriage and the Family.” The Salisbury Review, July 22.
Dafoe-Whitehead, Barbara, 1993. “Dan Quayle Was Right” Atlantic Monthly, April.
Glubb, John Bagot, 1978. The Fate of Empires. Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons Ltd.
Nathanson, Paul, and Katherine K. Young, 2006. Legalizing Misandry: From Public Shame to Systemic Discrimination Against Men Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Price, W.F., 2014 “…‘Who Cares?’ About Sex Ratio in College”. The Spearhead, April 23
Turnbull, Colin M.1968. The Forest People. NY: Simon and Schuster paperback.
* Mentor was a Greek warrior who was also a good teacher of young men. In the English translation of one story, i recall him being saluted that way, as “Mentor strong i’ th’ arm.” It is worth keeping in mind, that gentle “mentoring” is not only consistent with strength, but that strong men are more reliably, more consistently gentle than the weak.
1. Abraham Lincoln’s speeches were famous for their clarity and directness—perhaps his father Tom was one source of that straightforward eloquence.
2. “It is better to dwell in the corner of the housetop, than with a brawling [quarrelsome] woman and in a wide house.” (Proverbs 21:9, 25:24, “King James” translation. This is traditional wisdom shared by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. At that time in Mediterranean countries, the housetop was usually flat and except for a winter rainy season, dry enough to sleep on.) “The Proverbs” praise good women but do not pretend all women, or even nearly all, be good.
3. Another factor may have been, that Granps’s mother was married not twice but four times; and his favourite stepfather may not have been in her household when he was of university age.
4. One aspect of good is the man’s character. Another is his lasting presence. Neither Tom Lincoln nor Mary Todd chose to be single parents—the deaths of spouses they gladly would have kept, put them there. When they married, they fully intended to keep their vows, and they did. They chose one another for character, for qualities that would work well together rearing children and getting the household subsistence.
These days, lasting presence is less common than it was when most stepfathers were married to widows.
5. I don’t want to leave fatherless girls out of the picture; but me-thinks that if men and boys get together first, and begin building a mentoring culture from the examples of good stepfathers, uncles, grandfathers, and the rest; that in a year or two, ways will be found to reach out to the girls as well. In the Canada and USA of 2014, gynocentrism is dominant enough that the men and boys might ought first recover the androcentrism that is its mirror image, and when androcentrism and gynocentrism are more equal in cultural weight, then meet the girls on more equal terms. (Yes, this is one way Feminism has ill-served a generation of girls.)
6. I am not trying to revise any church doctrine or ritual; but the expression seems to have some reflection and perhaps teaching value.