What Father Knows Best

Daniel Akst, a former Times columnist, is the author of "St. Burl's Obituary," a novel (Harcourt Brace). His last article for the magazine was about digital cash

Not long ago, when my wife was pregnant with our twins, we signed up for a tour of the facilities at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Our visit included a remarkable video, an equally remarkable talk by a sort of hospital docent and then a dazed walk through the unit where, if we were lucky, our babies would come into the world.

What was so remarkable was that never once during the entire session did anyone refer to the creature known as "father." There were fathers in attendance, of course, and every fetus gestating during the proceedings had one. But the glossy video and the smiling tour guide were scrupulous in avoiding any reference to fathers. In the language of Cedars, there were mothers and then there were birthing coaches, partners, companions and various other fauna found in and around the modern Southern California family. Everything but fathers, even if they had a few of us standing right there in the room.

To me, the omission was galling but not surprising. Our twins are 6 months old as I write this, and so being a father is a big part of my life. Now that it is, I'm struck by the odd and evanescent position of fathers and fatherhood in the life of our community. Many of the fathers I know don't live with their children. Some of those who do have abandoned the difficult role of father in favor of being their kids' friend, financier, or perhaps second-string mom, only scarcer.

Given all this, I find myself thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a father, and how scarce the qualities are that families used to rely on fathers to inculcate. (God knows you don't often hear words like "duty" and "responsibility" and "discipline" at Southland dinner parties.) I'm especially interested because our twins turned out to be boys, and as I embark on the long Oedipal twilight during which our sons will attain manhood, I already see some sharp differences in the way my wife and I deal with these men in the making.

Their mother, for instance, a woman who has spent her entire career in the sciences, is much more concerned than her literary husband about how the boys feel. She's the one who worriedly examines their scratches and scrapes. (I'm the one who says, "They'll live.") She's the one who attends to their difficulties getting to sleep or amusing themselves for a minute or two on the floor. (I'm the one who says, "They need to learn that the world doesn't revolve around them.")

Instinctively, we handle the boys differently as well. Perhaps because our 20-pounders seem lighter to a man of 200 pounds than to a woman of 115, I'll casually tuck one under my arm while I go off in search of diapers, or haul both around at once in a bearhug of boys. I'll growl and gobble their ticklish places until they howl with delight, and much to their glee, I'll toss them in the air, risking a sour bath of spit-up if I haven't waited long enough after their last meal.

I've noticed that other fathers do this, too, and while I'm not exactly sure why, my theory is that it serves a dual purpose. Tossing and catching my boys lets them know that there is a large, powerful person they can count on absolutely, which probably bolsters their courage to explore. But it also lets my sons know that there is a large, powerful person they had better not cross--a particularly needful message for boys, I suspect. James Q. Wilson, the UCLA professor emeritus and social critic, has observed that it is mothers who establish the moral tone of a community, but fathers who enforce it, and that the absence of fathers is a big factor in the chaotic social climate of the most troubled inner-city neighborhoods.

Yet fathers are vanishing even in more well-to-do precincts. Fathers of school-age children tell me that among their kids' classmates, divorced parents are the norm around Los Angeles, and, by some estimates, more than half of American children will spend time in a single-parent household by the age of 18. In most cases that household will be missing dad.

This aspect of the Zeitgeist was the real point of the Jim Carrey vehicle "Liar, Liar," which wasn't really about lying. It was about the missing father, and appropriately enough, it was set in Los Angeles. It's hard to imagine anyone today producing the weekly morality tales of "The Andy Griffith Show," and yet the reruns' immense popularity bespeaks a longing not just for values, but also for fatherhood.

So what does it mean to be a father in anything-goes Southern California today? I am in no position to teach the boys how to stalk a mastodon, after all, or hurl a spear, and the truth is, their mother loves them more than I do. Oh, I love my boys, of course, love them more every day, but she loves them the way mothers love their babies, which is how she can cheerfully minister to them day and night without running raving from the house or bashing their brains in.

Maybe that's the key to what I can provide that she can't. My own opinion is that in some ways mothers love their kids too much. That's not a bad thing, of course. But it's why we need fathers: because someone has to be able to think and act with a little more freedom, which you only gain from a little more emotional distance. For the sake of all of us, someone has to be a little less concerned about their happiness and a little more concerned about their character--and the character of the society they someday form.

That's why we need mothers and fathers. I suspect I can help my sons simply by letting them see me being a man, one who understands the importance of not acting on (or expressing) every last impulse that skitters across his cerebral cortex. They will learn that this means controlling your anger and your sex drive, and making constructive use of your longing for power and esteem by accomplishing something in the world. It means taking responsibility, thinking critically and, yup, valuing actions over emotions. Real men aren't threatened by powerful women, but they keep their kids in line.

Most of these are not fashionable lessons in the therapeutic culture of Southern California today, and I guess women ought to be able to teach them without the men who sired their children. But it seems an odd coincidence that values and fathers have been evaporating simultaneously. Besides, my biggest job as a father is the one for which mothers are least suited: making sure our boys learn to control the physical power that comes with their gender, even though sooner or later they may have to unleash it in order to defend themselves.

When my wife went into labor, I learned about it from American Airlines. I had just landed at Dulles for a literary bash in Washington when I got the message, and so I got back on the same aircraft, begged and bribed a cabby, and reached Cedars in record time. Dashing around the hospital looking for the maternity unit, I wished I had paid more attention at the tour we'd been given. I made it in time anyway, but only because, breaking with masculine stereotypes, I asked directions of everyone I encountered.

"I'm the father," I proclaimed when I did so. Just so they'd know.

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