My father always cooked breakfast on Sunday mornings. He dipped half an inch thick slices of challah left over from Shabbat in a cinnamon-heavy mixture of beaten eggs and sour cream. The hard part about french toast is mastering the art of the dip – too much time in the batter and it gets mushy, too little and the middle stays stale, boring and dry. My own father’s technique was inconsistent, and the cheap, Teflon-coated aluminum pan he used was bad at conducting heat evenly. But for young children, any French toast – uncooked or heavily browned – is perfect when drowned in maple syrup.
I remember standing next to Dad on the stove and watching the margarine chips sizzle and melt into oil. I had so much admiration for my father as the breakfast king. Many years later I owned and operated a high volume diner in the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. At the time, I was the father of two toddlers, and in my distorted imagination, I was like the archetypal hero prince who ascended to papa’s breakfast throne.
Surrounded by vinyl, chrome, formica, and neon, I’ve hosted thousands of Mother’s and Father’s Day celebrations. These are two of the busiest days of the year in the diner business. People waited for French toast and bacon while Patsy Cline roared from an antique Wurlitzer jukebox. Every year I strutted through the dining room and told customers that both Hallmark vacations looked exactly the same from my point of view.
I knew the breadwinners loved it when I reinforced their delusional accounts of paternal martyrdom.
“On Mother’s Day,” I joked as I dropped the bill in front of the man at the head of the table, “Papa usually takes the kids out for breakfast so Mama can sleep late. And on Father’s Day, Dad goes to breakfast with the kids so he can spend more time with them … while Mum sleeps late. “
It wasn’t true. Mom usually attended both events, wearing extra handy towels, thinking about food allergies, and cutting buttermilk pancakes into bite-sized pieces. But I knew the breadwinners loved it when I reinforced their delusional accounts of paternal martyrdom.
It’s been nearly two decades since I retired from restaurant work, but for years I made the same joke in almost every conversation I had the week leading up to Father’s Day. But I won’t do it this year. June 2021 seems to be celebrating less and less of the traditional narrative about the identity of fatherhood. We have reached a crisis point in traditional masculinity.
The signs of an impending decline in popular belief about fatherhood have been clear for some time. The #MeToo movement broke the code of silence around powerful men who commit everyday sexual violence. Four years of Trump’s boasting showed that patriarchal arrogance is not a sign of strength, but a toxic symptom of narcissistic shame and insecurity. Staying home orders exacerbated the gender inequality of housework. By summer 2020, just a few months after the pandemic started, 80% of mothers said they were responsible for most, if not all, of family childcare and Zoom school assignments.
Women and mothers also suffered the biggest economic blow during the pandemic, net loss of 5.4 million jobs in 2020 (compared to 4.4 million losses for men). This suggests that all of the rhetoric surrounding the $ 82-cent pay gap has kept us from shouting about a much bigger problem: employment is still not evenly distributed. Gender essentialist fallacies about women’s innate maternal instincts for nursing and multitasking reinforce the prejudices that lead a disproportionately large number of working women to low-wage nursing and service jobs. Meanwhile, men and fathers retain their privileged positions in the professional, social and cultural hierarchies.
Worse, we’ve now seen how dangerous men’s current relationship with sex can be for the rest of us (and yourself). Men were much less likely to take basic pandemic precautions seriously. Many men viewed masks, in the words of journalist Emily Willingham, “as emasculating facial condoms that must be rejected”. Even today, men are about 10% less likely than women to get vaccinated.
This year, many more families will be setting out for breakfast on Father’s Day – waffles, eggs Benedict and bananas Foster sound like a delicious way to usher in a summer after the lockdown. But I suspect no one will give away ties or golf balls with sincere gratitude. Mothers are fed up with it.
Fathers are confused. According to a 2015 PEW report, 57% of fathers describe upbringing as something “extremely important to their identity”. But cultural expectations and popular notions of paternity identity are not aligned with their reality.
It is time to acknowledge that our behavior and thinking habits have unconsciously (and in many cases, consciously) exacerbated systemic misogyny and homophobia.
Some fathers react to this new insecurity with a defensive attitude. They blame women, mothers, critical theory, culture, and the “identity politics” of elite liberal university professors like me. They don’t realize that the real problem is their own inability to imagine anything else. Without new role models or strong father figures to match the current cultural ethos, fathers struggle to feel confident and secure about their place in the world.
What I think fathers really need on Father’s Day is to “marry” feminism. It is time to acknowledge that our behavior and thinking habits have unconsciously (and in many cases, consciously) exacerbated systemic misogyny and homophobia. We need to adjust the way we interact with our families – to move away from father-knows-best authoritarianism. We certainly don’t want to set an example for our children.
So where do you start? You could try making french toast. Wake up early, cook it up for the whole family on this Father’s Day, and show them that their dad isn’t stale, bland, and dry even in the middle.
Jordan Shapiro is the author of the new book Father Figure: How to Be a Feminist Dad.