This op-ed ran in the Hartford Courant on Friday, June 13, 2003.
Childhood trips to the mall were an adventure, especially when there was an occasion such as Father's Day to prompt the quest. In my search for the perfect gift, I often gravitated toward the tool department at Sears or the men's formal wear section of Filene's. I delighted in seeing my father's face as he tore through homemade wrapping paper to find something for his desk or a gadget for the yard. Neither of us gave much thought to what these gifts meant; they were simply reflections of a child's love and appreciation for her father.
After studying Mother's Day and Father's Day for my master's thesis, I now know that I was not alone in my quest for the ultimate Father's Day gift. Like you, I listened to commercials that promised insight into what all dads need - something to wear to work or perhaps a tool to make household repairs less difficult. More important, I learned that the gifts we give and the things we do to mark these occasions are not so simple in their meaning. Why do we get Dad a wallet or a tie? Because "good" fathers take care of the financial needs of the family, and these gifts symbolize his role as the provider. And because Dad works so hard, he needs to remember to play, so gifts that support his favorite sport or hobby are also very common.
There is also meaning behind the things we do to celebrate Mother's Day and Father's Day, and this is particularly evident when comparing the two occasions. Fathers are significantly less likely to receive a gift, go out to eat and celebrate with extended family on Father's Day than mothers are on Mother's Day. Father's Day celebrations are also shorter by approximately two hours. Could this be a reflection of the societal message that dads are less important to the family than moms? Yet despite spending less time celebrating, doing less and getting less, fathers reported a significantly greater enjoyment of Father's Day than mothers did of their Mother's Day celebrations. I wonder if you dads out there don't realize you're getting the short end of the stick. Maybe your expectations of how the day should go are not as high as Mom's, and therefore there is less disappointment in your day.
We think more stereotypically about mothers and fathers on Mother's Day and Father's Day vs. other family events such as birthdays. This is reflected in the gifts given on these occasions. The gendered nature of Mother's Day and Father's Day is underlined (that is, Mom is a woman, Dad is a man) by giving more stereotypically feminine gifts to Mom and more stereotypically masculine gifts to Dad on Mother's Day and Father's Day than on their birthdays. Mom and Dad are treated more as representatives of their sex and less as individuals on Mother's Day and Father's Day.
Why should it matter what families do, what gifts they give or what feelings they have about Mother's Day and Father's Day? These two occasions provide insight into what society values about motherhood and fatherhood and reinforce normative conceptions of what "good" mothers and fathers do. These values are deeply rooted in stereotypes about masculinity and femininity, and such stereotypes are a form of social control. We are all held accountable to normative conceptions of masculinity and femininity, and when we contest gender, we are often met with criticism.
I am certainly not arguing for a movement to abolish Mother's Day and Father's Day, but instead hoping that one day the gifts that we give and the ways in which we celebrate will not be as gendered. In the past, I didn't really think about what my dad wanted but rather thought more about the gifts dads were supposed to get on Father's Day. This year is different. When I asked my dad what he wanted, he didn't mention a tie or a golf shirt. He wants a hibiscus plant. And I couldn't imagine a more perfect Father's Day gift.
Nicole Gilbert, of Chicopee, Mass., received her master's degree from Mount Holyoke College in May, 2003.