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Everyday Americans Reflect on Father's Day

Sunday [June 21st] is Father's Day in America, a day set aside to appreciate dads for all they offer their families and society as a whole. Father's Day can also be a time to reflect on what fatherhood actually means in today's culture. A random sampling of Americans share what the word "father" means to them.

Listening and understanding

It was a bit hard to hear amid the shrieks and whoops of delight at a New York City playground recently, but Michael Richards, an older stay-at-home dad whose wife works, seemed unfazed by the din as he beamed a grin at his little boy and girl at play on the swings.

"When I was 35, and someone said, 'You are going to have three kids,' I would have said, 'What? Are you nuts?'" he said. "Now, at 56, a billion dollars couldn't equal the feeling I have when I am with my children."

Richards said empathy is the single most important gift he offers his children as a father.

"I try to feel what they are feeling, and with that comes sympathy and a really nourishing type of love and understanding."

Breadwinner, provider

A block away, Wassim Malaeb, a Lebanese-American grocer, took a moment's break from stacking cans to explain that in his more traditional culture, a father's love is expressed mostly by providing for his kids.

"The love that comes from the mother is different from the father. Fathers make sure our children have a better life than we do and that there is food on the table. This is the love that we give."

Malaeb said he loves being a father.

"I feel like I have given something to life," he said. He added that the more love he gives his children, the more he receives.

"When I come home, the minute I open the door, they run to me and say, 'Dad is home!' They are always asking me questions. And this is a wonderful feeling. That's why you are a dad."

Unconditional love

Former presidential speechwriter Ted Sorensen agrees with that sentiment. Sorensen, who was often photographed with his three children at the Kennedy White House, says every good dad must play many roles.

"One is to love his children regardless of whether they meet all of his idealized standards or occasionally fall short."

Sorensen always endeavored to set an example for his children: "… an example of kindness and patience and doing justice at home and contributing something to the world at large. It's important that he be a teacher for his children. And that requires time."

Sorensen says that even during the busiest days of his career, he would set time aside to take his children on camping trips.

"… and invite them to come visit me in the White House, where they were famous for playing hide-and-seek in some rather august chambers," he recalls with a chuckle.

Sorensen has continue to be close with his children into adulthood.

The pain of separation

In contrast, a office building security guard named Cliff has had a hard time maintaining any relationship with his dad, who was available at home only occasionally while he was growing up.

"We don't really talk no more too much," he says with a sigh. "We just grew apart."

Cliff acknowledged that made him sad.

"Had I had a father all my life," he said, "I would have had some discipline, [and be] able to speak up for myself. Some things a man has to do instead of just a mother, in my view."

The sound of a father's voice

Many believe that there is no inherent difference between mothering and fathering. Others, like Samuel Montoute, believe that biology and gender play central roles in parenting styles. He said, for example, that a man's deeper voice and greater physical power make him a more natural disciplinarian than a mother.

"You'll see children 'playing it up' [misbehaving] with their moms, and with mom is screaming at the top of their voice and the children are ignoring her, [but] the dad grunts and everybody sits up straight," he said.

When asked to describe his own father's voice, Montoute said his dad grew up illiterate in the Caribbean.

"His voice was somebody who wanted to reach out... but he didn't know how. It could be quite a gentle voice at times. But it could be a very aggressive voice."

Montoute's father grew up fatherless.

"… so he didn't know how to temper his voice… or his personality. He needed a father. As we all do," he added.

Learning to accept one's father

Sometimes a father is preoccupied with inner wounds that make him hard to reach, even if he is physically present. That was the case with psychotherapist Jacob Gershoni's dad, who was born in Turkey in a mixed Muslim-Christian community and abandoned by his parents. He was raised by a Jewish couple in Syria. That family later moved to British Palestine, now Israel.

Gershoni said that being adopted was a stigma at the time, so his father kept his past secret from his children until they were adults.

"He was at home, but he was absent, too," he said. "It took me a long time to figure out that… he was in search of his own past. He was looking for his own identity."

Gersoni recalled that his father loved to go to the marketplace in Jerusalem to meet friends. It reminded him of his childhood. Gershoni disapproved of this as a boy.

"I felt ashamed of him for not being a successful businessman or someone who is worldly or pursuing some elevated goals."

Later however, Gershoni developed a different perspective.

"It's a perspective of real acceptance of him with his simplicity and this honesty and love for him," he said softly.

Gershoni added his love for his "Abba" was made all the more poignant when his father passed away three years after their fateful conversation about his past. Yet, he now sees elements of his father's spirit in himself.

"That's something nobody prepared me for," he said, "that he is not here, but he is!"

Daddy's girls

Dads, of course, also play a vital role in how their girls grow up. While watching her own young daughter at play, Karen Chatfield explained that her father shaped her adult attitude toward men.

"My father was very protective. He was also very positive about me as a female. And I grew up with a sense that I was attractive and also that men were very supportive and very kind and very nurturing."

She said that sort of acknowledgement is important for a girl's healthy development.

"I have had friends who lacked that and then had a very different self image and a very different experience of men."

Children have the world to give their fathers

According to 2004 U.S. Census figures, nearly 17 million American children are growing up without their biological father at home. Take a Father's Day message from 19-year-old Lee, who has never met the man he calls "Pappy."

"If you have a dad out there, man, someone you are really close to, go out somewhere [with him or]. Go fishing. Show your dad what it's like being a kid again."

In this sense, added Lee, children have the world to give their fathers.