Fatherhood: From ideas to reality

Published June 19, 2021, 9:30 PM

by Pao Vergara

A son reflects on what it means to be a father

KILLER LOVE Ilongot hunting party

In this day and age, some might argue that fatherhood is an obsolete social construct.

While I don’t fully agree with the direction such arguments often take, I won’t deny where they come, from children abused or neglected, from psychologists who’ve observed not just through clinical experience but also by looking though big data at the bigger social trends that shape collective behaviors.

Some more radical thinkers might even argue that fatherhood, being gendered or—gasp!—tied to masculinity, is indeed obsolete.

My dad, whom I learned most of my snark and worldliness from, never really was one to celebrate Father’s Day. “It’s just marketing,” he’d say, “just another day for hamburger sellers to make value meals. Pair your patty with wine!”

But first, a disclaimer. I can drop history, literature, pop culture, anecdotes, but having never been a father myself, I cannot hope for 100 percent accuracy in this article, in this essay, in this attempt. But as fatherhood cannot exist without children, I can hope for the authenticity of a son, who, after all, is more or less the direct consequence of a father and not just physically, too.

Darth Vader Father GIF by Star Wars - Find & Share on GIPHY

While it’s ideal to start with our ancestors, even today, in-depth accounts of pre-colonial life are scant. We’ll have to work with anthropologist’s accounts of life with indigenous people to get an idea of how the ancient Juans saw dads.

One account I managed to come across was about Ilongot headhunters. For them, headhunting was a way for male youths to channel the aggression brought about by adolescence, especially the angst when you realize that while your body is strong, you have yet to achieve what your elders have done.

The solution? Go on an elaborately-planned and executed headhunting raid in a rival village with your elders. The elders have chopped off at least one head and know how to infiltrate a site, raid, and retreat.

But as more and more contact occurred between Ilongots, Christian missionaries, and the laws of Filipino lowlanders, this custom was gradually replaced and more Ilongot males “became men, became elders” without having ever lopped heads off.

Either way, what has endured in their society was the idea of fatherhood and “sonhood” being more of a collective than nuclear experience.

IN THE [PONZI] SCHEME OF THINGS Scene from the film Honor Thy Father

Some might lay the blame on the entirety of the parent’s generation for the messes the younger generation has to mop up today. But the paradox is that no true parent wishes any harm on their children.

Spanish Catholicism and colonial ambition introduced the nuclear family, and I feel like this is the notion of fatherhood that we are most familiar with, and perhaps the notion of fatherhood that most in my generation are either actively rebelling against or just shrugging off.

Fatherhood can also be different, thanks to social class, as highlighted by some iconic pieces from Philippine literature. We have the dad who sheepishly tries to appease the haciendero to get his son an education in J.C. Tuvera’s If You Hear Thunder, or the postwar middle-class dad depicted in Gregorio Brilliantes’ The Distance to Andromeda, whose coming-home-from-work ritual the family dinner revolves around.

The extremes of these archetypes manifest in the spectacle of cinema, where we have dads as victims of injustice, like in Mikhail Red’s Birdshot whose daughter’s coming of age is tied to avenging her dad, or dads who break bad, forced to fight crime with crime, like John Lloyd Cruz’s character in Erik Matti’s Honor Thy Father—did he really save his daughter in the end?

MACROCOSM OF FATHERHOOD Cover of Greforio Brilliantes’ The Distance to Andromeda

For Oxford evolutionary anthropologist Anna Machin, who devoted most of her professional life studying fatherhood, human fathers are unique in that in most of the animal kingdom, males, to put it crudely, pump and dump. Humans are the outliers in that we eventually evolved to have our males devote themselves to their offspring.

Just as we don’t need claws or scales or wings thanks to our brains (and thus, the ability to adapt in more environments than any other earthbound animal), the brain needs the dual guidance of a father and mother to mature. Regardless of the era, however, Machin observes that the common thread of fatherhood seems to be that of teaching the next generation how to survive in the current environment.

And I’d like to think that’s the reason generation gaps happen, too. Think about it. Dads and dad figures will often say “this is the best path for you.” This also comes with the realization that such statements are often well-meaning, if dated.

What worked for dad in his 20s isn’t necessarily going to work for the kids in their 20s. Some might lay the blame on the entirety of the parent’s generation for the messes the younger generation has to mop up today. But the paradox is that no true parent wishes any harm on their children.

So let me play the role of Mr. Obvious and say that fatherhood is at once a biological, evolutionary reality, and a social construct. You can try to do away with the “toxic” aspects of it, but I feel like it’s a bigger conversation on masculinity and fatherhood is but a subset in it.

So to fathers out there, I hope you also don’t forget that you’re more than the role you play as provider and man of the house, as the teacher of survival skills, of snark and worldliness. I hope you remember to have fun too, maybe not in headhunting anymore, but in its tamer modern-day equivalents, such as a 100-kilometer bike ride, a triathlon, changing nappies, or holding your wife’s hand while she’s giving birth your child.

Dad always liked to say this world of ours is a dog-eat-dog world.

But apparently, it’s also one of care and cooperation, and dads, nuclear, communal, surrogate, and spiritual, are a testament to that. I guess dad’s right, but it’s a wolf-teach-cub world, too.