With Father's Day looming, I am thinking of greeting cards. No, not the card I need to send my father, but the cards he sent to me every single day when I went away. At camp or visiting relatives, and even into college, I could count on that daily envelope from home: a card carefully selected for the sort of jokes that might appeal to a 9-year-old, and a handwritten note from him.
Those notes were often short, sometimes just a single detail from the daily life I was missing. All of them were signed the same way: "Love, me." But in case I should have any question about authorship, he also included a stick figure that sort of resembled him, in that it was very tall, slender and smiling.
I hardly needed the picture, of course. Even then, I knew what's special about fathers: There is only one of them, and they love you.
I wish I'd had the gratitude, or the foresight, to save what must have been hundreds of cards over my childhood. I'd like to pore over those homey details, now long forgotten. But mostly what I'd like is the tangible reminder that no matter where I might have been, I was in his thoughts.
Those weren't the only ways he proved that. I could bring up his heroic willingness to waken me, a teenage morning monster, at 6 o'clock every day. Or the fact that he came to all of my high school basketball games even though that wasn't a common thing for dads to do in that era — and even though neither I nor my team was any good. In the end all of my memories would testify to the same simple fact, the single most important thing that a father can give his child: his presence.
There was a time when we hoped that extended families would substitute for the attention fathers provide, and that various forms of state subsidies and programs might substitute for their income. More and more research has dashed those hopes. Family breakdown seems to affect child well-being even in Scandinavian countries with lavish welfare states. In the United States, research consistently shows that children without fathers in the home do worse on a variety of measures, including poverty and behavior problems. The effect is so powerful that it spills over to nearby houses; in economist Raj Chetty's landmark work on how location affects income mobility, one of the strongest predictors of low-mobility areas was the percentage of single-parent households, even for kids who are themselves raised with two parents.
The boys seem especially affected, unsurprisingly. But we daughters need our fathers, too. According to Brad Wilcox, a sociologist who studies family structure, "Daughters are more likely to flourish educationally and even later on in life professionally when they've had an involved dad who's engaged with their life." He adds: "Fatherhood and marriage done right are today acting in service of the cause of women's progress."
Certainly so in my case. I credit both my parents with giving me a good start toward a career, of course. But as in many households of that era, my mother was usually the one who dressed wounds if you fell off the jungle gym; my father was the one who encouraged you to climb a little higher than felt strictly safe.
In a world of helicopter parents, we've forgotten how much it matters to have someone like that. We need our parents to make sure we don't drink the drain cleaner or stick our hands in a closing door. But sometimes we also need them to nurture our daring — and to give us courage simply by standing there, so that we know nothing can go too badly wrong.
Naturally I'll be calling my own dad on Father's Day to say thanks for everything. But somehow, given all he did, a phone call doesn't seem quite enough. This year, I'm writing him a note, to tell him how important he was — and to say that no matter how many miles may separate us, I am always thinking of him.
Happy Father's Day, Dad. Boy, did you endure a lot for my sake, and, boy, did it matter.