Boomers Helped Expand the Changing Roles of Fathers

Since another Father’s Day has just been celebrated, Mister Boomer couldn’t help but ponder the changing role fathers have played in family dynamics since the dawn of the Boomer Generation. Boomers grew up in an era when their dads accepted the role of fatherhood much like their fathers had, who in turn emulated the fathers before them; namely, a father’s chief roles were breadwinner and disciplinarian.

TV shows like Father Knows Best (1954-60) and Leave It To Beaver (1957-63) pictured the ideal dad, enjoying his downtime after work, in his easy chair and reading the newspaper while the mother of the house prepared dinner, cleaned and otherwise managed the home environment he and his children would inhabit. As depicted in the TV shows, dear old dad didn’t get involved with the children unless there was a lesson to be taught about manners or ethics, or authoritarian or legal regulations to be emphasized, whether that involved behavior in school, the neighborhood or at the dinner table.

Even when the non-traditional family was portrayed, such as on My Three Sons (1960-72), the role of the father was left unchanged. There, the father of the house was a widower. Rather than show the increased roles a man in his position might have to take on after the death of his wife, another male character — Uncle Charlie, a cigar-chomping ex-Navy man — was created to fulfill the role of the mother, while at times wearing a frilly apron, no less. Heaven forbid Fred MacMurray would head to the kitchen to prepare dinner after coming home from work, let alone ask his teenage boys to vacuum and do household chores.

As a result, Father’s Day was celebrated during the boomer years with utmost respect and in honor of whatever their dads wanted to do that day, much like any other day. In Mister Boomer’s neighborhood, that might entail a family cookout at a state park, or dad leaving early for a golf game, returning in time to fire up the backyard grill for dinner. Gifts were minimal. Cards may have been made in school by the younger kids; otherwise a store-bought card was in order for the children to give their dad. Since most fathers did not work in offices during that era, neckties, though traditional, were not the number one Father’s Day gift. Children generally gave their father either a homemade gift or something that pertained to his hobby or sport of choice.

Unceremoniously kicked out of factories and offices after soldiers came back from the War, women were designated as child bearers and household managers until the mid-60s. Boomers will recall how fatherly roles began to change when their mothers began to return to the workforce. According to the U.S. Census, the percentage of women working outside the home doubled between the years 1948 and 2000.

It has been Mister Boomer’s experience that even when moms went to work, they still did the vast majority of household work, including laundry, cleaning and cooking. However, Mister B and many other boomers recall the children at an early age taking on some of the responsibilities their fathers previously held, such as grass mowing and house painting. Their dads, at the same time, tended to increase their leisure time away from home for participating in or watching sports, always coupled with copious amounts of drinking and smoking.

As the last of the baby boomers born in 1964 reached school age, the role of fathers, changing throughout the turbulent 1960s, was continuing to be transformed. Marriages hit an all-time high around 1950, but the notion of divorce, seriously taboo for decades, was also on the rise at the same time. For most of the boomer years, marriage and divorce rates were comparable. The result did have an effect on fatherhood, as the preferred court arrangement was for the children to remain with their mother. The role of father was often played by a step-father when the mother remarried. This man could either became a benevolent father figure or a boomer kid’s nightmare.

Mister Boomer feels the predominant change that affected the roles of fathers who came after the Boomer Generation is the idea of a two-income family. Many mothers of boomers were satisfied being employed as waitresses, retail clerks and bank tellers, but women in the 1970s and beyond wanted careers as well as a family life. The men of the house gradually, and fairly reluctantly on the whole, capitulated to help raise the family. They increasingly changed diapers, attended PTA meetings, made school lunches, did laundry, vacuumed and participated in the upkeep of the house inside and out.

These days, stay-at-home dads have entered into the lexicon, reversing the roles of fathers and mothers from the early boomer years. In these scenarios, mothers are the major breadwinners, while household duties are executed by the father. Plus, now that the role of fathers has expanded to become one of co-parent instead of the clearly defined roles of previous decades, yard and outdoor work has more and more been delegated to professional service companies.

No one knows how Father’s Day might be celebrated 50 years from now, but looking back 50 years, boomers can say that dads have changed. Boomers participated in these changes when they became fathers, and the transformation continues.

How do you reflect on the role of fathers from your era as compared to today, boomers?

Boomers Gave Dad His Day — On TV and in Real Life

This time each year we devote a day to fathers, though the day wasn’t made an official national holiday until Richard Nixon signed a proclamation in 1972. It was 58 years earlier, in 1914, that President Woodrow Wilson signed the resolution that made Mother’s Day a holiday.

Despite the lack of official recognition in the prime boomer era of the 1950s and ’60s, dads held a position of high responsibility in the family structure. Immediately after the War, women were literally sent home so the men could return to their jobs. It was the norm of the day that the woman’s place was in the home, while the man — and soon-to-be-boomer father — was the provider.

TV shows of the day echoed the cultural mores, but portrayed a father that was as unrealistic as a woman doing housework in a dress, high heels and pearls. Yet the dads in Father Knows Best (1954-’60), My Three Sons (1960-’72), Leave It to Beaver (1957-’63) and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-’66) did share some common traits: they were firmly in charge of the family, always fair and ever-so wise.

In real life many fathers of the 1950s and ’60s were far from the approachable dads we saw on TV. Many boomers wouldn’t think of confiding in their dads, whether the situation involved mundane school relationships or some chore they were required to do around the house. And surely no boomer was going to admit to wrong-doing or negligent behavior that might warrant punishment. Child-rearing was assigned to the woman of the house, but dad was usually the disciplinarian whom many boomers would rather not face. “Wait ’til your father gets home,” was not a phrase boomers wanted to hear.

To the TV dads, any issue was all in a day’s work, solvable before the next commercial. Jim Anderson (Robert Young), Steven Douglas (Fred MacMurray), Ward Cleaver (Hugh Beaumont) and Ozzie Nelson (himself) were always ready to prescribe the right phrase at the right time to solve a problem, provide guidance, mend a heart or dole out a punishment. He might have had a concerned look, but rarely raised his voice.

It has been suggested that these ideal TV dads were so popular precisely because they were an ideal that new fathers could look up to and emulate. The post-War years were filled with optimism and an idealistic view of the future that spawned the expansion of suburbia. TV commercials further depicted the suburban home as one’s own Camelot castle, as each new product was going to make life that much better and easier for the modern, happy family.

Television dads may have gladly worn the yoke of responsibility, but even in their most important function — the worker who provided for the family — there was rarely a sense of financial struggle. They wore suits and ties to work, looking as fresh returning home as when they left in the morning. This was a far cry from the reality of Mister Boomer’s neighborhood, where a Ralph Cramden and Ed Norton mode of work uniform was more likely. Even Fred Flintstone did manual labor in a quarry; but while he was characterized as a loving dad, he wasn’t at all the ideal in the Ward Cleaver mold.

Could it be that by the mid-’60s, times were changing and with it, the image of what we expected from dear old dad, on TV as well as in life? More women were working, the oldest boomers were in college or working themselves, and dad began to be portrayed more as the person who supplied the allowance rather than as the great dispenser of wisdom. By the 1970s and ’80s, dads were more the bumbling men around the house, often humored into thinking they had the upper hand.

Between 1946 and 1964, 74 million men became fathers. Good, bad, wise or indifferent, they raised an independent generation that rearranged the world, a process that’s still going on today.

What memories of TV dad wisdom come to mind for you, boomers?