Fathering Ironman: A New Way to View Father’s Day

Father’s Day makes me think about Iron Man because anyone familiar with Iron Man (Tony Stark) knows that his father, Howard, is a major motivation for his behavior. Even the newest superhero movie (Captain America: Civil War) provides evidence of just how much Howard means to him when Tony uses the last time he saw his father as a way to promote his newest technology. It’s moving because you could see how much guilt Tony carries around as the result of the conflictual relationship with Howard that never got mended.

In Iron Man 2, Tony says that his father’s best day was when he sent little Tony off to boarding school. Bolstering that claim was a scene in which little Tony interrupts his father’s attempt to create a video for his Stark Expo. Howard is clearly irritated by Tony’s presence and quickly sends him elsewhere. Based on that scene and the one in Civil War in which Howard is very critical of Tony as a young adult, it’s little wonder that Tony never thought his father loved him. That leaves wounds.

Tony Stark is a show-off and thrives on the adulation of an adoring public. As such, one could surmise that Tony’s belief that Howard disliked him leads him to seek approval and love elsewhere. However, the roar of a crowd is a poor substitute for emotional intimacy. So, it’s no surprise that Tony continues his search for approval and never quite gets it.

However, two things lead Tony to a place where he can start healing and consider joining the Avengers team. First, Howard left a message for the older Tony telling him that he was his greatest creation. That was an emotional moment. Second, Tony realizes that his father intended for him to expand upon his work, that his father had faith in his abilities. By building on Howard’s work, Tony creates a new element and saves his own life. In that moment, Tony’s relationship with his father takes on new dimensions. His father’s love and pride gives Tony a renewed sense of purpose and he is ready to let others into his life.

I know that I was supposed to feel warmed by Tony’s newfound belief in his father’s love. However, I felt let down. Words are cheap; I wanted some action. I have no doubt that Howard loved his son (if one can say that about fictional characters) but passing on his work and saying a few sentimental sentences from beyond the grave just doesn’t cut it. How about a hug? Or spending time with his son? Or even just writing heartfelt letters to him while he was at boarding school? Howard seemed unable to be emotionally intimate with his son and instead poured his emotions and his energy into his work.

Unfortunately, Howard Stark’s paternal struggles are similar to what many fathers face today. Our culture puts fathers into a particular box and doesn’t seem to know what else to do with them. Sure, fathers are given a bit more leeway these days, but they’re still expected to be the providers so that the vast majority of childcare is left to mothers. Although some companies offer paternity leave and there is the Family Medical Leave Act, many fathers refuse to utilize these policies because they fear facing the penalties associated with valuing family time over work. Consequently, many fathers only spend time with their children in the small time they have after work and on the weekends. When this happens, families suffer.

While the emotional range of fathers is a bit broader than it used to be, society still expects that fathers will be the ones who tell the kids to “shake it off” while leaving most of the warmth and nurturing to mothers. During one of my son’s baseball games, the pitcher was hit by the ball. He started to cry (naturally) and three of the coaches, one of whom was his father, went out to the mound to see if he was ok. You could tell they were concerned for him but they all stood around awkwardly, never touching the boy, while they decided what to do. How much better would it have been had his father at least put his arm around him instead of being afraid that physical comfort would have been taken as weakness? I know that many fathers are physically affectionate but, unfortunately, it still isn’t the norm. But it should be.

I see a lot of fathers in my counseling practice and, almost without exception, they talk about how limiting the role of father is. Many discuss their own fathers and how they were emotionally distant and often just not around. As such, they didn’t have good role models for how a father should be; all they know is what behavior they don’t want to repeat with their own kids. So, they’ve improved on the role but it isn’t enough. A number of them work so much that they often aren’t there. Others are physically present but don’t know how to bridge the emotional divide. Clearly, something needs to be done so that a new generation of boys can become the fathers they should be.

What if Father’s Day becomes less about buying things and more about activism? What if it evolves into a day in which fathers agitate for stronger structural supports so that fathering is a role valued just as much as mothering? Fathers can demand adequate paternity leave and more flexible work hours so they too take their children to doctor’s appointments, band practice, and friend’s houses. They can prioritize volunteering in the classroom and helping with homework. They also can work on changing perceptions of emotions and nurturing so that they (like mothers) can cuddle without fear and comfort without embarrassment.

Although we still have a long way to go, I am encouraged by recent portrayals of fathers on television (like Henry McCord in Madam Secretary) who are way more present, engaged and nurturing than Howard Stark. So, there is hope. Maybe all we need is a little extra push from fathers celebrating and extending the role on their special day. If it works, then it could even give men like Tony Stark (should he ever become a father) the knowledge and permission to be the kind of dad they always wanted. No one should have to become a superhero in order to get there.

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