Spurred by Rod’s post on fatherhood in “Portlandia”, I’ve been thinking about how to talk about the distinction between the work of fathering and the status of father. By “the work of fathering” I mean all the stuff we call “involved parenting,” all of the nurturing and discipline and cleaning and feeding. The acts of love. These are obviously good things in themselves. (I don’t know that everybody has to be a Sensitive New-Age Father—everybody knows you have feelings, but that doesn’t mean we all need to talk about them!—but the overall point about fathering as active work is right.) And we’re getting better, I think, at talking about this work and acknowledging its importance.

All of this talk about the work of fathering, though, runs the risk of acting as if “father” is a variable in an algebraic equation. Let x = cleaning and cooking and hugging and setting rules (and, in more conservative circles, being a Male Role Model). X in itself just is the sum of these things. If we think this way, then nothing much is lost if somebody who is not the child’s biological father does these things, since the acts themselves are what matter.

Several years ago I read a series of interviews with college students about their beliefs on marriage and family life. They were strikingly traditionalist in their overall images of mother vs. father—mom is nosy but nurturing, dad is the provider and protector. But one girl said something which I think resonates with a lot of young adults today: “I don’t see why the mother has to be a woman and the father has to be a man.” If the work of mothering and fathering gets done, haven’t we solved for X?

I think there’s a way of both honoring the work of fathering and acknowledging the importance of the specific man who happens to be your biological father—the importance of the body and therefore of physical relatedness. These two aspects of fatherhood seem to me to mirror the resilience and sensitivity axes I’ve talked about before, in which resilience and sensitivity don’t actually compete for importance but can even strengthen one another. Resilience focuses on what you have—for example, the work that got done. Sensitivity, which I think of as a positive trait of being attuned to aesthetic realities, can among other things acknowledge and mourn losses. These are both good in themselves and neither can replace the other.

We often teach kids about poetry, and art in general, by focusing on what the images “mean.” Why is there a sparrow in this poem? The sparrow represents longing. The sparrow is the poet’s childhood. It’s a reference to the Bible, “His eye is on the sparrow.” Etc. Obviously that kind of analysis is true to a certain extent. But it risks teaching children to solve a poem. In a good poem the sparrow can’t be solved; it can’t be replaced by a collage of meanings and allusions. It’s a sparrow.

So too a father is irreducible. The father is an iconic reality, a thing in itself, not a set of acts–even though the acts themselves are good and honorable, and it’s much better to live with a stepfather who does them than a father who doesn’t.

I think we focus on the work of fathering for a lot of reasons, but one of them is surely that we want to spare the feelings of people who are working really, really hard to raise children well outside the biological family. They don’t need to have their faces rubbed in the difficulty of what they’re doing. And we also don’t want to imply that everybody who grows up apart from their biological father feels an intense ache or longing for him, since that’s obviously not true. But the solve-for-X mindset often stigmatizes people who do express their longing for their fathers—they’re whiny or ungrateful—and refuses to recognize that they’re expressing not solely pain but insight into the importance of the body.

The defense attorney in The Brothers Karamazov has a great, galloping speech in which he argues, among other things, that horrible old Karamazov wasn’t really a father at all: “The sight of an unworthy father, especially in comparison with other fathers, fathers worthy of their children, his own peers, involuntarily presents a young man with tormenting questions. To these questions he receives the conventional answer: ‘He begot you, you are of his blood, that is why you must love him.’ The young man involuntarily begins thinking: ‘But did he love me when he was begetting me,’ he asks, wondering more and more. … How decide it, then? Here is how: let the son stand before the father and ask him reasonably: ‘Father, tell me, why should I love you? Father, prove to me that I should love you’–and if the father can, if he is able to answer and give him proof, then we have a real, normal family, established not just on mystical prejudice, but on reasonable, self-accountable, and strictly humane foundations. In the opposite case, if the father can give no proof–the family is finished then and there: he is not a father to his son, and the son is free and has the right henceforth to look upon his father as a stranger and even as his enemy. Our tribune, gentlemen of the jury, should be a school of truth and sensible ideas.”