The clichés of fatherhood are found nowhere in greater abundance than in the Father's Day cards that stationery companies sell. One might find a father playing golf, mowing the lawn, tossing a baseball, tying a tie, fishing, grilling, tinkering with his tools, or running proudly after a child embarking on his first bike ride. To be a father, these cards tell us, is to be a man in motion: confident, strong, and dexterous.
This stands in stark contrast to the typical Mother's Day card, which trades in more abstract symbols, flowers chief among them. When a Mother's Day card does depict a woman in action, its authors often draw from increasingly dusty stereotypes that leave her cooking and cleaning.
Mother's Day cards often tell us how to feel with Mom, while Father's Day cards tell us what to do with Dad. In so doing, the greeting card industry plays on the deepest paternal stereotype of all: that we bond best with our fathers not by talking, but by doing things alongside them. And perhaps that stereotype is partially true—why else would my dad and I talk so often about the weather?
Here's a look at some of this year's Father's and Mother's Day cards, and the messages they send about fatherhood and motherhood:
This card manages to squeeze just about every fatherly icon into one card: fishing, grilling, neckties, baseball, golf, yard work, and a ballpoint pen—perhaps for signing lunch money checks? Most cards will settle for just one of these associations.
At left, a more typical Father's Day card by Papyrus, a California-based cardmaker with shops in 28 states, Canada, and Hong Kong. This features a dad quite removed from any professional or domestic responsibility. In contrast, the adjacent Papyrus Mother's Day card offers a mom's-eye view of an unexpected mess in the bathroom. It begins not with the words "thank you," but "sorry." Both cards imply that their recipient deserves a break on his or her respective parental holiday. But the Mother's Day card focuses on why she deserves that break without guaranteeing that she'll get one; the Father's Day card delivers the break without explaining what Dad has done to earn it.
Some cards by Hallmark, the country's largest cardmaker, play up this difference even further. In the card at left, which reads "My day. My way," the father does not wait for his child to appreciatively tell him Father's Day is "your day"; rather, Dad claims the day for himself and apparently leaves the kids at home. It is almost as if the card was written for a father to give to himself. This bag of clubs would also make a fine Mother's Day card for a mom who likes to golf, but it is not categorized and marketed in this way.
And in the Hallmark e-card at right, a gif that reads "Motherhood: Not for Sissies," motherhood is represented not just as work, but as a wartime effort. Rosie the Riveter, perhaps the country's most iconic symbol for female work ethic, here represents mothers' efforts both at work and at home.
Since a good chunk of the money that is spent on Father's Day gifts goes toward electronics, and perhaps because I buy my cards in tech-crazed San Francisco, I couldn't help but notice an iPad-themed card by Papyrus called—if you can stand it—the iDad. Papyrus also puts out a very similar card for Mother's Day called the iMom.
Held up next to each other, the iDad and iMom make an interesting case study as an obviously matched set of "his" and "hers" Father's and Mother's Day cards. The iDad is black like a real iPad, while the iMom's rim is pink (naturally). Each has a set of faux app icons, such as Dad's/Mom's GPS, Dadisms, Momisms, and the like. When a button labeled "Supermom" is pressed, it triggers a recording exclaiming that the mother holding the card is "faster than a running child! Stronger than a triple espresso! Able to multitask while solving everyone's problems... It's Supermom!" Again, a mother hard at work. The equivalent app on the iDad is called "How to Fix Anything With Duct Tape," and its audio is more or less what you'd expect: a male voice blithely calling out, as if from a couch or on its way out the door, "Don't worry! Duct tape'll fix that!"
Hallmark's "Life is good" line of cards distills this point to its essence. The line includes just four cards each for Father's and Mother's Days. As one might guess from its name, the brand's entire identity is tied up in images of leisure. This is easy to spot in the Father's Day card above left, in which a fisherman in repose is clearly not too worried about catching any fish. Above the very same slogan on its equivalent Mother's Day card, the unburdened father is replaced not by a mother in the same boat, or in a hammock, or out for a walk. Instead, like many Mother's Day cards, it relies on the more abstract symbol of the heart.
And yet, to its credit, in other contexts the "Life is good" line has no trouble imaging a woman fishing. The images above are drawn from the brand's line of t-shirts, which in general are much more inclusive in representing just who participates in a given leisure activity.
It's only fair to acknowledge that there are some Mother's Day cards that depict a mother resting. The two above are both made by Papyrus; they are the only two such cards I was able to find online or in seven different card shops in San Francisco last month.