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Sarah Sands: Fathers, we thank you for your many thankless tasks

The Father's Day cards available in my local newsagent had an air of mild embarrassment. Mother's Day comes sanctified by society. Father's Day was dragged into official existence by President Nixon. Faced with illustrations of a pint of beer, a football or a set of golf clubs I chose a card in primary colours, which said: "Whatever mum thinks of you, I appreciate you."

Mother's Day is associated with the start of spring and is almost as big an occasion as Easter or Christmas. Father's Day is, oh yes, today. The modesty is part of the wonderful manliness of the day. As Bertrand Russell once said: "The place of the father in the modern suburban family is a very small one, especially if he plays golf."

Yet never underestimate his significance. The Middleton women have captivated the media, but it was Mike Middleton, walking his daughter down the aisle with a proud, uncertain smile before gratefully returning the next day to his lawnmower, who captured the nation's heart.

Fathers stand one step away from the emotional drama of the household and bear life's tremors quietly. I remember a playwright describing to me his father coming home each evening from the City. He would go to his study and shut the door, so his family could hardly hear his muffled sobs. Then he joined his children for a cheerful supper. Why should his family care if he hated every second of his job?

Mothers can be many things, but they are not expected to be role models in quite the same way as fathers. Expectations have been historically high for men as protectors and providers of their families. They may not be the sole breadwinners any more, but they still carry the same burden of responsibility. Watch those fathers at airports, as they carry the luggage, negotiate the hired car, talk to officialdom, conscious of the expectations of the family around them, aware that their frustration will have no effect on the length of the queue. These are thankless duties.

The unique strength of a father's love is felt keenly by its absence. Matthew Parris writes in The Spectator that, five years after the death of his father, he is inconsolable. Three years ago, when Barack Obama spoke with suppressed yearning about the "rock-like figure" on which we build our lives, his raised chin spoke not of hauteur but of defiant hurt at having a missing father. He cites instead his father-in-law as a role model, a man who never missed a day's work, son's game or daughter's recital.

Who better to help you chart a future? Mothers provide the heat; fathers are the light. You have only to look at the photographs of the late Rob Daley, father of the Olympic swimmer Tom Daley.

The disguised anxiety of a father is a poignant thing to watch. Mothers have the release of reciting a litany of horror scenarios whenever their daughters walk out of the door in a short skirt. Fathers have to provide reassurance and pretend to sleep soundly as the clock ticks past midnight.

If everyone survives, fathers spend the the rest of their lives in a state of dazed good fortune. If not, they are less proprietorial about tragedy than women can be. It is hard for me to be objective about fathers, for what is my own but an astonishing savant and living saint? Daughters properly make heroes of their fathers. As Jenny Agutter put it at the end of The Railway Children: "Daddy! My daddy!"

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the London Evening Standard