Achieving Full Fathering

A conversation on the new furor over fathering

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The role of fatherhood has assumed center stage in a variety of public debates, from welfare reform to the continuing 'family values' saga. Alarmed by statistics that nearly 40 percent of American children live without their biological fathers (and that trend is echoed worldwide), fathering advocates from Vice President Al Gore on down have spawned think tanks, community projects, organizations, and online networks that not only bring Dad back to the family, but also support men who are themselves single parents.

While I believe that two committed adults, not just the biological duo of Mom and Dad, are a parenting ideal, I'm also thrilled about efforts to lead men to full-bore fathering. I'm convinced that parenting is a splendid humanizing device that lots of men (and women) can well use. There's nothing like the love a parent feels for a child, and the excuse to act like a kid is a good thing for anyone. And let's not forget the benefits of self-sacrifice and discipline: Spiritual maturity can only begin, I believe, when you realize that you're not the center of the universe.

So that said, why am I also frightened by some aspects of the fathering fascination? For starters, I don't completely buy into the seeming consensus that dads are the magic elixir to heal hosts of familial and societal woes. Citing studies that show that fatherless kids are more likely to be jobless, junkies, and suicide and abuse victims, many fathering advocates conclude that fatherless families have created widespread poverty, youth crime, and teen pregnancy. Fathers will solve these problems, the popular reasoning goes, by bringing families a steady paycheck and firm discipline to squelch would-be JDs.

Now while there's obvious logic to the paycheck angle, to me it often seems that the race to get dads back to poor families has more to do with decreasing welfare checks than increasing father-child bonding. In addition let's not forget about other powerful social factors -- the lack of good jobs for teens and parents, for example -- that are just as likely to cause such problems. And aren't there a lot of acting-out kids coming from fathered families? While the 'emotionally absent' father is also held culpable in some fathering circles (it's one of Al Gore's pet peeves), the mere presence of a Papa who does nothing more than channel surf is oddly held out as a salvation.

The benefits-of-dad-as-disciplinarian argument makes me nervous, too. Critics such as David Blankenhorn, whose widely reviewed book Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem (Basic Books, $23) has set much of the current fathering debate, believe that dads shouldn't try to be like moms. That is, while dads should be loving and involved, they shouldn't even try to replicate the more nurturing, hands-on job mothers often perform. Rather, they should do what men do best: work all day (traditionalists prefer the one-income, mom-at-home mode) and come home and instill such 'inherited male values' as discipline, risk-taking, and decisiveness.

Excuse me? For starters, let's talk about the insult this presents to disciplined, risk-taking, decisive mothers -- not to mention fathers who feel just fine about nurturing, thank you. Then, can we talk about how pining for the days of Ozzie and Harriet is not an option for the vast majority of the population. With most mothers and fathers working, notes Nicholas Lemann in The Washington Monthly (April 1995), families simply have to be more equitable.

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