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.
Maybe this return to sex-role rigidity is really rooted in a fear of female control of the family. In the current issue of Reason, Nick Gillespie recalls the anxiety of the '40s and '50s over ' 'momism', a perceived inordinate increase in the mother's authority and a corresponding decrease in -- and feminization of -- the father's role.' While momism was likely sparked by mid- and upper-income moms (remember, working- and lower-class women have always worked) flexing household muscle while Dad retreated to work, modern-day momism may be caused by much more potent factors. Let's not forget that working moms are still bosses of the 'second shift' and at the same time, their salary makes them theoretically independent of men.
The creators of Promise Keepers, a Christian men's movement that's packing in thousands of men at football-stadium revivals, are fully aware that women (often unwillingly) are assuming roles of both roost-ruler and breadwinner. Nonetheless, they preach that the leadership role must be ceded back to males.
What the traditionalist-fathering fans are missing is that most women simply won't tolerate unequal parenting and relationship roles; thus the rising divorce rates that feed fatherless rates will continue. They're also missing evidence that lots of men are already in the trenches, living out fatherhood roles that aren't dominance-dependent. These men are talking both theory and detail in places like the online resource network FatherNet, and gathering in organizations like Jim Levine's Fatherhood Project, which rejects the paterfamilias model for workable fathering remedies.
Finally, it's important to not completely write off the traditionalists since they are spreading the word that true fathering requires major personal and institutional overhauls, from father-friendly work policies to changed public perceptions that discount fatherhood.
Our three interviewees agree those changes won't be easy. Their tactics for achieving full fathering do vary -- Horn's approach tends toward traditionalism, Erickson favors sex-role-neutral fathering, and Mahony says women hold a key role toward full-scale fathering.THE DISCUSSION
UL: There's wide agreement that children are best served by two involved parents. What will it take to bring fathers back into the family?
Wade Horn: Reversing the trend toward fatherlessness will not be easy. To do so, we will have to embrace some unpopular ideas. The first is that fathers make unique and irreplaceable contributions to the lives of their children. Unique means that they provide something different from mothers; they are not simply part-time mommy substitutes. Irreplaceable means that when they are absent, children suffer.
Second, we have to state the truth that men are more likely to be responsible fathers in the context of committed and legal marriages. Informal vows of commitment don't cut it in men's lives. Let him promise you anything, but if you want a committed father, be sure he gives you a ring.
Third, we have to stop suggesting that divorce can be a good, or at least neutral, experience for children. Today, it is widely believed that it is better to get a divorce than stay in an unhappy marriage -- 'for the sake of the children.'
If we want men to act like responsible fathers, we must once again value and support responsible fatherhood. At every opportunity, we need to celebrate fatherhood and aggressively confront negative stereotypes. Every civic and religious organization must make fatherhood a priority by offering fathers support, and where needed, training through workshops and mentoring programs. We also need more father-friendly workplaces in which employers encourage, and not discourage, their father-employees to take time off to go to a school play or bring their child to the doctor. And the media must portray more good, wise, and responsible fathers.
Government leaders should use the bully pulpit to support responsible fatherhood. They should reestablish income splitting for married couples so that the decision to marry is not punished by a higher tax burden. And the welfare system should be restructured, either to require that mothers identify the fathers of their children prior to receiving benefits or to give preference in enrollment to families where the presence of the father in the home can be documented.
Martha Farrell Erickson: I think it will take a change of heart, triggering action at every level of our society. If we really decide -- individually and collectively -- that fathers are important, then our actions will show that in our homes, neighborhoods, schools, and workplace.
Each of us, male and female, will 'walk the talk' in our own homes. Keeping our children's best interests at heart (and therefore ultimately our own), we will commit to be full partners in loving and guiding those children to adulthood. And we will support each other in finding the best of ourselves to give to our children.
In our schools, congregations, and community organizations, we will act on the understanding that 'parent' is not synonymous with mother. We will find ways to actively engage both mothers and fathers in every aspect of their children's lives.
In our workplaces, we will develop parent-friendly policies based on an understanding that it is in everyone's best interest to raise healthy children. And we will support both fathers and mothers in using those policies.
In our communities we will join together to socialize our little boys to be responsible, respectful, and nurturant. (This begins when they are tiny infants by respecting their needs for closeness and comfort, rather than making them be 'big boys' at 10 months.) And we will socialize our daughters to expect this, giving both boys and girls a clear message that the greatest sign of real strength is caring for others.
Rhona Mahony: I think that the honest, well-informed answer is, 'Nobody knows.' We are living through a change in family structure that is totally unprecedented historically, and which is taking place all over the world. Nobody knows why. Some scholars think that poor fathers in the US are abandoning their children because their earnings have fallen so much -- both corrected for inflation and relative to other men -- that they can't fulfill their own expectations about what it means to be a good father. That is, to be a provider. In my book, I point out that if men feel that there is another way to be a good father, they might be enticed to stay with their families. If men knew it was socially acceptable for them to focus on raising their children while their partner earned most of the income -- as most women have done during this century -- they might find that option more attractive than the isolation they'd suffer trying to scrape by on their own.
UL: What is the ideal father? There's disagreement over whether fathering is different than mothering, with some saying fathers provide unique guidance that stresses discipline, responsibility, and risk-taking. Others believe egalitarian, nearly interchangeable parenting roles are best for fathers, with both spouses fairly dividing caretaking, breadwinning, and character education.
Erickson: There is a good deal of research demonstrating that fathers, as a group, often do play a particularly strong role in discipline and moral guidance. However, there also is a good deal of overlap between groups of moms and dads in terms of the specific roles they play, and no evidence that any particular division of labor/role is better or worse than another. On the other hand, there is much evidence about what is good parenting, regardless of gender, and that should guide all of us as we work out our own parenting roles that build on our strengths. For example, we know that babies need consistent, sensitive response to their cues and signals in order to secure attachments with their parents; and children of all ages need parents who respect their feelings, invest in their learning, and teach them by word and example how to treat others with care and respect, even at times of conflict.
Mahony: I agree that it's impossible to generalize. In my family, I'm the disciplinarian. I teach our daughter about physical risk-taking in sports. My husband is the sort of father held up as the model in many Jewish homes: gentle, warm, and scholarly. He bakes cookies with her; then they give them away to the neighborhood kids.
But the idea that 'nearly interchangeable roles' are best is a crude generalization, too. Each partner brings different personality traits, skills, and dreams to parenting. In many couples, the partners aren't interchangeable, they're complementary.
In a traditional society, girls and boys are molded by energetic teachers to show very different clusters of traits. David Gilmore's wonderful book, Manhood in the Making (Yale, $13), describes that process vividly. But modern life ain't like that. Here in the US, girls play soccer and surf the Web. More and more boys are showing the emotional expressiveness and interest in some hands-on child raising responsibility that would have been branded 'sissy' in the early 1960s. We may not be looking at convergence yet, but we sure are looking at a lot of heterogeneity.
Horn: Yes, but research clearly indicates that dads tend to do thing differently than moms. Fathers, for example, tend to be more physical in their play with children, whereas mothers tend to be more verbal. Fathers also tend to be more encouraging of independence and challenging of achievement, whereas mothers tend to be more encouraging of affiliation. Fathers also tend to be stronger disciplinarian figures, exerting more control over the behavior of their children, whereas mothers are more salient nurturant figures.
The point is not that all fathers must be alike, nor that all fathers must behave differently than mothers. Nor, however, should the goal be to have mothers and fathers become interchangeable parts, each doing exactly the same as the other. Rather, how fathers and mothers parent should remain the decision of individual households, with specific roles negotiated between the two in a manner that is mutually satisfying and respectful of the other.
UL: In order to preserve existing two-parent families, should the government make it more difficult to get a divorce? Should it mandate educational programs on the effects of divorce on the family before granting divorces?
Horn: I think the institution of divorce must be restigmatized. Divorce has almost always had negative consequences for children. Compared to children in intact families, children of divorce are much more likely to drop out of school, engage in premarital sex, and become pregnant themselves outside of marriage. Divorcing couples should be mandated to receive instruction on the emotional impact of divorce on children.
While no one wants to go back to a period in human history where women (or men) could be physically or sexually abused by their spouses, and not have any escape from that abuse, divorce should be made less easy to obtain. I certainly do not advocate making divorce illegal. But today, nearly one in two marriages end in divorce. That is simply too much.
Mahony: I strongly disagree. Most of the arguments I've seen in favor of making divorce harder to get are based on appallingly shoddy research. I discuss this issues in an article on divorce on my Web site. The most meticulous research, published in Science, on the effect on children of divorce itself -- as opposed to family conflict, alcohol and drug problems, poverty, physical disabilities, and mental illness, all of which are correlated with divorce -- has found only a very small effect on children's psychological well-being. Life for children of parents who've split up is tough, but not because of the divorce itself. Advocates of indissoluble marriage who ignore it are either sloppy or less than completely truthful.
Erickson: I have some reservations about making divorce more difficult. However, I am strongly in favor of educating parents about the impact of divorce on children, making counseling available to couples contemplating divorce, and requiring mediation and education in how to co-parent in cases where a divorce is unavoidable. In a more abstract sense, I'd like to see us challenge some of the images with which our children are bombarded from an early age, including both romantic idealism and casual sex without love and commitment. Right now we promote in many ways an attitude of disposable relationships; if it doesn't fulfill the fantasy, get out and move on.
UL: Some argue that single-mother-led families are preferable to seriously unhappy two-parent families. But others say that the acceptance of single-mother families makes boys/men feel superfluous. Comments?
Mahony: I'm not concerned about whether boys or men 'feel superfluous.' I worry about the high rate of poverty among single mothers and their children. Boys and men who don't want to feel superfluous can put in tons of time raising their children. Many have
In fact, until millions of men are primary parents, taking most of the responsibility for taking care of their children, we won't truly enlarge our notion of fatherhood, nor will be have true equality for women. First, of course, millions of young women need to marry for love instead of money, as I argue in my book. When many young women have the self-confidence to marry an appealing guy who happens to earn less than they do, it will make sense in many of those families for the father to scale back his paying job when the first baby arrives. Then, and only then, will we see women roughly equally represented in the top echelons of politics, academics, business and the arts. Then many men will pour time into their children and many children will thrive with the unprecedented love and support they will be getting at home.
Erickson: This is not an all-or-nothing issue. Some research does suggest that conflict and hostility in the family are major factors accounting for poor outcomes for children. However, this does NOT mean that single parenthood is a good or desirable option in the big scheme of things. In my opinion, we have become far too casual about what it takes to raise children, and particularly, about the importance of both moms and dads in this venture. We need to recognize how valuable it is for children to have both male and female role models, so they can see how a man and a woman live their daily life with all its ups and down. And we need to acknowledge the enormous value of growing up in the presence of a loving, respectful, sexual, companionable pair who have made a commitment to share the joys and the trials that are a part of all family life.
Horn: Single-mother led families are preferable to families in which physical or sexual abuse is a characteristic. According to the final report of the National Commission on Children (Beyond Rhetoric, 1990), however, such a high level of conflict is present in a minority of divorces. Rather, most divorces occur because of a general sense of unfulfillment, or the presence of an outside, sexual relationship, In these circumstances, it appears that working out a more satisfying marital relationship is not only possible, but also less likely to have negative consequences for children. For example, a recent study published by Frank Furstenberg and Julien Teitler in the Journal of Family Issues(1994, vol. 15), indicates that children are better off with married parents -- even if the marriage is an unhappy one -- than when their parents divorce.
UL: Should there be concern (since there seems little now) about the absence of the mother in the growing numbers of single-father-led families?
Mahony: Of course. It's easier for Dad if he shares the work of raising children with a partner. Two parents are usually better for the kids, too, because the family income is higher. Let's remember, while we're at it, as far as we know, two Dads or two Moms are just dandy for the kids, also.
Horn: Children need a mother and a father -- period. One should be equally concerned about the consequences for children of both mother-only and father-only families.
UL: Finally, why is the rise in fatherless families occurring not just in the US, but worldwide?
Horn: Since the onset of modern industrialization, a number of cultural forces, common to many Western industrialized nations, have contributed to and reinforced the myth of the father as superfluous in the lives of families and children.
First, the 1960s and 1970s were a time of increased sexual libertarianism throughout much of Western culture. Embracing the idea that fathers did not contribute anything meaningful to families allowed men to discard family obligations in order to enjoy the new sexual playground.
Second, modern feminism taught the importance of women's independence from men. While I certainly do not advocate the restriction of the options women have gained over the past several decades, this philosophy had the unfortunate effect of also giving rise to the ideology of family relativism, and hence contributed to the myth of the superfluous father.
Finally, the ever expanding welfare state in most Western nations led to an enabling of single-parent families. In some circumstances, welfare may even provide a better living situation than if the mother married the father of her child.
Erickson: No doubt there are many complex economic and sociological factors that contribute to this worldwide trend. I don't want to simplify, but I do believe that, at the core, letting children grow up fatherless represents a decline of values and a poverty of the spirit. We focus on instant gratification in most aspects of our lives. In some cases children are an unfortunate byproduct of instant sexual gratification. In other cases they represent a desperate attempt -- on the part of the mother and/or father -- to fill a void or to feel important, but with little sense of the life they are creating. Children, who are terribly devalued in most parts of the world, too often are viewed as objects for our pleasure. Then when they get a bit testy, as kids always do, we want to let someone else deal with them.
Mahony: Nobody knows for sure why fathers have come to be superfluous. But scholars have noticed that when women's income goes up in a country, the divorce rate often rises after that. It looks like higher incomes give women the ability to bail out of marriages that made them miserable. Undoubtedly, this story is only part of what is happening.
Original to Utne Online