Achieving Full Fathering


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

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

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
(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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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