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Saturday, August 28, 2004

American Fatherhood

A little child turns her innocent eyes upward. Searching adult eyes, she hunts for the eyes of her father. Every passing male could be him. Another child who has a father grows up confused. To him, dad just seems like an additional mom. In America the idea of becoming a "father" has developed into an uncertain proposition. Fatherhood’s image, in the last years of the twentieth century, has developed a split personality which has many negative consequences and one solution.

Recently in America there have been several catch phrases in regard to the family. The ideal situation is supposed to be a "traditional family" in which there is one mother and one father with two to three children. The gay/lesbian lifestyle, divorce, and out of wedlock sexual activity are making this ideal family seem as far away as the Brady Bunch is from the Simpsons. Another common catch phrase is "new fatherhood." "New Fatherhood [is] more nurturing and soft-edged, less rigid and aloof" (Barnes 380). If new fatherhood is taken to an extreme, it can lead a father to become a member of the first split in the image of fatherhood.

The first split of fatherhood’s image has developed out of the new fatherhood mentality. The father who becomes excessively nurturing will turn into another mother. Jerrold Lee Shapiro describes it this way, "If you become Mr. Mom, the family has a mother and an assistant mother" (Gibbs 54). A father in this type of mentality will always feel inadequate, or like he is in a competition with the mother for the child’s time and love.

This image of fatherhood is also supported by today’s society. Advertisements and television shows are idolizing images of father replacing mother, or of father becoming another mother. Contemporary values also discriminate against fathers. Shapiro states that society wants you to be involved and take on the role of an inadequate mother. Fathers are also invited into the birthing room and nurturing process but you must check fears and anger at the fatherhood door because only support is allowed inside (Gibbs 53-54). This repressed fear and anger might be taken out on the mother or child and could ultimately break up what ordinarily could be a happy family.

The second contemporary image of fatherhood is that of an empty chair at the head of the dinner table. A startling number of children today are left to search for a non-existent father or get angry at the world because they didn’t have a dad to be there when they were growing up. An increase in divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births mean that 40% of children born between 1970 and 1984 will spend their entire life with no father (Gibbs 54-55). The problem also gets worse when you cross racial lines. The Census Bureau reported only a 10% increase in white, absentee fathers since 1970 while the number of black absentee fathers rose over 20% since 1970 (Frost 17).

The cure to this dual idea of fatherhood has two main parts. First of all, the father must be there in the child’s life. The first step in this process might be the father dealing with his own problems. This might include getting over an addiction, recovering from a bout of depression or dealing with any other unresolved item that might negatively influence his fathering skills. Fathers can’t run away, give up or decide not to care. Like Fred Barnes says, "Forget quality time. You can’t plan magic moments or bonding or epiphanies in dealing with kids. What matters is quantity time" (378). How can you enjoy the setting of the sun or ascent of the moon from the comfort of a dark cave?

This issue has an impact on society as well. Children with no fathers in their lives have and cause far more problems. Nancy Gibbs cites many of these problems in her 1993 article in Time: 70% of juveniles in state reform are from fatherless homes; children of fatherless homes are two times as likely to drop out of high school; and depression, underachieving and troubled relationships will plague their lives (55).

The second part of the cure for fatherhood’s split personality is that fathers need to realize that they are not mothers. Mother and father are different, and their respective roles are different as well. This is not a reference to the fifty’s and sixty’s image of family in which the father goes off to work while the mother stays at home with the children. The physical roles the parents play are rather unimportant in the big picture. What really does matter is that each parent present a different cultural image. Mothers traditionally protect their children while fathers try to push them out into the world. "In other words," says David Blankenhorn, "a father produces not just children but socially viable children" (Gibbs 61). If both parents are trying to nurture the child it will never learn how to survive on its own. Human mothers have a hard time letting their flock leave the nest. They would never make it as a bird who has to push their young out. That is what human fathers are supposed to do. Children who grow up with a "mother and an assistant mother" will be more confused about their role in society. These children will have just as many problems as those with no father. The only difference will be that their problems will be more internalized and not as much in the public eye.

Very few people would support an initiative for fathers not being present in their child’s life. Many people do believe, however, that fathers should become more like mothers. Bell Hooks believes that "men will not share equally in parenting until they are taught, ideally from childhood, that fatherhood has the same meaning and significance as motherhood" (366). No one would argue that fatherhood is just as significant as motherhood but their respective meanings are never going to be the same. She believes that we will some day live in a unisex world. We must live in the now and realize that there are vast differences between men and women. That difference directly affects what contemporary society expects of them. Children that are raised in this fantastical manner are overcome by sex-differences when they enter the real world.

A little child should not be left to wonder who father is. Neither should they grow up in a house where they will leave confused about their role in society. Both of these scenarios leave permanent and devastating marks on a person’s psyche. A father should, first of all, be there with his child while not trying to take the mother’s place. A father must strive to avoid these dual pitfalls and remember that the future happiness of that child can depend on his influence. Fatherhood in America must work through its identity crisis before the children are scarred any more.

Works Cited:

Barnes, Fred. "Quantity Time." Taking A Stand: A Guide to the Researched Paper with Readings. Ed. Irene L. Clark. 2nd ed. New York: Harper Collins, 1996. 378-380

Frost, Dan. "The Lost Art of Fatherhood." American Demographics 18 (1996): 16-18

Gibbs, Nancy R. "Fatherhood: The Guilt, The Joy, The Fear, The Fun That Come With a Changing Role." Time 28 June 1993: 53-61

Hooks, Bell. "Revolutionary Parenting." Taking A Stand: A Guide to the Researched Paper with Readings. Ed. Irene L. Clark. 2nd ed. New York: Harper Collins, 1996. 363-373
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