Another Father’s Day is upon us and it’s ironic that it was preceded by a controversial Time magazine cover and article asking women if they’re "Mom enough". It’s another shot in the on-going, low-intensity war amongst mothers pitting stay-at-home moms and working moms as a significant minority of the stay-at-homes practice attachment parenting; the philosophic premise is that strong bonds and stronger babies are the result of a high-contact environment between mothers and infants. Natually, there are women – such as the young mother on the cover – who tend to take the philosophy to an extreme. It does however, beg the question of what it means to be a father.
If I’m going to be a father, what does that mean? What precisely does a father do and what is my primary role with the kids and family? This isn’t a theoretical exercise as several decades of social and economic change have whipsawed the American family and American fathers in particular.
Rise of Divorce
While the divorce rate amongst American marriages has leveled off in recent years, it rose significantly from the 1960s in part to the adoption of no-fault policies by many states. With courts siding with the mother for child custody, a significant number of children found themselves in family units in which there was minimal paternal involvement. These kids became adults and the results of the divorce became apparent as co-habitation became acceptable with fewer opting to marry so as to preserve their ability to simply walk away should things not work out. The girls of divorce also saw their mothers struggle as they were forced to both parent the kids and keep a roof over the heads; while difficult, there was a role model for the girls. The boys of divorce weren’t so fortunate as the fathers were largely removed and sidelined, some struggling to stay involved in a meaningful way and others simply giving up. These boys were often left with no meaningful role model for a father who was involved on a regular basis.
Portrayal in the Media
Television has been a central role in American culture since the early 1950s and the portrayal of the American father has changed dramatically in that time. Jim Anderson of Father Knows Best is an early portrayal of the American father, but while unrealistic, Dad was portrayed positively. The paternal roles shifted with society over the decades until the late 1980s with the arrival of Married with Children’s Al Bundy, and the floor completely gave way under television’s view of Dad. While the entire family structure was lampooned, the idea of Dad took a huge hit and the hits kept on coming with Homer Simpson and any number of other television fathers who were portrayed as clueless, well-meaning fools who were kept in line by the watchful eye of Mom and more often than not, the kids. There were isolated instances in which fathers received a friendly portrayal, but it’s only been in the past two or three years that the father has begun to receive realistic portrayals, such as in NBC’s Parenthood.
Feminism/Changing Role of Women in Society
Women have advocated for change in their place in society and that’s a good thing as our resources are wasted when half of our society’s members are relegated to very gender-specific roles. But change isn’t always pretty nor is it easy. Hard-core feminists have advocated for the right of women to fully enter the political and business realm, but while that push talks up the ability of women, it has frequently also entailed denegrating men in different facets. For more than a generation, women entered the workforce with the expectation of having a successful career and a family; the notion was pushed by media and feminism that you really could have it all. Unfortunately, being successful financially and professionally requires commitment and time – what children require in spades. There’s an additional impact upon children as a small but growing number of women opt to finally become single mothers after spending the time and energy to become professionally successful at the expense of their personal lives. While the number is small, the ripple effect is the question what’s the use of a father? to younger women.
It’s become apparent in the past decade that the Golden Age of the American economy is coming to a close. Globalization has shifted high-value employment overseas and our own economy has become much more dependent upon the service and public sectors for employment. Family income is now dropping and it’s become apparent that the American standard of living has been maintained by an easy flow of credit; we could afford the niceties because of our ability to borrow to pay for them but the debt has reached strangulation levels. The effect of globalization has also been pernicious upon the family as many of those jobs flowing away were traditionally filled predominantly by men. Likewise, the collapse of construction spending meant that predominantly masculine construction jobs also took hits. Women in the workforce is now not only a matter of choice, but of necessity.
All of these factors have come together in a nasty, potent brew greatly affecting the institution of fatherhood in America. Men are working under considerable pressure to create workable models of fatherhood for their children and it would be helpful if there was at least a template of expectations against which they could draw the components.
Next article: Redefining Fatherhood – A Response