Fair warning: this is long, because it’s complicated and really annoying.
Yesterday, I saw an exhibit that featured photographs of fathers from around the world caring for their children. None of them featured the fathers at work, but rather feeding, hugging, reading and nurturing.
Not two hours earlier, I had read a piece called, The Father’s Example by Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, in the New York Times. It was so starkly juxtaposed in meaning and intent. Brooks’ piece was about the importance of work as an example to sons, male identity and happiness. On this surface of it, what he makes sense – he loves being able to take his son to work and set a good example. However, there is nothing specific to men or boys about finding value and a sense of worth in work and making “work the epicenter of a good life” as a parent is very troublesome proposition. The narrow and rigid definition of male parenting focused on men-as-producers remains one of the greatest obstacles to equality in the United States. It has long put “real fatherhood” on a direct collision course with women’s economic freedom and social equality and the dynamics of the traditional family in opposition to women’s parity – both in and out of the home. This isn’t necessary, but a cultural choice advocated by organizations like AIE.
First, men and women both experience positive gains from working and feeling productive. What they don’t both experience equally is positive gains from work that is paid or even called “work.” Boys are socialized to incorporate being providers as a primary aspect of their identities to their detriment.
Second, more than 50% of US children today will be raised, either entirely or for some significant portion of time, in single-family homes. In comparison to their peers in other high-income countries single parents in the United States fare the absolute worst by any metric you choose to examine.
Brooks moves seamlessly from his experience in wanting to provide a hard-working example to his son, to critique fatherless households where children are denied this example. He goes on to make the common argument that single-family homes headed by women hurt children by virtue of their fatherlessness, even though
- according to Pew research, motherless homes have increased nine-fold since 1960
- this is compared to a fourfold increase in single-family household’s headed by women.
Conservatives like to talk about the fatherhood crisis as though it results from the desire of single women to deny men their rightful due, women who make “bad decisions” and “hurt their children.” There is an endless stream of data regarding the plight of children who grow up in fatherless homes, this says a lot about what we feel is important. Google “Consequences of fatherlessness” and then “Consequences of motherlessness.” While the former is well populated with recent research, the latter is not. As a matter of fact, the second highest ranked link is from 1994 and there is no “scholarly articles” category front and center. There is also a decided lack of subtlety in media coverage and opeds like Cook’s, which tend to ignore the intersections of race, class, gender with parenting and childhood outcomes.
At the most basic level, the impact of poverty on the brain development, memory, mental processing and educational outcomes that Brooks cites as affected by fatherlessness, are clear. That a child living in a fatherless household is at risk for a whole host of phenomenon is inseparable from the fact that that child is also significantly more likely to be living in poverty. Fifty percent of never married single mothers live below the poverty line compared to 29% of never married fathers. In divorced households those numbers are 25% for female head of household families versus 14% for male. Conservatives often seize on marriage as the solution to the problem.
The problem isn’t single mothers, it’s what Professor Mariko Lin Chase calls “the motherhood wealth tax penalty” which includes “a motherhood wage penalty, restricted access to the wealth escalator, and the financial burden of being a sole custodial parent.” That our economy is optimized to meet the needs of single breadwinning male heads of households, more likely to be white, is rarely considered in the rush to condemn women who lead impoverished lives as a result. The suggestion that women should access financial security through marriage, a common one, amplifies one of the most central problems with perceptions of fatherhood today which can be boiled down to “men as money.” The proposal that marriage be a solution also only amplifies the problem of gendered wealth gaps in that women in marriages are financial assets that enable men to get on what Chang calls the “wealth escalator” in ways that are not gender symmetrical.
In general, conservatives ignore the sexist and racist implications of living in a society where money and marriage go hand-in-hand in favor of perpetuating the sexist, classist and racist stereotypes that make that fact a reality to begin with. Our system is built to support the patriarchal family as an economic unit and definitively penalizes those that don’t conform – especially those headed by women. The underlying nostalgia for a “father knows best” model pivots around the notion of control, not care; power not pennies. The difference can be found not in single mothers and fathers, but in their wage and wealth gaps; not in how we define “parenting” but in how we define “productive.”
Brooks’s call for good fatherhood as intrinsically tied to productivity is a testament to the well-understood and damaging ideals of the man box too many boys are shunted into. Not only does this emphasis limit men’s lives and reduce the likelihood that they are engaged parents, but it ignores the many ways for parents to be “productive” that have nothing to do with earnings. Today, 24% of all single-parent household are headed up by fathers, that’s more than 2.6 million. These men are “mothering” every day and yet by Brooks’s assessment they are “unproductive” parents.
Third, Brooks backs his argument up by writing about the “mancession.” Neither he, nor the New York Times, felt it was salient to discuss what the Times itself called the “he-covery, the follow up to what Brooks relies on to back up his argument. In the wake of what was described as the early harm to men, “employment trends during the recovery have favored men over women in all but one of the 16 major sectors of the economy.” The early loses in male job loss were disproportionately made up as the recession continued. It is true that over the past two decades men have experienced what historian Stephanie Coontz describes as the “sinking floor” - between 1970 and 2010 the median earnings of men fell by 19 percent, and those of men with just a high school diploma by a stunning 41 percent.” The degree to which that represents an equitable leveling of the playing field, or that that adjustment in earnings is why the gender wage gap has shrunk (as opposed to women being paid more) isn’t a hot topic at the AIE.
One of the biggest problems facing our society today is the conflation of male identity, and fatherhood in particular, with what Brooks calls “productivity” and what has historically been the “ideal [white male] worker” or, being what is, as effectively felt by so many men, a tireless money machine. Many men experience feelings of failure if they are not their families’ primary bread-winner. The deep and consequential effect that feeling this culturally gendered responsibility has on families cannot be underestimated. There are men who cannot live with themselves when women fulfill the traditional responsibilities of “fathering” in this way.
- Women who are a family’s primary breadwinner are 40% more likely to get divorced. They aren’t getting divorced by themselves.
- Men with higher income earning spouses are FIVE TIMES more likely to have extra-marital affairs.
That men feel this pressure is completely understandable given the persistent retrograde stereotypes that appear in virtually any aspect of childhood socialization you care to investigate – chores, speech, toys, sports, media, adult behavior. This socialization is rife with stereotypes of unempathetic, often violent, control-oriented, male behavior that haven’t changed in decades, indeed, they’ve gotten worse during the past twenty-five years of backlash. Now would be a good time for a reissue of Susan Faludi’s Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Male.
There are many men and women both who feel that nurturing and care are feminizing to men (a degradation of status for many) and that encouraging empathy in boys hurts them. Men and families labor with these stereotypes every day. That we fail to address this in a granular and systemic way, however, is a collective failure that reaches into education, work, the law, family courts and more.
That caring for ones offspring is perceived to be an emasculation should deeply disturb everyone. Men are more than capable of what we think of as “mothering.” Men are perfectly able, despite recurring mainstream narratives trying to portray them as bumbling fools and incompetent children, of taking care of babies, children and parents. It strikes me as insulting to say that there is something innate about boys and men that makes these provisions of care somehow more difficult or impossible for them.
Ideas about traditional roles for men and women as parents are unnecessarily gendered and raced in much of the conversation about a father crisis. Regardless of how people feel, men and women both need to work, married or not and, when they have children, their roles are increasingly converging. And everyone is feeling the pressure. It’s notable that conservatives like Brooks are among the greatest opponents of the very workplace changes that would alleviate this pressure: family friendly policies including paid family leave. The United States in only one of three countries in the world without paid maternity leave, which is symptom of our lack of interest in investing in care. The other two are Oman and Papua New Guinea. Forget paternity leave. Only 12% of US workers has access to any form of paid leave to take care of family.
In household’s where traditional, white, middle and upper middle class social mores don’t dominate roles are more parental roles are more fluid and forgiving, by necessity. Half of households with children of color live with single mothers, but black fathers are more likely to spend time with their kids than those in other demographic groups. The Center for Disease and Control found that Latino and White dads are less likely to spend time with their children. African American women have always had to work outside of the home and provide financially for their families, and African American men have provided care in greater measure.
Lastly, as with many of the solutions that focus on getting men back to work there is no mention of the work that magically gets done. Brooks only had a few hundred words to work with, and so he spends roughly 120 of them mocking Spain’s work ethnic and his in-laws instead of maybe the issue of who will care for families. Traditionally, as Brooks might say, that work has been done by mothers. And grandmothers. And daughters. Our national accounting continues to not value the people providing care, paid or unpaid, 98% of whom are mothers and grandmothers, domestic workers and nursing aids - we have long take unfair advantage of. The ideal that many conservatives seem to long for as an example for young boys is build on the backs of these women, who continue to do twice the amount of unpaid more. Mothers are twice as exhausted by childcare and have less leisure time than fathers, whose time with children is more focused on playing and pleasure, across the board.
The fact is, given our demographic realities, there are many women who father and fathers who mother, fulfilling the traditional roles of nurturing and providing, and they do it successfully even if it’s hard work. Their children are happy and learn to approach life with a better sense of equity for all.
It is notable that a child’s perception of their father’s emotional presence in one of the greatest predictors of whether or not that child will bully others. Children who “think their fathers work too much” are the most likely to bully. The absence of mothers who work does not have a similar effect.
Also, children who grow up in single parent households do not learn to divide chores (therefore work) by gender in the way that children in two parent households (including LGTB families) do. This has long-term implications for everyone.
The very people advocating for fathers by undermining working women and fair pay fail to appreciate that a wider social safety net, higher minimum wages and family-friendly workplace policies would actually accomplish their purported goals, not undermine them. Thirty percent of working fathers had to take time off of work, and 10% had to quit in order to provide care at home.
“Steeped in guilt and regret, our culture is a mother vs. father mine-littered battlefield,” explains Michele Weldon, Director, among other things, of Medill Public Thought Leaders. “The argument goes that a life without a father is a doomed one…In reality, millions of children—from infants to adults—manage successful, fatherless lives."
That “many traditions” emphasize the role of fathers to work, as Brooks points out doesn’t prove the virtue in anything, only that he, again unsurprisingly, believes in traditions. But, there is no inherent good in traditions. Many traditions also emphasize child rape, effective female slavery, the ritualized suppression of women’s free speech and more. That mothers can and should work as an example to children is not of interest to Brooks as a father or an advocate for fathers.
It seems fitting that, in closing Brooks harkens back to “Athens and Madrid, Rome and Lisbon.” You couldn’t cap off the heteropatriarchal ethos of his sentiments more perfectly if you tried.
The problem is that so many people see this as a “war of the sexes,” which, if you ever hear, screams “RUN AWAY.” This isn’t about men versus women. It’s about all of us laboring against the persistent institutionalization of rigid gender roles and responsibilities that fly in the face of reason, practicality, empathy and undervalued and critical care and challenging the oppressive systems that they are part of.
The question on Fathers Day, specifically though is, what price are men and children, especially those disconnected, paying for notions of masculinity tied to men feeling that “work is the epicenter of a good life” and empire being the capstone of a conversation about patrimony.
The question is, on Fathers Day especially, what price are men and children, especially those disconnected, paying for notions of masculinity tied to a specific notion of "work as the epicenter of a good life” and empire being the capstone of a conversation about parental ideals?