Life With Father, 1990s Style

During a recent annual review, a lawyer for a large East Coast law firm was closely questioned by the partners about his commitment to the law. The problem wasn't exactly a performance issue--his billable hours and work were perfectly fine--he just wasn't around as much as some of the other lawyers. His habit was to arrive at the office between 7:30 and 8 a.m. He left in time to catch the 6:30 bus, the last available bus home. He worked at home nights and on the weekends when necessary. The problem, it seems, was that he didn't do all his work in the office. To the partners, he wasn't putting in enough face time.In the young lawyer's opinion, he did not need to be at the office to get his work done and by leaving at 6:30 he could still get home to see his children before they went to bed. His response, then, to the partners: "If the choice on my epitaph is between great lawyer, good father or good lawyer, great father," he told them, "I'll take great father."The partners, however, were not the only ones putting pressure on their young colleague. His working wife demanded more as well. She had grown up in a family in which the only hints of her father's presence were dirty dishes in the sink, and she was adamant history wasn't going to repeat itself in her family. Her lawyer husband would be hands-on, and that didn't mean just "helping out" with the kids and running the household. She wanted a full-time partner.The young lawyer's dilemma certainly isn't unique. Indeed, with 54 percent of women with infants working full-time and two-income families an economic cornerstone of the 1990s, being a father has become a confusing and demanding juggling act for many American men. There is a resurgence of interest in understanding the critical role that fathers, whatever their background or economic status, play in family life and the raising of children. For years much of the focus was on mothers, in part because they were the ones whose roles initially changed as women traded aprons and spatulas for suits and briefcases. Now that working mothers are the norm rather than the exception, more and more attention is being paid to the other half of the equation, fathers.A few years ago men were beating drums in the woods to find themselves. No longer. Today more and more men are trying to become the good fathers they once promised themselves they would be.Fathering support groups and fathering programs are proliferating. Academic researchers and sociologists are beginning to focus on the role of fathers for the first time in decades. Fathers themselves, meanwhile, are actively seeking additional information. About 5,000 fathers log on monthly to Fathernet, an interactive bulletin board where fathers can exchange parenting advice and research. Vice President Al Gore--who's been known to log on to Fathernet--sponsors annual family policy conferences called Family Reunion that often focus on fatherhood.At last year's reunion, Gore spoke poignantly of a society that devalues fathers, whether by considering it unseemly if they leave work in time to be home for dinner, or if the school nurse only calls the mother when something is wrong. "How can fatherhood be meaningful in such a context?" Gore asked. "For a child does not learn to have an intimate, loving relationship with a father because once a week Dad awkwardly sets out on a walk around the block." Instead, Gore noted, "fatherhood becomes meaningful from the day-in, day-out experience of being home."But there is another facet to this new focus on fatherhood and its importance in society--and that is the growing realization that any redefinition of fatherhood will come to little if there is not fundamental change in the way mothers and wives view their own long-unquestioned role in the family --including an understanding of why and how some mothers actually prevent interested men from succeeding as fathers. Behind every successful father, researchers are beginning to suspect, there is a mother who is willing to let him do precisely that.That change is needed urgently is obvious. While most fathers are undoubtedly well-intentioned--72 percent say they feel stress from trying to balance home and work compared to only 12 percent a decade ago--fathers are abandoning children in record numbers in this country. Each night 40 percent of American children go to bed in households where there is no father. By contrast, in 1960 only 5 percent lived alone with their mothers. By the time today's children are 18, more than half of them are likely to spend a significant part of their childhoods living away from their fathers.While some men are more conscious of their role as fathers--they attend birth classes, for instance, and have a desire to spend more time with their children--far too many still leave the lion's share of childrearing to their working wives. They expect applause when they change a diaper or offer to help out by picking up Johnnie at daycare."In some respects we're beginnning to think we're futher along than we really seem to be," says Stephen Anderson, dean of the University of Connecticut's School of Family Studies. "Even though there is a heightened consciousness, men are not doing that much more in the home." Wives are still more likely than husbands to adjust their work schedules to accommodate child care needs. Even in families where the father takes care of the children while the mother works, 40 percent of mothers adjust their work hours to meet child care needs. By contrast, only six percent of fathers do.The reasons for this are many. Despite the unrealistic standards to which we hold mothers, we don't expect fathers to go the extra mile as far as child care is concerned. Wives and mothers do not expect husbands and fathers to take on household responsibilities. Examples of this crop up everywhere in American life, from welfare policies that actually punish fathers for marrying the mothers of their children to our national outrage over Susan Smith killing her two children--even as we continue to wallow in ambiguity over condemning O. J. Simpson.The results of this collective cultural failure are coming home to roost. To David Blankenhorn, president of the conservative-leaning Institute for Family Values in New York and author of Fatherless America (Basic Books, 1995), fatherlessness is the primary social problem facing America today. A host of ills--ranging from high crime rates to teen-age pregnancy and drop-out rates to people's ability to interrelate--can be traced, Blankenhorn says, to the fact that too many children in this country are being raised without strong male role models. "If we don't expect fatherhood from men, we won't get it. We're in uncharted waters here," he says. "It's a huge social crisis."It is a crisis that, while certainly trumpeted by the religious right, is not just a political issue. People of all classes, political affiliations and economic strata agree that the current way of doing business isn't working. "People are concerned we're in a social recession," Blankenhorn says, "and not doing right by our kids."It was not always this way. Until the late 1700s, fathers, not mothers, were considered the moral and legal guardians of children. Literature prior to that date generally ignored mothers and instead directed advice to fathers. "Mothers were too emotional for this serious job," says University of Minnesota professor and marriage counselor William Dougherty. The American Revolution, however, brought the first of many shifts in family dynamics. With men away fighting, women proved that they were, in fact, competent and autonomous, and that they, too, could mold character traits in their children. By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, writers were noting women's crucial role in infancy and the joys and importance of breast feeding.Motherhood continued its ascendency into the 19th century, especially in middle class American and western Europe. Key here was the change from a predominantly agrarian society to a more industrial one. As fathers' workplaces and homes grew more separate and they were absent from home more, mothers assumed more and more direction of the household and the children. Man was the bread-winner; woman was the nurturer. Custody in infrequent divorce proceedings started going to mothers, rather than fathers, for the first time.Enter the first wave of feminism in the early 20th century, when women began to expect fathers to be more nurturing. Around the same time, white-collar men in particular with the income and the leisure began to re-examine their understanding of the family. There was a sense among some that urbanization and materialism were affecting the family negatively, that a father had to be more than simply a bread-winner. "The boy," wrote one expert quoted in Fatherhood in America by Robert Griswold, "is building from infancy his conception of manhood, making little models in his thoughts of how he must behave to be a man. How false his models must be when they are based on brief, superficial glimpses of his father."The role of fathers remained essentially unchallenged except for a few blips such as Rosy the Riveter's entrance into the workplace during World War II, until the second wave of feminism hit in the 1970s. More women than ever before began to work outside the home and question the status quo. Today the younger sons and daughters of those women are fathers and mothers themselves. Meanwhile, the older children, babyboomers hitting their stride and smack in the middle of their child-rearing years, yearn to offer their children a different childhood than the one they experienced. Where their fathers were absent and more distant emotionally, they are going to be hands-on and more nurturing."More people are aware of what they could have had and wished they had," says Martha Farrell Ericson, director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, an organization that guides researchers and policymakers such as Vice President Gore. "People are expecting fathers to be involved and not just financially involved."That realization comes not a moment too soon as far as the Institute for Family Values' Blankenhorn is concerned. According to Blankenhorn controversial view, the last two hundred years have essentially been a write-off for fathers. No longer are fathers the moral educator, the head of family or family breadwinner. Instead they have watched their social role erode over time, slowly being devalued until today fatherhood has little social content or definition. The result has been a gradual disintegration of the line between masculinity and being a good father. And since being a good father, in many circles, is no longer a way to prove masculinity and men are not held accountable as fathers, the overwhelming response from men, Blankenhorn says, is why bother?In Blankenhorn's view, a litany of problems stem from this basic abdication of responsibility by men--including poverty, domestic violence, youth violence, unsafe neighborhoods and more. He concludes by noting that after the year 2000, when people born after 1970 will comprise a large proportion of the adult working age population, America will be divided not only economically but emotionally into two groups--those with the emotional, psychological, moral, economic and educational benefits of living with a father and those without.Not everyone agrees, however. Richard Weissbourd, a fellow at Harvard University whose speciality is studying the risks to children and their resilience, calls the idea that fatherlessness is responsible for almost all social problems a myth. "Even if every kid grew up with two parents, the drop-out rate would be 13 percent," he says, noting the national average now is about 19 percent. "We would still have lots of social problems if every kid grew up in two-parent family."James Levine, founder and director of the Families and Work Institute, a New York think tank that is also home of the nationwide Fatherhood Project, offers even harsher criticism of Blankenhorn's book. "It creates the illusion that there is some simple, one-size-fits-all fix for the American family solution," he says of Blankenhorn's suggestion that fathers needs to return to the strong fathers of yesteryear. "You can't just plop dads down into the family or give them new roles. It's a process. If we just expect there to be a quick fix, we're going to be frustrated."When it comes to fixes, one point is obvious in talking to experts and fathers alike. Any significant change in the way fathers relate to their children has to involve foundation-shattering changes in the structure of the workplace. Ask just about any father what stops him from spending as much time or being as involved as he would like with his children, and you'll almost certainly hear some variation on this response: time and money.Sure, some companies have flex-time and paternity leaves, but woe to the father who actually takes advantage of them. He open himself to charges that he isn't serious about his job. He cannot be relied upon to give his job his all. He's not promotion material. No wonder so few men take advantage of paternity leave. It's a Catch-22. If they follow the workplace game plan, then they lose out on spending time with their children, thereby disappointing themselves and their wives who expect them to share more fully in parenting. If they head for home, then they're not being "good" providers and failing in an area that is essential to their self-worth and definition--their job.That mixed message is all part and parcel of the lip service corporate America pays the family. "For the last decade we've focused on a family-friendly workplace, but that has implicitly meant mother-friendly," says Levine, "So the way we define the problem has limited the solution." Parental leave, for instance, is one such red herring. "There is a tendency to say, "Aha, look at that. We gave them the leave and they didn't take it,'" Levine says, noting that there are lots of very practical reasons why men shouldn't be expected to take parental leave. "It's the wrong indicator to look for. Instead we should look at day-to-day practice." Indeed, his new book, called New Expectations, will do just that when it is published this fall.Down this path lies the Excedrin headache.That's certainly the way Jeff Harman's often feels after putting in a 10 or 11 hour day driving a truck for United Parcel Service. He says money and job inflexibility are the key barriers preventing him from spending as much time as he would like with his children. It wasn't always this tough. In his first marriage, he had more time for his children, who are now 23 and 19. What he didn't have was much money.Now, as the father of a seven- and nine-year-old, he has neither. "The biggest social change in the middle class family is both parents better work goddamn it or you're not going to make it," he says, ticking off a list of things he can't afford to do. "I see that as a very real hindrance. When you're not successful financially, certain things happen that are out of your control and then things in your social family become stressed."Mark Diters, a father of three in Connecticut, agrees. "Culturally we're set up that for the male to be worthwhile he has to support the family," he says. "Boys are taught from the start to either go to work or go to war. The more important the job, the less family life they have." A general manager in the dry cleaning business, Diters is one of the luckier dads. He's home most evenings by 5 p.m., which gives him a chance to have dinner with his children every night and coach all of them in soccer and baseball. He also teaches Sunday school. Still, the workplace dilemma is evident in how he views his fathering. "There's no flexibilty. I feel guilty not being there," Diters says, adding he's only been to one daytime school program. "A lot of my fathering is insufficient."Harman is straightforward about his inadequacies. "I've made a conscious effort to be different than my father, " he says. "The ghost of my father and the way I grew up is a hard burden to shake. It's a palpable existence still." Harman is interested in counseling, but then reality hits again. "Where do I get the time and get paid to do that? At times I'm brilliant as a father," he says. "Other times I'm as blind as a bat. I feel as encumbered with the legacy of my father's tutelage as anyone would. If I had more free time I could come closer to figuring it out."That sense of frustration is borne out by research. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead is a colleague of Blankenhorn's at the Institute for Family Values and the author of the controversial Atlantic Monthly article, "Dan Quayle Was Right" several years ago. She has studied the economics of fatherhood and has concluded that good marriages and good jobs for men seem to be related. "If men can't fulfill some kind of role as provider, whether in partnership with spouse or as a solo provider," she says, "being able to provide economically for his children is a very important part of a father's identity."And it's here that the shift in women's roles as breadwinners has become crucial to understanding men's frustration about work and their kids. Historically, men have derived their sense of being from doing something women didn't do. "The ritual Daddy's home, the breadwinner's returned to the household, that's gone now," Whitehead says. In a cultural sense the unique and heroic male part is "less heroic," she says. "Women are economic heroes here too."There is another intriguing--and controversial--theory that explains why men are not the fathers they or their spouses would like them to be. The problem? Mothers. This is more than just a 1990s twist on the old saw that mothers are responsible for everything that goes wrong in the household. How many times have you seen a father jiggling a crying baby only to have the mother swoop down, grab the baby from his arms, and say something like, "That's not the way to do it. Susie likes to be rocked when she's upset."Even women who want their husbands to be involved with the children often find themselves criticizing their husbands for not doing the job exactly the way they would. Fewer realize that they cannot criticize husbands in matters of childraising and then expect them willingly to volunteer to do more. The truth may be that if mothers want their husbands to be better fathers, they have to give their husbands the space to learn how.It sounds simple and yet it is incredibly difficult for many women to overcome. "The net effect is fathers become somewhat reluctant because there is a mixed message," says UConn's Anderson. "On the one hand there is the incentive to be more involved and on the other the message is you're not doing it right."Of course, since women may feel their very identity as mothers is at stake, it should not be surprising that there may be external as well as interior conflicts over who's in charge--or who best understands the needs of the children. After all, for years the home defined women's identity just as the workplace defined men's. "This is a real big one," says Dougherty, who says this issue crops all the time in therapy sessions. "The assumption is that mothers know best. It's a source of power that some mothers are reluctant to give up.""It's not easy for women to give up roles they have been accustomed to playing and been rewarded for doing so well," says Levine. "As much as mothers complain about him not being involved, if you look at what's really happening she's unwittingly undermining what she really wants to be happening with him."It's an attitude that is tacitly approved, Levine believes. Institutions from hospitals to schools continually downplay fathers' roles in raising their children, often treating them more like errand boys than adults responsible for the children in their home. Take parent-teacher conferences. "The teacher's body is posed to make eye contact with the mother, tilted toward the mother's, giving subtle and not so subtle cues to the father that he doesn't count so much," Levine says. "They're really small incidences but when you add them up that's how you get a set of cultural patterns and norms and expectations."Culturally, Americans are inclined to see a mother's commitment as a lifelong, permanent commitment. In contrast, a father's relationship is much more determined by events, in particular his relationship with the mother. "Fathers are dependent on mothers for their fatherhood much more than mothers depend on fathers for their motherhood," Blankenhorn says. "If a mother is hostile or indifferent to fatherhood, that man's fatherhood is in trouble." The result can be range from overt actions to undermine fathers' attempts to be with their children--most obviously seen during custody battles--to far more subtle manipulations of the father's relationship with his children.One potential solution may be to change the basis on which fathers' relationships with children are judged, so that they are no longer so dependent on the quality of a man's marriage. "We have to disconnect fatherhood in some ways," says Dougherty. "We have to develop the same ethic of fatherhood that we have for manhood."But there is another interpretation of how newly independent wives and mothers are trying to reshape family relationships that may be far more insidious. This is the idea that mothers, by asking men to be more nurturing, more sensitive, are really saying that to be good fathers, men must become more like mothers. Blankenhorn is blunt. By demanding that men become more motherly, society is implying that masculinity is a problem to be overcome. "We're holding men to an implicit maternal standard of parenthood," he says.This is a specious argument, says Levine. "It's a fear but I think it's a fantasy fear. Is there any kid who doesn't know the difference between their father and their mother? That's part of a larger anxiety and crisis about the displacement of men's roles and position of power in general."While the experts spar over this issue, some fathers may wonder 'What's the big deal?' If anything, recognizing so-called feminine attributes will probably make men better fathers. But the real point is that if fathers and mothers act nurturing and supportive, assertive and aggressive, as necessary, then children will begin to associate those behaviors not with gender but with being human. "I don't see a way for that to happen unless kids exposed to both men and women," says Anderson sensibly.That means allowing men to exert their influence on children. The qualities men bring to fatherhood are no more or less cliched than those attributed to motherhood. If women are in general teach nurturing and caring, men may encourage emotional independence and risk-taking. If it's the other way around, so be it. Some studies point to fathers' specific role in helping with moral development and moral reasoning. Others show that fathers help with future relationships; for daughters, a father may influence her choice of partners and how she views herself. Sons, meanwhile, learn how to relate to women and girls.No matter what individual fathers offer, most everyone agrees it's fundamentally unique. "By virtue of being male, and I'm making no great claims for males, you're intrinsically different in fundamental ways," Harman says. Fathers, for example, feel pressure to keep functioning no matter what happens, thereby developing a certain resilience. "That kind of resilience to all kinds of pressure can give stability to your children," he says.Perhaps the real key, says Martha Farrell Ericson, is figuring out how both genders undermine children's, in particular little boys', need for closeness and nurturing. Boys are hardly out of diapers before both parents start telling them not to cry. "People are as capable of nurturing as they have been nurtured," says Martha Farrell Ericson. "We haven't done a good job preparing little boys to be the next generation of fathers."So what does the future hold? "The most important thing to change is our minds," says Blankenhorn. "Fundamentally this is a cultural problem. Does every child deserve a father? We're a society that doesn't know the answer to that."Perhaps. But you don't have to believe, like Blankenhorn, that fatherlessness is the root of all evil to see that signs of change are afoot everywhere. More fathers today are actively involved in their children's lives than ever, and more mothers want them involved. But it's going to take much more than just good intentions and gimmicky corporate personnel policies to bring respectability or value back to fatherhood. Flextime and paternity leave alone will not do the trick. Cheerleading is not enough, either, says the Institute for Family Living's Barbara Whitehead. "You can't just go out and yell fatherhood, fatherhood, fatherhood, and expect change to take place," she says.If ever there was an obvious need for more parental connection to children, it's now. Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said that the supreme test of any civilization is whether it can socialize men by teaching them to be fathers. Just how civilized America is in the years to come remains to be seen.

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