Patricia Fry is a freelance writer and publisher from Ojai, California. This essay is excerpted from Patricia Fry's book in progress, Fatherhood and Fathering: The Ultimate Guide for Today's Dad.
Fathering has become fashionable. But because their role models are outdated, countless men are struggling in this capacity. Today, fatherhood doesn't necessarily imply a wage-earning married man who lives with the mother of his children. The concept of dear old dad has taken on new dimensions, thus creating greater challenges for men who want to fulfill even the basic requirements of being someone's dad.
Our neighborhoods are filled with estranged dads who pay child support for the privilege of spending every other weekend with their kids. Too many of these men become walk-away fathers, leaving millions of our children dangerously deficient in the dad department. At the other end of the spectrum, the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures reveal that over 2.75 million of our children are being raised by their fathers.
We read a lot about the challenges and joys of motherhood in today's changing world. But how are America's fathers faring in their relationships with their children? In a recent study, 74 percent of the men polled said they would rather have a daddy-track job than a fast- track job: They want jobs with fewer demands and more flexible hours to allow more time with their families.
Those who are blessed with time for their children often feel unsure about their roles as nurturer, teacher, and disciplinarian. Fathering skills were not a part of their upbringing either by example or education.
THE LEGACY OF FATHERHOOD
Today's parents, whether their children are five or fifty-five, grew up in an age when a father's primary responsibility to his family was financial. Our fathers typically worked all day and came home to relax with a hot meal, the newspaper, and a favorite radio or television program. Mother, whether she worked outside the home or not, managed the household and child-care duties.
For the most part, twentieth-century fathers limited their parenting to that of ultimate decisionmaker. While children commonly brought important issues to Mom's attention, Dad had the final say. Dad was to be feared when you'd been naughty. Who doesn't remember Mom saying, "Just wait until your father gets home." You spent the rest of the day in anticipation of your punishment, which was rarely as bad as you had imagined.
Children growing up during the first two-thirds of the last century certainly interacted with their fathers, but these encounters were usually brief and carefully orchestrated to fit his agenda of work and relaxation. Typically, family discussions, over which the father presided and which often included behavior issues involving the children, took place at the dinner table. Sunday afternoon was reserved for family activities and customarily included members of the extended family. The women prepared a meal, and the men lit up their choice of tobacco and engaged in manly conversation. The children were relegated to the yard.
While many adults today recall special and close moments with their dads, some remember their fathers as stoic and emotionally distant. For these children, there were no rough-and-tumble playtimes, no father/child togetherness activities, and no spirited family discussions around the dinner table. Some adults remember living the concept in their own homes that "children should be seen and not heard."
"We were not to disturb father when he was relaxing, which was just about anytime he was at home," recalls 48-year-old Timothy. "Mother would prompt us to walk on 'quiet feet' and use our 'whisper voices.' He never had the time or, I guess, even the inclination to get to know us kids. I don't remember him ever hugging, kissing, or tickling any of us. As far as he was concerned, we belonged to mother."
Steven, 47, tells a similar story: "When I grew up and had children, I didn't have a clue what a father should do. Us baby boomers didn't have much to go on as role models for fathering. My dad seldom spoke to us kids about anything unless it was something he liked to discuss, like football. I hate football. We were never taken anywhere. Dad spent his vacation time working around the house. My brothers and I have few fond memories of growing up. What we do remember and what I still carry with me is the pain of Dad's emotional and physical absence."
Although it would be inaccurate to lump all twentieth-century fathers together, it's clear that parenting skills were not generally a man's priority. Nor was parenting something men felt was within their area of expertise. They had wives who adequately tended their children, and they saw no need to do anything more than bring home the bacon.
THE SHAPING OF THE AMERICAN FAMILY
In any society, the family is shaped primarily by sociocultural and socioeconomic trends. The Industrial Revolution defined the contours of the families in which most of us grew up.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, American cities were growing and business was flourishing. Lured by higher wages and the opportunity for a better life for their families, men left their farms and small home industries in great number and went to work in offices, stores, factories, and mills.
In an article appearing in the February 1995 issue of Minnesota Parent Magazine, Neil Tift, cofounder of the Fathers' Resource Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, describes the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the family:
"For hundreds of years, child-rearing was the shared responsibility of both parents. Cottage industries, which prevailed from the Middle Ages until the late 19th century, permitted mothers and fathers to live, work and raise their children together within the home. This benefitted the entire community. Those who needed bread went to the home of the baker who made and sold or bartered the bread from his cottage. If someone needed a horse shod, he went to the home of the blacksmith. Parents taught their own trade to their children or sent them to the home of the tailor or candlemaker to apprentice in a preferred vocation. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the early 20th century, our society witnessed the wide-scale separation of the male from the household. Fathers became employed outside the home in greater numbers to toil in factories and assembly lines and women's work expanded to include total responsibility for tasks within the home, including child-rearing."
While men were excited about meeting the challenges of this economic awakening and were quickly caught up in the competitive spirit of the day, they also felt a sense of loss. They missed their children and the intimate connection with their homes. Convinced that their new work away from home was in the best interest of the family, however, fathers swallowed their pain and vowed to work better and harder for the family.
World War II tore deeply into family unity when, in many cases, both parents were forced to leave the home. While fathers sacrificed all in battle, the nation's mothers took jobs to support their families and country.
When the war ended, most women gave up their jobs and returned home to their children. The "rightful" breadwinners, our fathers, went back to work. Men had a new focus now: to create a better life and a secure future for their families. This became the American dream.
THE WOMAN'S INFLUENCE ON FATHERHOOD
Despite the family man's attempt to give his wife everything under the sun and his desire to keep her at home, she became restless. Over the years, her job as homemaker had been devalued by a male-dominated society, and she began to resent being known as "just a housewife."
Men were creating some exciting new challenges for themselves within the world of business and politics. To women whose days were filled with cleaning, laundry, ironing, baking, diaper changing, and the constant demands of active youngsters, their husbands' lives seemed fascinating. Men were achieving and being acknowledged for their accomplishments. Women longed to be appreciated for their efforts but knew they would have to accomplish something outside the realm of homemaking and mothering to become praiseworthy.
In the meantime, women noticed that their contributions in the workplace were receiving less compensation than those of their male counterparts. Nor were they being given equal opportunities for advancement. Women began banding together to speak out on these issues, and a movement was soon in motion. Thus began the most significant reshaping of the American family since the Industrial Revolution.
Former stay-at-home moms seemed to thrive in their new role as working mothers, and they quickly adjusted to the demands of juggling home and work. Many men, however, objected to their wives working.
While some men succeeded in delaying the inevitability of their wives joining the workforce, theirs was a short-lived victory as the 1970s ushered in a sluggish economy that required new strategies. Eager to help boost the family over the financial hump, many more mothers joined the ranks of the employed.
In most instances, the two-paycheck family was born of necessity, but it still wasn't an easy concept for fathers to swallow. Men were reluctant to accept the fact that they could no longer single-handedly support their families. And women cut even deeper into their husbands' wounds by asking them to help out at home.
Oh, how the game of life was changing as women began making up the new "rules." Women were now working shoulder to shoulder with men, so the measure of a man could no longer be defined through breadwinning. Men, attempting to recoup their sense of maleness through home and family, failed to meet their wives' strict standards. It's no wonder that men were confused. Disappointed, disillusioned, and wounded, segments of men set out in search of a new male identity.
THE INVOLVED FATHER
In their desperate need to redefine manhood, they were forced to explore their own role models. For many this was an unhappy journey, as it opened the wounds caused by their fathers' emotional or physical absence.
Some men learned how to heal relationships with their fathers through understanding and forgiveness. They vowed to be a very different kind of dad to their own kids. And a trend was in motion.
Young fathers became eager to involve themselves in their children's lives from the start. Men were invited into the delivery room. Doctors urged fathers to bond with their new babies through cuddling and care. Parenting classes began including men. Fathers rearranged their schedules so they could accompany Mom and the baby to the pediatrician. And Dad even started taking baby out by himself.
Some fathers, desirous of spending more time with their children, began rethinking their career choices and postponed or changed careers for the sake of more time with their families. Countless others, still wounded because they could no longer support their families in the changing economy and unwilling or unable to accept more responsibility within the family, bailed out and left their families scrambling.
IN THE WAKE OF THE RECESSION
The recession of the late 1980s pushed even more fathers over the edge. Corporate cutbacks punched families below the belt, and the concept of company loyalty became a memory. More women were forced into the job market, whether they wanted to go or not, and fathers were expected to share even more in child care and housework.
Millions of fathers were victims of downsizing, their positions suddenly obsolete. Most tried to find new jobs but discovered they were virtually unemployable in an economy gone sour. In fact, of the 11.7 million Americans who lost their jobs between January 1981 and January 1990, one-third remained unemployed. No longer able to afford their lifestyles of choice, American families were forced to consider creative new options--role reversal, for example.
Some men who were unable to replace their jobs agreed to stay home with the kids while their wives accepted whatever work they could find. For many fathers, this was degrading. Although some felt devalued in their role as househusband, others found great satisfaction in it.
Peter Baylies of North Andover, Massachusetts, took his infant son out of day care and became the primary caretaker after losing his job. When he and his wife noticed the positive effect on their family life, Baylies decided to stay home permanently. According to Baylies, "My wife no longer worried about our son being in day care. There were no more two-hour commutes or worries about weather or rush-hour traffic. And my son's temperament changed."
Dan and Kim Dunsmore noticed a shift in their daughter's demeanor when Dan started staying home with her, too. Dan was a teacher in Charlottesville, Virginia; Kim, a physician. Theirs was more a decision than something forced upon them. When their daughter was six, Dan quit his job. He said, "I did this for her sake but also for my own sake, for my wife's sake--for the sake of the sanity of the family." He explains, "When we'd all get home in the evenings, everyone was so exhausted that we just couldn't spend any time together. It finally hit me, what's the point of everybody leaving the house at 7:30 in the morning and coming back home too tired to even function together. We were living lives away from our daughter, and we had created this neurotic five-year-old. This just didn't make sense to me anymore."
What are the benefits of being an at-home dad? According to John Slevens of Berkley Heights, New Jersey, "I've developed a closeness with my sons that I never could have if my wife was still with them all the time."
Mark Colantonio, a Hollister, Massachusetts, firefighter who is the primary caretaker for his small son when he's home, says, "I don't think a lot of fathers have a chance to get this close to their children."
THE REALITY OF PATERNAL IMPRINTING
But the transition from working Dad to caretaking Dad isn't easy for most men. Kelly Gene Davis, in an article for Full-Time Dads, says, "I was not raised to care for children nor to clean house and cook meals for I was a boy and these areas were unnecessary for me to learn."
Bruce Gladstone of the Gladstone Counseling Center in Ojai, California, is one professional who is greatly bothered by the fact that society is slow to recognize the importance of the father's involvement within the family. He explains, "Since women carry and bear our children and are physically equipped to feed them early in life, it has been assumed quite naturally that they are better suited to childrearing than fathers. Nurturing and caring for a child has traditionally been regarded as 'woman's work' and unmanly.
"Even before the Industrial Revolution, men hunted, waged war, grew crops, constructed buildings, made and sold products. Women cared for the children. Most boys and girls rarely experienced their fathers as a source of warmth, affection, softness, nurturance, and emotional support."
Today, we're asking men to be fathers. But boys need a living example of what it is to be a man and a father. Lynn Weeks, a family and marriage counselor in Ventura, California, understands this need. Looking back now, he says, "I needed to be confirmed as a male, which I think is, perhaps, the most essential thing I needed from my father. My father was present but absent. In his absence, I relied entirely upon the blessings of other men and the approval of my peers."
Many experts believe that boys without strong male role models are at higher risk of becoming gang members. A fatherless boy is as likely to look to a gang leader for support and guidance as he is a boys' club leader, teacher, or church leader, for example. If he's carrying around the unresolved grief of abandonment, he may even lean toward the gang leader, for in that environment, he'll surely have the opportunity to act out his anger.
BREAKING THE CYCLE
Some boys grow up to become the fathers they wanted despite lousy role models. Anthony, 36, recalls, "I can remember how it felt to look out into the audience of parents when I was in a school play or to scan the spectators' bench when I was playing sports and seeing that my dad had not shown up again. I don't ever want my kids to feel the way I did back then. I take a genuine interest in their activities. Not only is this a plus for them, but my involvement is helping me to heal my own father longing."
Forty-year-old Gerald stopped the cycle of fatherlessness in his family. Raised by an alcoholic mother and an abusive, alcoholic stepfather, he has few happy childhood memories. According to Gerald, "I was alone a lot, either at home or waiting in the car for them to finish 'one more drink.' I've never felt I was very important to them. To this day, Dad never calls or writes. When I call him, he just makes excuses why he has to get off the phone right away. I have my own kids now. They're great kids, and I spend a lot of time with them.
"People who know about my childhood sometimes ask about my strong involvement with my kids. I tell them, 'I just try to be how I wanted my father to be.' I wish things had been different for me, but I can't do anything about that. I can help to make life good for my kids, though," says Gerald.
Ronald, too, has grim memories of his childhood. He says, "Dad was drunk and always coming home late. I lay awake listening to him beat Mom, her crying, him loading guns while giving us kids' names to each bullet, watching him choke her to unconsciousness and on and on. I ran away from home for the first time at age fourteen. I got heavy into drugs and alcohol. I stole cars, broke into houses. From age sixteen to eighteen, I was mostly incarcerated--a total loser. Now I have three sons, and they never cry themselves to sleep because of what Daddy's doing to Mommy. They don't feel a wave of terror when I come home from work. Thank God they'll never know that terror."
HELP IS ON THE WAY
While some men are successfully working their own way out of the mire of negative paternal imprinting, more programs are becoming available for those who need help.
"Too many fatherless boys end up fathers themselves, extending their legacy of hopelessness to a new generation," according to Charles Ballard, founder and president of the Institute for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Revitalization. "Fatherhood is inside every boy at birth, but the kind of nurturing he gets from his father will determine how far it goes."
Through his institute, Ballard tries to take up the slack where former generations of fathers have failed. He works with young fathers to help them build their self-esteem, resolve issues with their own fathers, find solutions to problems with the mothers of their children, learn parenting skills, and get decent work.
Ballard, who started this program in Cleveland and is in the process of expanding it to other states, says that 97 percent of the two thousand- plus dads who have graduated from his program are now more involved fathers who help support their children.
Are programs such as Ballard's necessary? It seems so. It's obvious that boys aren't learning parenting skills at home. And, as Gladstone points out, mainstream society isn't providing in this area. "I'm worried about how we teach young boys to be fathers or young girls to be mothers," says Gladstone. "It seems that our schools don't concern themselves with these roles very much.
"The most important things that are going to happen in your life are being married and trying to have a long-term relationship with somebody. The reason for doing that is so you can raise a family and society can have a certain level of prosperity and stability. Yet we neglect the teaching of those things. We assign them to the family or to religious organizations, both of which don't really work out too well."
Fatherlessness and the decline of the traditional family have an extremely serious effect on America's children and the future of our society. The repercussions are visible now.
Every father is responsible for the lessons his children learn. A child with access to her father learns about life and living through interactions with him. Fatherless children learn from their fathers, too. They learn not to trust. And they learn to live with the pain of rejection. While some fatherless children carry on despite the pain, others transfer their pain through violent acts.
Men who think their part in a child's life ends with impregnation need to take a serious look around them. Divorced women who don't believe their children need fathers in their lives are wrong, wrong, wrong. Fathers are not expendable, disposable, unnecessary, or replaceable. They are vital to the future of their children.
Men typically become more involved parents not through peer pressure or an innate desire to do so but through their wife's urging. They stay involved because they discover that they love being with their kids. Still, many dads won't admit how much they enjoy fatherhood. They think that other men wouldn't understand it if they said, "I won't be attending the company awards banquet tonight; I'd rather spend the time with my kids."
THE NEW FATHERHOOD
A shift is taking place within our families today. Men are slowly being educated about parenthood and their vital role as fathers. They're being encouraged to become more involved. And some positive examples are being placed before them.
Former Houston Oiler tackle David Williams, for example, made a strong statement about a father's devotion to his family when he missed a game to be with his wife during the birth of their child. Entertainer Billy Joel quit his scheduled tour to spend time with his daughter. Country music superstar Garth Brooks put his skyrocketing career on hold to become an active family man. It's common for mothers to give up or postpone their careers for the sake of their families, but when a man chooses fatherhood over his career, that's news.
Although probably not quite big enough to be considered a movement, there is motion--a pioneering effort--toward the reconciliation of fathers and their sons and daughters. As with anything new, no matter its merit, there are stumbling blocks. Fathers are finding them aplenty.
Work and family issues are a major source of inner conflict for many men. They don't want to miss out on watching their children grow up, nor do they want to see their families financially stressed. While some have the courage to downshift their careers and become a more significant part of their children's lives, others can't bring themselves to cut back and lower their standard of living. And the truth is that government and the corporate sector are slow to support the efforts of men who want to be better fathers.
"It's tough," says Gladstone. "I know what men are going through, because this is an issue for me, too. I'm gone too much, and I worry about this. I try to be home as much as I can, and yet, economically, it's difficult. My wife and I wanted to find a way to save money so I could free up more time to be home. We thought that a basic way to do that is to have a lower house payment, and we decided to get a smaller house.
"What we found out is that if we sell the house we're in, we'll lose our investment to capital gains taxes because we're going to buy a house that doesn't cost as much. We would be punished for doing that. We only get rewarded if we buy a house that's more expensive and that puts more demand on me to have to work more hours and be away from my children more."
In two-thirds of all two-parent families today, both parents work. Many modern couples enter parenthood expecting to share the responsibilities fifty/fifty; some are so good at it that they transcend parental gender boundaries and become practically interchangeable. But many others struggle to adjust; he to her level of expectation and she to his level of willingness and ability. The working mother knows she can't do it all. She wants help. But does she want to relinquish control?
Michael Meyerhoff is the executive director for the Epicenter, a parenthood education center in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts. His recent article for Parent and Preschooler Newsletter reflects the mother's tendency to discourage the father from becoming involved in the day-to-day routine of their children's care. He writes,
"Most new fathers who attempt to participate in the care of their young children discover they are awkward and ineffective and they quickly become discouraged. While most new mothers initially welcome the efforts of their husband, they soon decide to step in and take over all tasks in order to ensure the well-being of their children and spare their spouse further embarrassment."
"Are modern-day males doomed to failure despite their admirable intentions? Are they fighting against insurmountable biological obstacles? No. Once again, we are merely dealing with mental attitude, not inherent aptitude. A father who will pursue childcare tasks with ease and proficiency is simply a father who has never been led to believe he couldn't."
Meyerhoff advises, "Mom, lighten up, step back and give your guy a decent chance. Dad, dismiss your doubts, ignore the interruptions and don't let the difficulties get you down. Just do it."
When asked (and men rarely are), fathers report that they're overwhelmed by fatherhood. One nervous first-time father said, "It's scary to think that this little being is totally dependent on me and that I, along with my wife, am wholly responsible for his well-being, his childhood, and his future. It's exciting, but it's scary."
Pamela Jordon has focused her last fifteen years of research toward first-time fathers. In an article for Modern Dad Magazine she urges new fathers, "Establish rituals or routines that allow you to spend some time with the baby every day." They could put the baby to bed every evening or handle bath time and breakfast every morning, for example.
According to John Robinson, director of the Americans' Use of Time Project at the University of Maryland, a study of five thousand American men and women between the ages of thirty and fifty showed that although men's involvement in household work and child care is now double what it was in l965, women still handle two-thirds of the workload at home.
It's difficult for men to just take over from a woman who has set the agenda. As Brent McBride, director of the Child Development Laboratory at the University of Illinois, points out, "If we want men to change behaviors, we have to help them do so. We're putting this expectation on men to do more but, as a society, we aren't providing them the institutional mechanisms to make the changes."
Fathers who lack education and experience rely on the direction and rules set by the more knowledgeable parent, the mother. Thus, a father alone on an outing with his children or at home alone with his children is often considered a babysitter.
Paul Kandarian, an editor at the Taunton Daily Gazette in Taunton, Massachusetts, objects to being called a babysitter. He says,
"There is no part of my day that I enjoy more than when I come home to be with my children. For all the aggravation of parenthood, for all the time it takes, for all the nights spent up with them when they're sick, for all the broken toys stepped on, for all the diapers changed, for all the scraped knees, for all the sticky, slimy, and smelly moments of it, I wouldn't trade a single second of my life as a father for anything else in the world. When I put my kids to bed each night, I love them as much as I possibly can, only to wake up the next morning loving them a little bit more."
He ends the article by saying, "Let's hear a babysitter say that."
Stay-at-home dad Peter Baylies shares a similar sentiment. "I don't expect to go back to work. The rewards of this job are too great. Every time I put my son to bed and he says, "I love you Daddy,' I realize I did a good job that day. I could never get that sort of satisfaction from any other career."n…