Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Keeping the Bar Low: Why Russia's Nonresident Fathers Accept Narrow Fatherhood Ideals

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Keeping the Bar Low: Why Russia's Nonresident Fathers Accept Narrow Fatherhood Ideals

Article excerpt

Although most Russian nonresident fathers feel torn between old and new ideals of fatherhood, they end up accepting older, narrow ideals. Fathers reproduce the dominant gender discourse, which deems men irresponsible and infantile and diminishes the importance of fathers. On the basis of extensive fieldwork, including indepth interviews (N = 21) and observational data, I argue that men reproduce minimalist standards of fatherhood because, in part, keeping the bar low enables them to still consider themselves decent fathers. In addition, fathers' beliefs about the inherent deficiencies of nonresident fatherhood and the increased socioeconomic pressures and loosened constraints surrounding fatherhood in post-Soviet Russia converge to push fathers to settle for the status quo of detached fatherhood.

Key Words: Eastern European families, fatherhood, fathers, field research, nonresidential parenting, nonresidential parents.

I'm a so-so father. An appendage of the family. I hardly see my son so I cannot influence his upbringing or world view. And what difference does it make whether I give my son money or some other guy tosses him the same amount? Of course he calls me "papa" and is glad to see me, but that's very little in terms of all he needs. Although on the other hand, what can a father really give? ... A good mother, however, is fundamental.

-Oleg, separated father

Oleg's comments reflect a broader ambivalence, and negativity, about Russian men as fathers. Oleg is aware of new ideals of involved fatherhood and wavers between admitting that his child needs more from him and dismissing the value of fathers, but he ultimately accepts a low bar for fatherhood. He considers fatherhood much less important and more optional than motherhood. Although in recent years ideals of involved fatherhood have been growing in Russia, disengaged fatherhood, particularly after divorce, is quite common (Gurko, 2003).

In contrast, for several decades now fathers in the United States have been expected to seek active involvement in their children's lives and more fathers aspire to do so (LaRossa, 1988a), even if disengagement on the part of nonresident fathers still occurs (Amato & Sobolewski, 2004; Pleck, 2004; Teachman, 1991). Given the growing number of single-mother families, scholars consider the place of fathers in reconstructed families a critical issue. In a recent Journal of Marriage and Family symposium, Bianchi (2006) wondered why biological ties between fathers and children are so often weak, whereas Nelson (2006) emphasized instead the wide variation in paternal involvement. Indeed, involved fathers coexist alongside disengaged dads. Because of conflicting cultural standards of fatherhood and men who avoid taking responsibility for children from failed marriages only to become more engaged fathers with new children later on, we are seeing more "good dads and bad dads" at the same time (Furstenberg, 1995, p. 121).

In Russia, images of "good dads" are ascendant, but assumptions about absent or "bad dads" predominate (Gurko, 2003; Kay, 2006). Most people describe men as irresponsible and infantile, diminishing the importance of fathers (Gray, 1989; Kukhterin, 2000; Rotkirch, 2000). This discourse has a long historical trajectory and is widespread in popular culture and among Russian women (Dunham, 1967; Ispa-Landa, 2006; Ries, 1997). Strikingly, fathers, including those open to newer ideas of involved fatherhood, end up accepting this negative image of men as fathers. In this paper, I explain why.

I argue that fathers accept minimalist standards of fatherhood, in part, because doing so absolves them from fulfilling some paternal responsibilities. If the bar for fadierhood is kept low, then fathers can still conceive of themselves as decent, if not ideal, fathers. In addition, fathers' beliefs about the powerlessness and deficiencies of nonresident fatherhood, compounded by the increased pressures surrounding breadwinning and loosened constraints surrounding fatherhood in post-Soviet Russia, converge to push men toward settling for detached fadierhood. …

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