Magazine article The American Prospect

What about Fathers? Marriage, Work, and Family in Men's Lives

Magazine article The American Prospect

What about Fathers? Marriage, Work, and Family in Men's Lives

Article excerpt

THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION AND its allies like to tell us that Americans have forgotten about marriage, and that Americans have stopped caring about fathers. As good as it is to bring attention to the needs of fathers, on both points they are simply wrong: Americans believe very strongly in marriage, and rather than devaluing fathers, they are increasingly likely to adopt extremely high expectations for them. American men continue to provide for their families and are doing more housework and child care than ever before, but because men and women face so many economic and practical obstacles, marriage has indeed become more fragile than it was in the past.

In response to these changing times, advocates on the right have resorted to religious moralizing and public relations campaigns touting the benefits of traditional marriage and family values. Bush's family policies assume that pro-marriage public service announcements, billboards, and slick TV ads, along with faith-based counseling, will convince more (heterosexual) Americans to get and stay married, and that marriage will save our troubled youth and protect American society from decay. Conservative think tanks like The Heritage Foundation and the National Fatherhood Initiative repeat drumbeat messages about the benefits of marriage and fatherhood, as if Americans needed convincing. Calling fatherlessness a "social evil" and the "engine driving our worst social problems," they promote father presence as a panacea for poverty, failure in school, emotional and behavioral problems among boys, premarital sex and pregnancy among girls, suicide, child abuse, and even social inequality. But they typically define father presence in vague and nostalgic terms--as in marrying the mother and serving as a "masculine role model'--rather than taking responsibility for routine, everyday tasks like changing diapers or doing laundry. Wade Horn, former president of the National Fatherhood Initiative and now assistant secretary for children and families in the Bush administration, warned fathers against acting like mothers, saying the "new nurturing father ideal," in which a man "shares equally in all childrearing activities from the moment of birth," is "of course, nonsense."

But working fathers' problems are not, by and large, problems of values but of supports. (In fact, Americans harbor such idealized views about marital salvation that they marry and remarry at rates much higher than their counterparts in other industrialized countries.) Fathers involved in the details of raising children say that the inability to rearrange work schedules to care for a sick child, attend a school function, or coach soccer practice is a major nuisance. Others complain about low wages, which force them to work more hours, or mandatory overtime as reasons they can't spend time with their children. Lack of paid sick leave or paid paternity leave are further impediments, and many fathers say they want more paid vacation time to spend with their families. As a professor of sociology and family researcher, I've been studying fathers for 20 years, and I have come to the conclusion that workplace supports, not "family values," are key to getting men more involved in family life.

OPINION POLLS CONSISTENTLY SHOW that the vast majority of Americans think of marriage as an equal partnership and endorse the ideals of sharing decision making, housework, child care, and paid work. According to national surveys conducted since the 1960s, the primary shift in American attitudes toward equality in marriage occurred decades ago, with small fluctuations since the early 1980s on specific issues. For example, in 1961 only 52 percent of Americans reported that husbands and wives should share household tasks according to individual interests and abilities (rather than according to "men's work" and "women's work"), but that percentage jumped to 89 percent by 1978 and rose to 94 percent by 1996. Similarly, in 1961, 67 percent of Americans were reporting that husbands and wives should have equal voice in making family decisions, but that percentage went up to 89 percent by 1978 and rose to 93 percent by 1996. …

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