Here’s the best article in a long time about the current state of fathers and fatherhood in America (Wall Street Journal, 5/12/12). It’s got the salient facts that give a pretty good description of where we’re going as a culture regarding fathers and children. It’s dispassionate and fact-based, but at the same time staunchly pro-dad. All in all, the article is well worth a read.
Until about 40 years ago, the United States had always strongly believed in marriage. Back in the early 60s, Gallup polls showed that just 8% of respondents approved of out-of-wedlock childbearing. Now, some 42% of children are born to single mothers and many more people than that say they find unmarried childbearing acceptable. That’s a sea change, and not for the better. Although people in Scandinavian countries manage non-marital childbearing pretty well, traditionally, we don’t. Swedes and Danes tend to eschew marriage, but that doesn’t seem to affect the stability of their romantic unions and their children suffer no ill effects.
Here in the U.S. it’s much more likely that a child born out of wedlock will have far less contact with its father. That’s due to many things, among them maternal gatekeeping, the dependency of fathers’ rights on marriage and the unwillingness of courts to enforce those rights unmarried father do have. But recent research suggests that may be changing.
The connection of marriage to parenthood also seems to be changing. Marriage rates are at historic lows, and a new report from the National Center for Family and Marriage Research shows a small but definite rise in the decoupling of fatherhood and marriage. According to the study, the proportion of men entering their first marriage with two or more children in the early 2000s nearly doubled over the previous decade.
“This indicates, at least for a growing minority of men, that marriage is a greater economic and cultural capstone than fatherhood,” says Susan Brown, the center’s co-director. “They’re saying, ‘I need to complete my education and find a stable job before I get married, but not before I have a child.’ ”
For children, this is not an encouraging trend: Fathers who are married to their children’s mothers are, statistically, the most active caregivers. Still, it appears that today’s dads often remain involved with their children even if they do not live with the children’s mom or have a strong emotional connection to her.
In a 2010 report published by the Future of Children, a joint project of Princeton University and the Brookings Institution, researchers found that “involvement [with their children] is high even among fathers who are not in a romantic relationship with the mother.” Even more striking, the study went on to highlight, “a high proportion of all unmarried fathers say that they want to be involved in raising their child, and the mothers say they want the father’s involvement.”
Greater numbers of women in the workplace, the influence on them to work and earn, and declining numbers of men in higher education mean that men have found themselves somewhat adrift in their role as family provider. Partly for the same reasons though, men have come to identify more with their role as father.
Adrift as they may be in their role as mates, [men] are proving themselves to be rock-solid fathers. Even a casual observer of American family life knows that dads now drive kids to more doctors’ appointments, preside over more homework assignments and chaperone more playdates. Research confirms the rise of co-parenting. A recent U.S. Census Bureau report found that 32% of fathers with working wives routinely care for their children under age 15, up from 26% in 2002. Popular culture has noted the trend, too. Involved regular-guy dads are now commonplace in commercials. In one AT&T ad, a dad diapers his baby while talking sports on his phone with a buddy.
And the research showing the value of fathers to children and fatherhood to men keeps rolling in.
The subject is a fast-growing area of research. One recent study found that not only are men’s personal identities increasingly linked to being fathers, but so is their health. In a paper presented in early May at the Population Association of America’s annual conference, researchers from Ohio State University reported that more paternal involvement was associated with decreases in depression, substance abuse and risky behaviors for low-income fathers. It also improved their self-reported physical health…
Having an involved dad is also good for kids. In a study to be published in several months, Randal Day, director of the Family Studies Center at Brigham Young University, measured children’s physiological responses when their fathers forgave them for a misdeed. The results showed substantial decreases in the children’s overall anxiety. “We’re finding that it’s not the outings or fishing trips but fathers’ steady emotional connection that makes the most substantial difference to their children,” says Mr. Day.
The only place in which the article goes slightly off the rails is in its interpretation of last year’s study by the Families and Work Institute.
“Men are experiencing what women experienced when they first entered the workforce in record numbers—the pressure to ‘do it all in order to have it all,’ ” according to a report released by the Family and Work Institute last year. It also found that the acceleration in “work-family conflict” has been particularly conspicuous among fathers in two-income families, with 60% saying it was an issue in 2008, up from 35% in 1977. That figure remained relatively stable for women, at 41% in 1977 and 47% in 2008.
Actually, women have always tended to solve the work/family balance by emphasizing family. Despite the narrative we were sold in the 80s about women wanting to “have it all” and suffering through a brutal “second shift” while their layabout husbands took it easy, in fact, women who were able to opted out of the workplace and into the nursery. And, as the FWI reported, that was good for their emotional well-being; they reported less stress than men do now who try to combine the roles of provider and dad. Corroborating the idea that staying home with the kids is less stressful than the corporate rat race is the fact that the dads in the FWI survey reported that it was specifically work – not family, and not balancing work and family – that caused the stress. All that suggests that if dads worked less and parented more, they’d be happier, more content and (in my opinion) likely to live longer.
As usual, the courts and legislatures are the last to know. They’re still stuck somewhere in the 19th century in which a father’s rights were entirely dependent on his marital state. Social science knows that men want to love and care for their children and raise them to adulthood, but family law and family courts believe men to be lazy louts looking for any way to avoid their children and their responsibilities to them.
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
Thanks to Jim for the heads-up.