I have been thinking a lot about fathers lately. With father's day coming just around the corner, I have been thinking about my own father (that's a picture of him at my wedding) as well as other fathers in my life and fatherhood in general. This thinking has been spurred on in part by some recent news events and blog posts I have stumbled across. All this thinking has led me to this conclusion: it is time for our culture to rethink fatherhood AND express our appreciation of fathers.
Isn't that what father's day is all about?
Actually, let's start there. I recently shopped for a father's day card to send to my own dad and could not believe the stuff I came across. I think it took me more time to find a decent and fitting card than I have spent shopping for a card for any other event. I had to wade through card after card that was billed as "humorous" but was really some stupid version of a few stereotypical (and frankly derogatory) depictions of fatherhood. Here's a few of the themes I saw the most: 1) the "lost" dad: "You may not have ever asked for directions, but we always had fun." Accompanied by a picture of a car stuck in the mud somewhere. 2) the "drunk" dad: just about every card featured beer in some way 3) the "aloof" dad: "I know you would rather be (insert here fishing, hunting, golfing, drinking), so I will keep this brief." 4) the "disciplinarian": "Remember all those times you told me to (insert generic advice here) or yelled at me for (insert generic fault here)?" Aren't you glad I didn't listen?" um, how is this one an expression of appreciation?
I could go on, but I think you get the picture. These cards demonstrate the limited and stereotypical ways we often think about fatherhood in this culture. Dad is someone who is there for you, but begrudgingly. Dad is the ultimate expression of hyper masculinity. Dad would rather drink beer and watch TV than spend time with his kids (ok, all dads probably feel this way at some points, as do all moms. But is that really the message of Father's Day?). Our culture has a very complicated impression of fatherhood--we deem it to be both necessary and automatically flawed.
Case in point: the Pew Center recently released a report about "Breadwinner moms." They found that in the USA, "40% of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family." The study sparked a very heated exchange on Fox News with Erick Erickson and Lou Dobbs arguing that this statistic was an indication that something is wrong with American society. They went on to argue that women should stay home to nurture the children, men should "bring home the bacon", single parent households are bad for kids, and that children of same-sex parents are worse off than children of married heterosexual couples. Sheesh. That's a lot of responses to one statistic. In addition to being strangely contradictory (men are both necessary for children's development, but don't need to be involved in the parenting?) these arguments have also been well disputed by research. In fact, the largest study to date found that children of same-sex couples are as healthy or even healthier than their peers in families with heterosexual parents. While financial security and access to resources does impact a child's outcome (all those policy makers worried about "families" should get on board with raising the minimum wage to a living wage), the gender of their parents does not. What matters is the type of parenting they engage in.
The finding by the Pew Center does point to some interesting social trends. Yes, some women are making strides in the workplace toward pay equity (although overall women still make 77 cents on the dollar of what men make) which is fantastic and a result of years of hard work by feminists. Unfortunately, while we have seen more women enter the workforce (remembering that for many families, both mothers and fathers have always had to work), there has been less cultural acceptance for fathers becoming more involved in parenting and taking care of the household. So this means more work for women, and a less clear-cut identity for men. Not only is there a lack of acceptance for more involved fathers, many of our cultural references imply that men are bad as parents.
A friend of mine recently posted a blog on facebook in which a father expressed his frustration with the cultural references that treat dads like idiots. We have all seen them. Anyone who has watched a network sitcom or seen a commercial for a household product has seen this in action. The father in the blog was particularly upset by this onesie (and I think reasonably so).
The idea that dad's are idiots or men are inherently bad as parents (while women "magically" know how to take care of babies) is problematic for numerous reasons and it often prevents men from being more involved as fathers. This is unfortunate because quality father involvement is linked to developmental benefits for kids, improved relationship satisfaction between mothers and fathers, and even health benefits for the fathers. (Check out research by my colleague, Dr. Anthony Isacco, for more details).
From my own experience, I will attest to the power of involved fathers. My dad was incredibly involved in raising me and my three brothers. Both of my parents worked outside the home and shared childcare and household responsibilities. There weren't things that mom did and things that dad did--they both did their best to juggle it all. My father has been one of my biggest cheerleaders throughout my life. Growing up, I wanted to become a doctor (of the medical type, not the PhD kind) and my father supported me 100%. I never was told that I couldn't (or shouldn't do it) because I was a girl. Last fall when I was visiting my parents, my father made me a brownie cake shaped like a book to celebrate the fact that I had a book proposal under review. My father is smart, kind, funny and hard working. His commitment to our family has always been unwavering.
I have reason to hope that the kind of fathering that I benefited from is becoming more the rule, rather than the exception. I am lucky to belong to a fantastic community which includes a number of couples with children under 4 years of age. Each of these couples navigates parenting in their own way. In some of them, the dad works full time outside the home and mom works part time or stays home full time to take care of the children, in others, this is reversed. In some families, both parents work full time outside the home and share the childcare/ household responsibilities. Despite these differences, these dad have a number of things in common. They all really, really love their children and express this to them through their words and actions. They all think about (and talk about) their parenting decisions and how they can do best by their children. And not a one of them is an "idiot dad."
So, this one is dedicated to my father and all the involved, loving fathers out there. Keep it up!
EMPOWERTAINMENT aims to take a critical look at media in regards to how gender and women/girls are portrayed. From popular articles, videos, and websites, to original submissions, we want to not only examine the media and its relation to gender, but help shift it.