Father of the Year

On December 8, 2010, President Barack Obama signed into law H.R. 4783, the 2010 Claims Resolution Act. If you don’t closely follow farming issues, you may have missed it. The law’s primary purpose was to provide funding for the settlement of six different lawsuits brought by Native-Americans and African-American farmers. But it also had an implication for families far from the farm. Like most modern bills in Congress, the 2010 Claims Resolution Act wasn’t all about its title task. Tucked away in there was also $750 million over five years to promote healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood.

That’s a lot of money at a time when budgets are being slashed, but it makes sense when you look at the US Census and what it says about the state of fathers nationally: ⅓ of children in the United States in 2009 had absent fathers.  

What does that mean for children? Let’s start at birth.  

In Georgia, a Center for Disease Control and Prevention study showed that the lack of a father’s name on a child’s birth certificate (a sign of father abandonment in a state where listing a father is optional for married couples and requires paternal acknowledgement for those who are unmarried) directly correlated to a more than 200% increase in infant mortality. This remains true even after accounting for “maternal race, age, adequacy of prenatal care and medical risks; and congenital malformations, birthweight, gestational age, and small-for-gestational age.”

The trend of fathers having a direct influence on the well-being on their children continues later in life, too. In 2001 the Department of Education found that a father’s involvement in his child’s education was a key indicator of educational performance. In most situations, a father’s involvement is directly associated with a grade increase. For fathers who live away from their child—“nonresident fathers”—the link between involvement and achievement doesn’t disappear: “Students are more likely to get mostly A’s and are less likely to have repeated a grade or to have been suspended or expelled if their nonresident fathers have some involvement in their schools.”

Overall, children without involved fathers are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, have higher rates of obesity, go to prison in higher numbers, and are more likely to become sexually active earlier. So if it’s clear that staying around and staying involved is important, why aren’t more men doing it?

The burgeoning feminist movement throughout the twentieth century brought with it some clear goals: equality in social, economic, and political spheres, broadly speaking. As women made strides in these fields, men—even pro-feminist men—were left trying to figure out what this change meant for them. To blame increasing rates of fatherhood abandonment on feminism would be, at best, foolhardy. But understanding the confusion men have about where they fit into the new family structure is important.

For men and women, roles used to be clear and clearly defined. Mothers do the domestic chores, while fathers take care of the finances and the discipline. As women have made strides in the workplace, “bringing home the bacon” is an increasingly egalitarian role. At the same time, parenting is still largely seen as a feminine task.

Many men who would otherwise feel compelled, morally or socially, are then asking themselves: if they aren’t required for financial reasons and they don’t feel parenting is expected of them, would their absence really cause much harm? We can see this in the data: in a study from the National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI), 53% of fathers say a mother can adequately substitute for a father, while 57% say the same thing of a male role model.

(Here would be a good place to speak to fatherhood abandonment in the African-American community. With over half of households lacking a present father, it’s a serious issue. Prominent African-Americans such as Bill Cosby and President Obama have been prompted to address the problem directly. So it’s instructive to note that the same study showed that fathers who didn’t finish high school were three times more likely than those with a bachelor’s degree to say that fathers are replaceable. The Manhattan Institute found that only 48% of African-American males were earning a diploma.)

Dr. Michael Kimmel, co-author of the book The Guy’s Guide to Feminism, is a college professor. Though he teaches at SUNY Stony Brook this is less a statement on what he does than who he is. Soft-spoken, Kimmel is passionate but not too self-conscious to make a dick joke in front of his adolescent son so long as it advances the lesson.

He says he speaks with many men who say that when they do work around the house, their wives are invariably disappointed with the quality. They wonder aloud to Dr. Kimmel, “Why do I bother? Nothing I do is good enough.” His response?

Let’s imagine that you and I are colleagues. And you’re responsible for doing a report and you hand in the report to me and I say, “This is a piece of shit. This is terrible. I’m going to have to completely redo it before we hand it in to our supervisor.” Are you going to say, “Oh well, I guess I’ll never write a report again.” No! You’re going to say, “I’ll do it better next time.” So why is it that men let themselves so easily off the hook when it comes to doing housework

Although ultimately men are responsible for whether they give up or work to improve, part of the reason—at least for parenting—is that many men give up because they feel unprepared for the task. Only 22% of the dads that spoke with the NFI strongly agreed they were adequately prepared to be a father, and just 34% of dads said that they currently had the skills and knowledge to be a good parent.

A Different Approach

Kimmel also contends—and the research backs him up—that just as many men are abandoning their roles as fathers, so are many increasing their involvement.

One such example is David Vienna, writer of the blog The Daddy Complex and creator of the web series “Fighting with Babies.” After his twin children were born, Vienna continued to work from home. With more new mothers having a career firmly in place, the decision of who will stay home with the children is increasingly a big decision for couples, but Vienna’s wife Larissa said it just made sense. “David was working form home already and I had a steady paycheck. I would have loved to have it be the other way around, but it wasn’t in the cards. In the end I’m just glad that one of us could be there for their first year. And while I’m very grateful for the perspective that being a stay-at-home parent gave David, when I think about it, I realize I’m still jealous.”

The couple found people generally supportive of their choice. Since he worked from home, Vienna says he didn’t interact with other adults often, but those he did see would echo Larissa’s sentiment that he was lucky for the opportunity to be there with his sons. There was even a frustrating sense of equality when Vienna encountered a common frustration of stay-at-home moms:

One night, a family friend was over and the conversation turned to how long it had been since my wife had a vacation. The friend, a wonderful older woman, started to ask me when my last vacation was then stopped herself saying, “Oh, you’re here with the boys. Every day is like a vacation.” That was the closest I ever came to punching an old lady in the neck.

Vienna has written on The Daddy Complex that although he’s developed parenting skills, he also felt unprepared at the beginning. “[The resources] were there, but I didn’t know how to find the right ones. All of the popular literature and Web sites geared toward dads were all about the novelty of stay-at-home fatherhood. ‘You’re a dad. That’s wacky! No more weekend poker games. Wakka, wakka, wakka!’ It wasn’t until much later that I discovered some dad bloggers and books that had genuine advice. By then, however, I’d already Forrest Gumped my way through the first two years of fatherhood.”

For many men, the friction between caregiver and money-earner is a stressful one. A large part of a man’s self-identity has long been tied to his paycheck, which is often incompatible with spending more time at home with his children. But ultimately, children don’t care about money. Sure, money can buy food, clothes, toys, admission to that prep school that all-but-guarantees a clear path to the Ivy League, and, yes, numerous other things. But here’s the secret: not even the most precocious of children know that.

“Dads have to realize that from a child’s perspective, what they need from their dad is someone who provides, nurtures, and guides. This is what kids want from dad,” says Vincent DiCaro of the NFI. “So, despite what the culture says, dads need to have a holistic view of fathering—it is not just about their money, but about their time and commitment.”

For his part, Vienna has been able to find a compromise, and he’s doing it in a creative field to boot. While many young men feel that fatherhood means the end of their dream jobs and a move to more lucrative ones, Vienna has been able to make it work. “I had that same gut feeling, but I also wanted to show my boys that they should rabidly pursue their goals. So, I’m trying to lead by example. Finding that balance is difficult. I have a full-time job and can only work the creative stuff late at night. It’s exhausting, but it’s better than being bored. Coffee helps.” It’s paying off for him: he has just wrapped post-production on his first film “More than Stars,” a local theater has commissioned him to write a script for an upcoming play, and he’s building an audience online with “Fighting with Babies.”

Media Matters

Like any change in culture, media portrayals of fathers are not just a bellwether but a molder of popular views on the role of men as parents. As we saw in real life, television mothers led the change. Women were going from devoted housewives—even, as in the case of Lucille Ball, in their own title roles—to partners and co-breadwinners—your Clair Huxtables and Elyse Keatons. The 80s and 90s also brought women who, if not the head of the household, could safely be called the brains of the operation. Here you have the Marge Simpsons, the Jill Taylors of the TV universe. But even here the lines are clear: man works, woman insures the household is in order.

TV fathers were changing in a delayed tandem. If Archie Bunker, Harry Boyle of “Wait Till Your Father Gets Home”, and Al Bundy struck a note with American audiences, it was a correction from the Ward Cleaver and Jim Anderson reign of benevolent patriarchs that permeated early television families. With the rise of the responsible wife, TV brought along their inept though lovable husbands: Homer Simpson, Raymond Barone, Tim Taylor.

There’s debate over how concerned we should be over the portrayal of father-as-bumbler in television, film, and advertising. It’s true that most comedy writers and advertising executives are men. And it’s also true there are other pressing media issues (take your pick) and only so much time and so many resources. But it certainly matters. When the NFI spoke to fathers, 65% said they felt the media portrayed fathers in a negative light. Taken alone that doesn’t matter much until you consider that 64% of these fathers said that advertisements that display fathers positively push them to be better parents.

There is a trend, however, toward showing that different side of fatherhood: eager, confused, earnest, mistake-prone, and caring. Just like real-life parents.

One show at the forefront is ABC’s “Modern Family.” Phil’s hapless but never feckless. Cam and Mitch are as caring and as concerned as two parents can be. And Jay’s learning new tricks on his second tour of fatherhood. Throw in “Up All Night,” “Parenthood,” and even “Two and a Half Men” and you have a handful of successful prime-time shows that have a changed fatherhood. In what might be the clearest sign that there’s a demand for a new paternal portrayal, commercials from companies like Google and Subaru have joined in, too. No advertising agency has ever pushed an agenda without knowing it would resonate.

You have to turn to FX, though, to see what may be the most intriguing look at fatherhood currently on television. “Louie,” from comedian Louis C.K., isn’t primarily about being a father, but touches on the topic in surprisingly sensitive ways.

One episode finds Louie and his daughters harassed by two men while walking home Halloween night. Louie, true to character, backs down, throwing a brick through a store window to trigger an alarm that scares off the two men. Heroic? No. Responsible and realistic? Yes.

In another episode from the first season, while attending a PTA meeting, Louie’s approached by a mother who says, “”Just by showing up, you’re father of the year.” C.K. spoke about this with Slate:

It’s funny—in life, those roles have all changed. There’s a lot of fathers who take care of their kids, there’s a lot of mothers who have careers. But in culture, those roles are still the same. When I take my kids out for dinner or lunch, people smile at us. A waitress said to my kids the other day, “Isn’t that nice that you’re getting to have a little lunch with your daddy?” And I was insulted by it, because I’m like, I’m fucking taking them to lunch, and then I’m taking them home, and then I’m feeding them and doing their homework with them and putting them to bed. She’s like, Oh, this is special time with daddy. Well, no, this is boring time with daddy, the same as everything.

He doesn’t necessarily know best, but he’s not bumbling and he clearly cares. Men will respond well if you show them an honest view of fatherhood. Show them a blithering idiot and they wonder if they’re necessary. Show them a god-like figure and they’ll wonder why their efforts don’t live up. DiCaro says the important thing is to show “[men] as having a great desire to be involved fathers. That they care deeply about their children and are just as capable as moms as being great parents and that they bring something unique and irreplaceable to the parenting equation (they are not just another set of hands).”

Now, “Louie” and the fathers from “Modern Family” aren’t exact replicas of real-life dads—this is still television we’re talking about—but it’s a closer model than has ever been there before. Increasingly, for fathers considering how large of a role they take in the lives of their children, it’s best summed up by how the White House chose to describe President Obama’s speech on his fatherhood initiative: “No excuses.”  

About Dustin Coates Dustin Coates is Founder at 7STOPS.

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