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Jewish World Review June 14, 2002 / 4 Tamuz, 5762

Patricia Pearson

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Consumer Reports

Men are not fathers
first and foremost | The other day, I read one of those sad headlines: "Mother of two dies in car wreck."

It occurred to me that whenever a woman comes to public attention in tragedy, she is often described in relation to children.

"Mother of twins dies in fire," the headline reads, or "Grandmother fights off home invaders."

It is strikingly rare, on the other hand, to see similar headlines for men. "Father of two killed in drive-by shooting"? "Grandfather in critical condition after mountain-climbing mishap"? Unlikely.

Men are not fathers first and foremost. They are employees, adventurers, volunteers, heroes, villains and victims. You can read an entire article about a local tragedy involving a man and discover the man's paternal status only in the last paragraph, if then.

Indeed, there seems to be such a casual and pervasive lack of interest in whether a man is a father in America that Father's Day always strikes me as a token holiday, concocted as an afterthought to Mother's Day to make men feel that they're not being left out of the more deeply felt sentiments and poems of May.

Fortunately, groups such as the National Fatherhood Initiative are trying to raise the profile of fathers. This week, the organization met in San Antonio, calling on attendees at their conference to "Explore New Frontiers in Fatherhood." Thanks to such efforts, we have actually seen a groundswell of fatherhood initiatives in most states in the past two years.

Under the approving eye of the Bush administration, which views responsible fatherhood and marriage as the twin bridges leading out of poverty for America's underprivileged children, hundreds of campaigns are underway to raise national awareness of fathers' rights and responsibilities - to lure fathers, in effect, back into their homes.

This is excellent in theory. We know that fathers are essential in the lives of children. A host of studies persist in pointing out that kids do better socially, emotionally and intellectually when their dads are present. But until fatherhood is more essential to the identities of men, it's difficult to imagine what gains can be made.

One of the unaddressed problems has to do with how American men define fatherhood and whether that definition is compatible with what mothers want. (Lest we forget, when we talk about absentee fathers, studies show that women are more likely than men to initiate divorce.)

Environics Research Group recently finished a survey of attitudes about the family in the United States, Canada and Europe. "What impact has feminism had on how people view fatherhood?" the company wanted to know.

Respondents were asked whether they agreed with the statement: "The father of the family must be the master in his own home." Responses were correlated with research conducted by Environics President Michael Adams in 1983 to measure changes in attitude. The results:

  • In Canada, 42% of respondents in 1983 agreed strongly or somewhat strongly with the statement. In 2000, that number had dropped precipitously, to 17%.
  • The same dramatic drop could be seen in European countries, particularly in Scandinavia, where men and women consider themselves equal partners in the family.
  • In the United States, however, the number of respondents who believe that men are the masters of their households has increased from 42% in 1992 to 48% in 2000.

That is a remarkable difference between like-minded Western nations. For whatever reason, America remains a more macho country - a fact borne out by the simple observation that women have served as prime minister or president in Canada and European nations while the American electorate still doesn't consider itself "ready" for a woman at the top.

Needless to say, it is reflected in the more family-friendly policies that European and Canadian men enjoy, such as provisions for paternity leave. In terms of personal attitudes, Canadian and European men have evidently grown more comfortable with the idea of being diaper-changing daddies who can soothe their small children and get covered in spit-up without feeling less manly.

Now, consider this from the point of view of American women, who are among the strongest feminists and most self-reliant women on the planet. Does a working mom - a woman who has proved to herself that she can earn money and still change all of the damn diapers - really want a father in the house who feels entitled to boss her around?

I am being rhetorical, but I have seen this in action while reporting on single mothers in American inner cities. There is a reason American feminists famously say, "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle."

It isn't that women don't need men as lovers and friends and partners in parenting. It is that women don't need men who merely wish to boss them around. Women don't need men who refuse to father in meaningful and supportive ways.

If fatherhood and marriage are indeed going to be the bridges out of poverty that George W. Bush envisions, then mothers have to be provided with some incentive, quite frankly, for inviting fathers back into the home.

Making fatherhood more essential to a man's sense of self might be a good place to start.

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JWR contributor Patricia Pearson is the author of "When She Was Bad: How and Why Women Get Away with Murder." Comment by clicking here.

05/14/02: I'm an idiot --- and it's my mother's fault
04/19/02: Should we allow psychics to be sued for fraud?

© 2002, Patricia Pearson