The movement in this country to treat fathers as equal participants in the parental team is not new. Yet our culture continually projects the view of fathers as secondary or peripheral parents.
The phraseology of the “maternal-child” health care system ignores the father’s relevance to the family. The lack of baby-changing tables in men’s bathrooms is not conducive to early paternal child care. Our country ignores these needs of fathers based on the belief that they aren’t as crucial to a child’s development.
While it’s true that an unacceptable number of men shrug off or abandon their parenting role, with an estimated 27 percent of American children living in a home without their father, even pop culture chooses to ignore the many more fathers who are involved, instead bolstering a more negative point of view. The recent film Steve Jobs shows an outrageous example of a father denying his paternity and the subsequent hurt his denial causes his biological daughter. Yet, contrary to popular culture, evidence suggests that father involvement (pdf) is increasing in the United States.
But Is It New?
Recent media discussion is emerging about the “modern-day father” who is more involved and contributing at home. But just like the recycling of fashion, the “new father” is actually an echo of the “old father” from centuries past.
The history of fatherhood in this country contradicts the notion that fathers were traditionally distant, uninvolved men who left the parenting responsibilities to mothers. Going back to the Colonial era, fathers were closely involved in the upbringing of their children, since families were typically working together on their farmlands and on other responsibilities.
It was not until the machine age in the late 1800s, when many fathers left their homes to work in factories to support their families, that the family structure shifted parenting roles. The change in roles gave birth to the “standard North American family”—stereotypical parental norms that we hold on to with remarkable rigidity.
But What Does That Tell Us?
Being a fit parent is not based on biological sex. There is nothing inherent in a father’s genetic, anatomical, physiological or psychological makeup that prevents him from changing a diaper, having equal decision-making rights regarding how to raise a child, or having joint custody in cases of separation or divorce.
The view that fathers are not biologically intended to be equal parents is as insulting and inaccurate as the gender stereotypes that women are still fighting to overcome today.
Economic and cultural changes sculpt social norms. Women made up 72.7 million of workers in the labor force in 2013, and their numbers are projected to increase 5.4 percent between 2012 and 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. One in 10 fathers in same-sex relationships has a child in his home, which adds to the trend of increased father involvement at home.
Research shows, however, that both mothers and fathers tend to adopt a traditional, gender-specific view of parenting after the birth of their first child and consider mothering to be the primary role in a woman’s life.
As a result, many fathers avoid their family responsibilities. Ten percent (pdf) of residential fathers have not bathed, diapered or dressed their young child. A quarter of nonresidential fathers have not paid their child support (pdf).
But the Tide Is Changing
The multitude of fathers who are making the shift toward greater involvement as fathers should be treated equitably—including black residential fathers who have been perceived as uninvolved but who are active participants in parenting (pdf).
Dr. Craig Garfield, a pediatrician at Northwestern University, unveiled research showing that father involvement is integral for positive child mental and physical development. Father involvement also improves a father’s sense of efficacy.
Several fatherhood programs, including the National Fatherhood Initiative, the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse, My Dad and the Good Men Project are starting to change the face of parenthood and the culture of masculinity in relation to parental responsibilities. They offer parenting programs, providing resources for fathers and a positive view of masculinity.
But more work needs to be done to optimize father involvement and offer dads support. Increased parental involvement comes with higher risks, including fathers’ (and mothers’) increased risk for mental-health problems, such as depression, because of the stress of parenthood and changing family dynamics. New recommendations include making screening and treatment resources (pdf) available for fathers.
Yes, as autonomous adults, fathers are accountable for their own personal growth to meet their personal family responsibilities, but there are still external barriers. These include the lack of paid paternity leave, even though some companies, like Yahoo, have rectified that oversight by offering paid paternal leave. Another barrier—the tradition in which fathers are less likely to obtain joint legal and/or residential custody or be awarded child support—continues to be the norm.
We can only hope that more companies set policies that offer equal opportunities for fathers’ involvement.
The Need for Pushback
All fathers need to work to push back against the stereotype that they’re not as needed as mothers, and it starts with fathers pushing to be more involved.
This could help create a new norm for our next generation. To encourage this movement, we need role models in more media and television programs, like ABC’s Modern Family and Black-ish, that offer stories of men of different backgrounds integrating masculinity and fatherhood in this modern era.
Further education and parenting programs targeting new and seasoned fathers of all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds can inform fathers of the benefits of getting involved to themselves, their children and the family.
As in any discussion about equality, it is frustrating, and even more disheartening, to know how long it will take before change is established. In the meantime, through television, the media, academic research and public programs, we can gradually chip away at this uneven portrayal of fatherhood to bring about real change in both policies and the way our culture views a father’s worth.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.
Sheehan D. Fisher, Ph.D., is an instructor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University specializing in fathers and mental health. He is a fellow with the OpEd Project’s Public Voices Fellowship.