Saturday, June 18, 2016

Is There a Future in Fatherhood?

I don’t know what Father’s Day will look like 50 or 100 years from now.  I suspect gender-specific celebrations will have fallen out of favor.

But for today, at least, it remains a time to doff our hats to the Defenders of the Cave, the Slayers of Dragons, Disposers of Scary Insects, Uncloggers of Toilets, Movers of Furniture and Grillers of Meat.

An old-fashioned notion, perhaps.  But I suspect in many homes that Mother’s Day still means long-stemmed roses and champagne brunches while Father’s Day means a new crescent wrench and a beer by the barbecue.

As a small boy once said of Father's Day: “It's just like Mother's Day only you don't spend so much."

That’s OK with me.  I don’t want to be fussed over on Father’s Day.  After all, when it comes to the gestation and production of a child, moms do all the heavy lifting.

When our little bundles arrived, I discovered that I had to man up or move out. So I changed diapers, read bedtime stories, fixed breakfast, lunch and dinner when called upon, rose at dawn on the weekends so my wife could sleep in and in my spare time made sure I imparted the foundation of my profession to my kids:  critical thinking skills, a healthy skepticism and a sense of humor.

Along with my wife, I went to what seemed like several million piano recitals, soccer games, back to school nights and PTA pancake breakfasts. In sickness and in health.

If I had to do it all again, I gladly would. I didn’t have to be prodded to be an active dad. If you loved your family, it’s what you did.

All of this is somewhat remarkable in that my wife and I came of age in the Eisenhower administration. Women wore aprons, stayed at home, tended the kids and joined book clubs. Men went off to work (or war, as the case may be), came home to their pipe and slippers and left for work early the next morning. 

By the time we were married in the late 60s, all of that was beginning to change. Parenthood and child rearing were becoming shared responsibilities, women were entering the work force, aprons had all but disappeared.  

So had the notion of Dad as a Sage Breadwinner who dispensed dollops of advice and little else.

Fast forward to now:  On the surface, things seem to be about the same. The ideal dad is married, invested and present in the lives of his children, living with his family, and employed in full-time stable work with good pay and benefits. 

Because his wife is also working full time, the sharing of responsibilities has become more than a moral obligation. It’s an economic necessity.

We see plenty of dads, happily carrying their babies in Snuglis and men’s bathrooms have changing tables, so all must be well.

Not so fast, say Oregon State University professor Richard A. Settersten Jr. and assistant professor Doris Cancel-Tirado in their study, “Fatherhood as a Hidden Variable in Men’s Development and Life Courses.”

There are disturbing social trends facing men, including the rise of men having children outside of marriage, the increase in men having children with numerous women and the growing numbers of divorced fathers, say the professors, quoted in the Huffington Post.

Divorce all too often reduces a dad’s time with his kids or cuts him out of the picture entirely. But men who have kids outside of marriage, often African-American men and those without college degrees, are even less likely to be involved in their lives than divorced dads, they note.

A survey by the Pew Research Center found that marriage, while declining among all groups, remains the norm for adults with a college education and good income but is now markedly less prevalent among those on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder.

The survey also finds striking differences by generation. In 1960, two-thirds (68%) of all twenty-somethings were married. In recent surveys, just 26% were. How many of today’s youth will eventually marry is an open question.  For now, the survey finds that the young are much more inclined than their elders to view cohabitation without marriage and other new family forms — such as same sex marriage and interracial marriage — in a positive light.

All of which means that the ideal father isn’t nearly as widespread as we’d like to believe, the professors say. Instead, there are many more fathers today who are vulnerable — not in the sensitive guy kind of way, but in their ability to be present and provide for their children.

“In aggregate, men are becoming less intensely involved with and committed to children,” they write. Instead, the trends suggest “men’s family relationships en masse remain relatively fragmented and tenuous.”

This is a troubling trend. Research shows that that dads have a profound influence on their kids—socially, developmentally, economically, psychologically. They are role models and companions, and their positive presence is a big plus for kids.

Settersten and Cancel-Tirado argue that instead of policies that just strengthen marriage — which more and more people are questioning, and rejecting, as a valid institution — we should be supporting all intimate relationships as well as enlarging the legal and social definitions of family to reflect the many types of families we have today. Flex time, job sharing, parity in child support levels and legal benefits for unmarried fathers raising children in committed relationships are among their suggestions.

It’s hard to see how all this will play out in the future.  But if you see a dad today, give him a hug.  Because, at least for the time being, fatherhood matters.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector1.

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