There was a story in yesterday’s New York Times that I thought worth a little discussion. The story was in the science section and is about fathers and parenthood. (I am not sure the NYT headline really suits the article, but that’s really beside the point.) It made me think about some of the recent discussion here.
One thing the article notes is detrimental effect of social messaging that excludes men/fathers. These paragraphs caught my attention:
Uninvolved fathers have long been accused of lacking motivation. But research shows that many societal obstacles conspire against them. Even as more fathers are changing diapers, dropping the children off at school and coaching soccer, they are often pushed aside in ways large and small.
“The walls in family resource centers are pink, there are women’s magazines in the waiting room, the mother’s name is on the files, and the home visitor asks for the mother if the father answers the door,” said Philip A. Cowan, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, who along with his wife, Carolyn Pape Cowan, has conducted decades of research on families. “It’s like fathers are not there.”
It’s not really surprising that being either erased or invisible is discouraging. And if you are consistently discouraged for long enough, that will (in many instances, anyway) take a toll. If all the public images either portray you in a negative light or don’t portray you at all, if the general greetings are all addressed to moms, if no one recognizes the value of what you do, some people will surely give up, or perhaps not try so hard.
But of course, this isn’t true just for fathers. If we persistently insist that “real” families include only parents biologically related to their children, for example, we are bound to have an impact on the parents who don’t fit that mold. If we repeatedly tell adoptive parents they are necessarily second-rate because they lack that genetic connection, some of them will take it to heart. If all families in all kids books have mothers and fathers, then what happens to the families with only a single parent? Or two parents of the same-sex? It’s something like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The reverse effect is worth noting, too. Adoptive parents, single parents, and same-sex parents have discovered the positive value of being represented in children’s books, in classroom photos and so on. Inclusion hasn’t always come easily, but it’s a good deal more frequent today than it was twenty years ago.
There’s been a good deal of discussion on this blog recently about the importance of genetic relationships. To me, it’s one thing to say that these relationships are important, but a different thing to say they are the essential to true parenthood. Count up all the children who are being raised by people one or both of whom are not genetically related to them. Add the children who are being raised by only one of the people genetically related to them. Thinking purely pragmatically, I don’t think we can afford to invalidate all these families. As the article suggests, there’s a real cost to that. We need to acknowledge and validate the roles that men are playing as parents (whether they are genetically related or not) in order to support their efforts to succeed in that difficult role.
Now I don’t really mean to suggest that we should never make judgments about the fitness of parents. Sometimes that’s necessary. What I’m wary of is categorical judgments–that all men or all women or all adoptive parents or all of any particular category of parents is one thing or another. I think we need to be very sure of our ground before we make those kinds of categorical judgments.
This ties back to a second thing that struck me about the article. At a couple of different points in the article, Dr. Kyle Pruett said “fathers tend to….” I appreciated his use of the word “tend.” It’s a way of moderating categorical judgments. It isn’t that fathers do thing one way or another. It’s that they tend to, which suggests (to me at least) that some do and some don’t and those that do may do so to varying degrees.