I know that, from time to time, I get a certain amount of grief about being hard on men/fathers here. I don’t think most of the complaints are justified, for what that is worth. But I also don’t want to miss this chance to talk about why it might be hard to be a good father. (To be clear, here I mean “father” in all the depth and complexity of the social/psychological role–not simply a genetic father. It’s obviously quite easy to be a genetic father–which is part of why I wouldn’t give too much weight to that accomplishment.)
So around Father’s Day, there were a series of provoking stories and/or posts from NPR. They’re all accessible via Code Switch, an NPR blog about race, culture and ethnicity. They lead me to a wonderful blog called “Daddy Doin’ Work.” That blog is by Doyin Richards who is a Black man who is both a dad and a husband.
You might have run across the blog because of one particular photo that went viral early this year. That photo is actually key to the conversation in one of the NPR stories. Richards talks about the response to the photo:
Some people, he said, wanted to put him on the Mount Rushmore of greatest dads. Other people pointed out that mothers do this everyday, and the same picture, featuring a mother instead of a father, would be seen as unremarkable. Others were more vile, like the who said they thought that Richards, who is black, was probably a deadbeat.
Of course, these reactions say more about the person responding than they do about Richards. But they also tell us something about our society and the kinds of expectations that exist. And in general, they suggest that for many people, we don’t expect much of men as parents. (As I said before, this connects to what troubles me about using genetics as the marker for fatherhood or parenthood–it’s too easy. We sell our kids short.) And the expectations are even lower for Black men. While I find the last line of the above quote shocking, I gather it is hardly an isolated view.
The NPR story makes clear that those expectations are unjustified:
“The assumption in the broader culture has been that these fathers don’t care, they’re kind of hit-and-run dads,” Kathryn Edin, who co-wrote the book, Doing The Best I Can, which focused on inner-city fathers. “But instead, we kind of find this overwhelming desire to father, and to father well. And what’s remarkable about disadvantaged men who have children in really tough circumstances, often outside of marital ties, [is] how desperately they want to be parents and not just paychecks.”
It seems to me that these inaccurate expectations can be terribly damaging. Again, this is something of a recurrent theme for me. Disparaging particular classes of parents–adoptive parents, lesbian/gay parents, low-income parents, whatever–makes those parents’ lives more difficult. They are met with skepticism and suspicion at every turn. They must constantly confront the inaccurate representations and expectations. They are stigmatized and stressed, and thus have an even harder time fulfilling the task of parenthood.
I suppose the NPR story offers two ways to combat this. One is through the individual stories–the anecdotes–like those on the Daddy Doin’ Work blog. The other is through research and data–like that referred to in the last quote. But surely we will all be better off if we can recognize what it means to be a good father–a good parent–and if we determine to help people play that role rather than assume they are lacking.