What is Necessary about Fathers?
In its latest issue, The Atlantic packs a punch with two seemingly degrading articles about men. The first, which is the subject of this blog post, is a short piece by Pamela Paul called Are Fathers Necessary? The second, titled The End of Men, is Hanna Rosin's latest get-under-the-skin piece; we'll tackle that one in another post soon.
Ms. Paul's article argues that while "liberal feminist moms" are eager to believe the data that fathers are essential to the physical and emotional well-being of their children (if not simply so that they can get their husbands to share the load), these data are actually based on comparing households with involved fathers with those with zero father presence. A more accurate comparison, Ms. Paul says, would be between households with a mother and a father, one with two mothers, and one with two fathers. Then we'd get at the meat of the issue: are fathers as good as mothers at raising happy and healthy kids?
Or rather, does a parent's gender matter? The article says studies show "single moms tend to be more involved, set more rules, communicate better, and feel closer to their children than single dads. They have less difficulty monitoring their children’s whereabouts, friendships, and school progress. Their children do better on standardized tests and have higher grades, and teenagers of single moms are actually less likely to engage in delinquent behavior or substance abuse than those of single dads." So there. End of case. Mom wins, right?
Well, I guess that means that a standard-issue mom is probably a bit better at parenting than, say, last decade's standard issue dad who lives in a culture that supports moms far more than dads. I'm not even sure I'd go so far as to conclude this. But I sure wouldn't conclude that gender has one whit to do with the outcome here. Let's explore further. Ms. Paul goes on to share the results of new research on the quality of parenting in lesbian families. She says, "On average, lesbian parents spend more time with their children than fathers do. They rate disputes with their children as less frequent than do hetero couples, and describe co-parenting more compatibly and with greater satisfaction. Their kids perceive their parents to be more available and dependable than do the children of heteros. They also discuss more emotional issues with their parents. They have fewer behavioral problems, and show more interest in and try harder at school." Pretty good, huh? This makes a lot of sense, actually. Because they are women? No - because they come closer to a true partnership of equals. In fact, the authors of the new study conclude that "based strictly on the published science, one could argue that two women parent better on average than a woman and a man, or at least than a woman and man with a traditional division of family labor."
The end of this article delivers the real punch - not to fathers, but to our culture of traditional family roles. "All howling to the contrary, most heterosexual men and women like that traditional division. Sticking to "gendered" parenting roles offers a seductive affirmation. Fathers, roughhouse all you want. But we, gatekeeper moms, are in charge of the rest. We could give you detailed instruction, and you still couldn’t possibly do it as well."
As long as men are kept as junior parents by their mates and by our mom-centric parenting culture, we can't expect that they will rank as equals. But take away the gatekeeping, and bring on two partners who deeply desire to parent as a team of peers, and I'm willing to bet that the data will show Dad is worth every bit as much as Mom. And that the gender of the pair - be it dual moms, dual dads or one of each - doesn't matter when it comes to raising children well at all.
So what's necessary about fathers? It isn't so much that they are male, but that (at least in heterosexual families) they are one of two humans who are fully capable of loving their children and providing for them in every way (not just monetarily). In other words, change our culture and give them an equal chance, and (beyond gestation and breastfeeding) their necessity becomes exactly the same as that of mothers.