Is The "New Father" A Myth?

It's a tough time to be a dad. Let's give give dads what they really need -- a loud collective voice that says fatherhood matters.
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It's a tough time to be a dad.

Years ago, the dad role was pretty easy to slide into -- he went to work every day to support his wife and kids, reprimanded the kids at night if they were naughty, and mowed the lawn, washed the car and manned the barbecue on the weekends.

If he managed to do that, he was a "good father."

"Good fathers" look a lot different today; they're not only expected to financially support their family, but also actively care for their kids.

Judging by the media images of smiling men carrying babies in Snuglis as they fold the laundry and articles declaring "the age of dads as full partners in parenting has arrived," it's easy to believe all men have easily made that transition.

That image isn't quite accurate, or so say Oregon State University professor Richard A. Settersten Jr. and assistant professor Doris Cancel-Tirado in their comprehensive study, "Fatherhood as a Hidden Variable in Men's Development and Life Courses," which was published in Research in Human Development.

"Traditional roles have expanded to include greater responsibilities as nurturers and care providers, yet these demands are increasingly difficult to achieve, particularly in light of changes in the structure of families and in the economy."

We all know what an "ideal dad" looks like -- he's 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. But a number of changes in society have made that kind of father increasingly rare, the authors note. The result is that fathers are being divided into "good" dads -- the men who are able to provide all that -- and "bad" dads. And it's a growing divide.

Never before have there been so many factors influencing what we define as a family: divorce, births to unmarried moms and choice moms, multipartner fertility, stepfathers, single-parent households, gay and lesbian families, teenage fathers and do-over dads, foster and adoptive fathers, transnational and transracial families, single and custodial fathers, and custodial grandparents. Yet a good number of those fathers face poverty and discrimination, and don't have the same legal protections as married fathers or even the same "family" services and support available to single mothers.

One thing hasn't changed for fathers, however: We still expect them to be the provider, even though there are more two-income families and bread-winning wives. For proof, the authors say, look at what happens to a father during a divorce -- his financial support is valued more than any other type of involvement, including how much time he spends with his kids. For some reason, dads still matter more as an ATM. And the more a man works, the less he may be physically or emotionally available for his children, even while feeling good about providing for them.

Unfortunately, the economic recession has meant many men have been unable to fulfill the breadwinner role. It's hit working-class and working-poor fathers particularly hard, but it's also been stressful for more middle-class dads, who are increasingly finding their safety net slip away. For divorced fathers, the loss of income could jeopardize their relationship with their kids if they are unable to make child support.

While the authors note that the recession is a huge issue, there are other, more 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.

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.

All of which means that the "new father" so often trumpeted in the media 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."

The ramifications of that are huge; if those trends continue, men may be shut out of social, political and economic issues affecting children's welfare, they warn.

"One cannot help but wonder whether being a good father is becoming a new privilege, as the scaffolds that have supported most fathers erode or vanish, and as they have given way at precisely the same time that expectations have increased. This will undermine the potential positive effects of fatherhood on men's development and life courses. If being a good father has become a privilege, and if most men (and therefore their partners and children) are unable to reap its benefits, it is important to then ask how stronger social institutions and policies might be put into place to support men and fathers."

The authors 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. A family isn't just a husband and wife anymore. "(M)any groups of fathers are hurt, whether intentionally or unintentionally, by the restrictive definitions of family embedded in laws and policies," they write.

This Father's Day, let's skip the ties, barbecue tools and other cliché gifts we associate with the day and give dads what they really need -- a loud collective voice that says fatherhood matters. While we're at it, let's write some policies to support that.

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