Paying attention to fathers

June 17, 2001|By David M. Anderson

WASHINGTON - President Bush believes that one of the main problems with the American family today is that too many fathers are not fulfilling their responsibilities to their children.

Children whose fathers do not live with them, as David Blankenhorn in "Fatherless in America" and others have shown, are more likely to live in poverty, fall behind in school, get involved with alcohol and drugs, get pregnant and get in trouble with the law.

In America today, 36 out of 100 children grow up in fatherless homes. The president has proposed that we spend $64 million on his responsible fatherhood initiative, which would be about a quarter of a $258 million funding package. The funding would go to faith-based and local organizations.

Mr. Bush is hardly alone in calling on fathers to be responsible parents. Numerous Democrats, including the new Chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, have taken a similar stance.

Mr. Bayh has co-sponsored the "Responsible Fatherhood Act." This law would take many measures, including programs and media campaigns to promote fathering "best practices," stable marriages, employment for unemployed fathers and payment of child support. The president has supported the bipartisan legislation.

Many of the fathers Mr. Bush and Mr. Bayh are concerned with either left their homes already or fathered a child and never lived with the child's mother.

There is a serious problem with their approach to promoting responsible fatherhood.

A problem of irresponsible fatherhood arises in many of the 64 percent of families which are not fatherless and which most likely will not become fatherless. Moreover, most of these homes are white, while a disproportionate number of the fatherless homes, which really drives the Bush/Bayh agenda, are black.

The problem in the majority of American homes is that most fathers do not have enough interaction with their children. Mothers, as a rule, are still the primary caretakers, even when both parents work full-time. These fathers, who may be good economic providers, are often emotionally absent from the lives of their children. And emotionally absent from their marriages, too.

Before the rise of the fatherless home, many progressive and feminist theorists criticized the traditional nuclear family because the men were not nurturant and intimate husbands or fathers. Moreover, these traditional men were criticized for upholding a social system that denied women entry into the workplace and the halls of political power.

According to social critics like Nancy Chodorow, sons raised primarily by their mothers in two-parent, one-paycheck homes (and even in two-paycheck homes) are forced to separate from their mothers in order to identify with their emotionally (and to an extent physically) absent fathers (who worked full-time).

Sons whose fathers are not adequately involved in child-care become overly autonomous and overly independent - like their fathers.

Many of them are precisely the ones who may harm others because they are not emotionally capable of dealing with defeats, disappointments and even common fears and anxieties. Many of these boys will become men who manipulate and abuse women because they affirm their identities as fiercely independent beings by controlling and putting down others, especially women.

The problem with much responsible fatherhood legislation is that it creates the impression that if only the irresponsible dads could act like typical middle-class responsible dads then we could take those 36 out of 100 homes that are fatherless and reduce the number to 26 or 16 or six.

But it is the 64 out of 100 homes that are not fatherless today - and most of which will not become fatherless - that also need our attention. We need paid leave programs for moms and dads, more work-place flexibility for both working moms and working dads and other things, too.

The Bush-Bayh approach can leave you thinking that if only we could restore the once-responsible role that fathers played, then things would be fine. But that is not true because millions of traditional fathers caused significant problems for millions of American mothers and children.

Father's Day is the right time to broaden the dialogue about responsible fatherhood.

David M. Anderson, a political theorist, is associate research professor at the George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management.

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