Dads matter, period.
We need to put fatherhood back on a pedestal, just a different one to the old days
Top line: Dads matter, even if - no, especially if - they do not fulfil the traditional breadwinning role.
Stat of the week: Within 6 years of their parents separating, one in three children never see their father, and a similar proportion see him once a month or less.
Chart of the week: Percent of births to unmarried women by education
Why it matters: Engaged fatherhood is important for children, supportive of mothers, and essential for the flourishing of many men. We need to accelerate to a new model of fatherhood that is compatible with gender equality.
Of Boys and Men was published this week. I am thrilled that so many people have bought, reviewed, commented on and talked to me about the book. If you are one of them, thank you! (If not, it’s on Amazon in the US and the UK.) You probably know that ratings on sites like Amazon and Goodreads really help a book, so I’d be very grateful if you could take a minute to do that.
There have been many more reviews and comments over the past week, as you might imagine. Again I’ll spare you too many. But I very much appreciated Gaby Hinsliff’s column in the Guardian (“a thoughtful new book”), and this from David Brooks in the New York Times (“A landmark, one of the most important books of the year, not only because it is a comprehensive look at the male crisis, but also because it searches for the roots of that crisis and offers solutions.”).
If you are in New York and want to hear me talk about the book in person, I’m doing an event with Reason’s Nick Gillespie on Thursday evening, which should be fun. Best event for $10 in Manhattan:
Thanks to those of you who have subscribed to Of Boys and Men, and are helping to spread the word. If you like what I’m doing, here’s an easy way to share:
Bicycles in a world of fish
Irina Dunn’s statement that “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” later popularized by Gloria Steinem, was a memorable rallying cry of the women’s movement, an evocative description of a world where women do not need men. As Steinem said in 2004:
Being able to support oneself allows one to choose a marriage out of love and not just economic dependence.
Women are now the main breadwinner in 41% of U.S. households. Some of those are single mothers, but by no means all; three in ten wives now out-earn their husbands, twice as many as in 1981. Most mothers now work full time, and in almost half of families where both parents work full time, mothers earn as much or more than fathers.18 Mothers have also received growing support from the welfare system, allowing even those with low or no earnings to be freer of the need for a breadwinning husband. As the British politician and scholar David Willetts writes in his book The Pinch, “A welfare system that was originally designed to compensate men for loss of earnings is slowly and messily redesigned to compensate women for the loss of men.”
A more positive way to make the same point is that governments increasingly see their role as supporting women raising children, in part so that they are not trapped in a dependent relationship with a man.
Marriage and motherhood are no longer virtually synonymous. About 40% of births in the U.S. now take place outside marriage, up from just 11% in 1970. (A particularly striking trend is the decline in “shotgun” marriages). From a feminist perspective, which to be clear is my perspective, these are marvelous developments. But we should also ask: what do they mean for men? The old script, mostly centered on bread- winning, has been torn up. In an influential 1980 essay, “Why Men Resist,” William Goode observed that “the underlying shift is toward the decreasing marginal utility of males.” True. But, ouch.
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Fathers matter for their children’s welfare in ways that are different from, but equal to, those of mothers. Engaged fatherhood has been linked to a whole range of outcomes, from mental health, high school graduation, social skills, and literacy to lower risks of teen pregnancy, delinquency, and drug use. Three-year-olds with involved, supportive dads score more highly on tests of cognitive development. A study in the state of Georgia found that infant mortality rates were twice as high among children whose fathers were not listed on their birth certificate (a proxy for paternal involvement) after taking account of differences in health conditions and socioeconomic background. It is hard to pin down direct causal effects here: we can hardly remove or add fathers to children’s lives at random, in the name of social science. But as Harvard scholars Marc Grau-Grau and Hannah Riley Bowles write:
“The importance of engaged fatherhood is now undismissable in ways it was not in earlier decades.”
So, what to do?
I have lots of ideas about restoring fatherhood. It’s maybe the most important theme of my book, and one I’ll be returning to a lot here. The main goal is to strengthen the direct relationships between fathers and children. Fathers matter to their children whether or not they are in a relationship with their mother. The goal is to bolster the role of fathers as direct providers of care to their children, whether or not they are married to or even living with the mother. How? There’s a huge cultural shift required here of course. But policy can help too. For now, I’ll mention three of the big reform areas where I think we need to push:
Equal and independent paid leave eligibility.
Reformed child support system.
Father-friendly employment opportunities
I say more about these in Chapter 12 of the book, and I’m planning more work on these fronts at Brookings. For the best work on the child support system for unmarried fathers, I highly recommend the work led by Kathyrn Edin for the Urban Institute and elsewhere. See her excellent, solutions-oriented paper with Heather Hahn and Lauren Abrahams, “Transforming Child Support into a Family-Building System” for the US Partnership on Mobility out of Poverty.
Following the huge transformations of recent decades, many men are left feeling dislocated. Their fathers and grandfathers had a pretty clear path to follow: work, wife, kids. But what now?
What is a bicycle for, in a world of fish?
Half a century may seem like a long time to an individual, especially if they are young. But in terms of cultural history, it is the blink of an eye. The transformation of the eco- nomic relationship between men and women has been so rapid that our culture has not yet caught up.
The stakes here are high. Fatherhood is a fundamental social institution, one that shapes mature masculinity more than any other.
“A man who is integrated into a community through a role in a family, spanning generations into the past and future, will be more consistently and durably tied to the social order than a man responding chiefly to a charismatic leader, a demagogue, or a grandiose ideology of patriotism.”
That’s George Gilder writing in 1973. Gilder was an arch conservative, for sure. But given recent political history, it is hard to say that he was completely wrong.