The Vanishing Father

David Blankenhorn, Full-Time Dads, 4/1/1991

Much of our national debate about family decline tacitly assumes that the dilemma centers on women's roles, choices and responsibilities. But this assumption overlooks the single most troubling family trend of our era: male flight from family life.

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Subjects: Family, Fatherhood

More by: David Blankenhorn

What is the state of fatherhood in America?

Much of our national debate about family decline tacitly assumes that the dilemma centers on women's roles, choices and responsibilities. But this assumption overlooks the single most troubling family trend of our era: male flight from family life.

We hear much discussion in the media today about "new father" men who devote themselves, often making career and other sacrifices in order to spend more time caring for their children. But these fathers do not represent the main new trend in fathering.

To understand today's major trend, picture a father who is absent from the home altogether: divorced or never married, having little or no steady contact with his children. The dramatic proliferation of this type of father far outweighs any increase in the number of nurturing new fathers. As a group, children today spend far less time with their fathers than children did in previous generations.

Consider the numbers. Approximately one of every four children in the nation is growing up without a father in the home, more than twice as many as in 1960.

Recent studies document just how fatherless these 15 million children are. Frank Furstenberg of the University of Pennsylvania finds that more than half these children have never visited their father's home. More than 40 percent do not see their father at all in a typical year. Only one in five sleeps in a father's home in a typical month, while only one in six sees a father an average of once or more per week.

In short, more and more of our nation's children simply do not know what means to have a father.

In the social sciences, absolute proof is virtually impossible. But if current scholarship proves anything, it is that children who live with their fathers tend to do much better economically, educationally, psychologically, every way we can measure than children who do not. The growth of fatherlessness, then, constitutes a clear and present danger, not only to the individuals involved but also to the long-term health and success of our society.

Where did this problem come from? Sometimes popular language is a key to cultural understanding. Consider, for example, a popular slogan that proceeded "new father." The phrase was "good family man" this compliment was once widely heard in our culture, bestowed as a badge of honor to those deserving it. Rough translation: He puts his family first.

Ponder the three words. "Good:" moral values. "Family: " purposes larger than the self. "Man:" a norm of masculinity.

Yet today, especially within elite cut sure, who hears the phrase? It sounds antiquated, almost embarrassing.

Much of the reason, of course, is the modern gender role revolution. The "good family man" carries a lingering connotation of sole breadwinner and head of the family. Modern concerns over the phrase are therefore understandable.

But in a larger sense, what are the social consequences of a cultural ethos that refuses to celebrate norms of masculinity, the ideal of man who puts his family first? Surely this missing language, this cultural black hole where the ideals of husband and father ought to be, helps explain today's shocking rise of fatherlessness.

Perhaps our modern version of the good family man is simply the new father. But I doubt it. I suspect that most fathers today, including those who act like new fathers, are not especially attracted to the phrase "new father," or to the ideal it represents.

The "new father" ideal aims at greater androgyny. It suggests that good men are those who eschew many historically masculine traits (such as protecting and providing for wife and children) and cultivate historically feminine traits (such as emotional sensitivity and the nurturance of young children).

As a corrective to an older norm, this ideal has merit. But as a new cultural norm of masculinity, I suspect that most men, and perhaps most women, find it lacking. It certainty appears to be less attractive to men than many of the antifamily role models now prevalent in our society the modern cowboy, the sexual adventurer, the careerist obsessed with marketplace success, the individual concerned with self expression, or the romantic longer with little need for emotional entanglements.

What is to be done? Perhaps it is possible to accept the main premise of the women's movement " shared authority between spouses rather than male domination " while also renewing our cultural celebration of men's special contributions to family and to child rearing. Perhaps we can appreciate the difference between the words "parent" and "father" and the words "spouse" and husband."

Surely, now that the struggle over marital authority has largely been won, at least in principle, by the idea of equality, we can affirm that gender differences are not inherently negative . For if we discard any concept of the good family man for our era, we admit that fatherhood is not, at bottom, a cultural ideal worth defending. If so, we should not be surpassed by the continuing decline of fatherhood in our society.

This article originally appeared here.


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