It’s comforting to think that Father’s Day is a time when kids and moms get together to celebrate — or at least acknowledge — dads for all that they’ve done for their children. Many children, young and older, will pay tribute to good ol’ dad. Yet in some quarters, Father’s Day is seen as a peripheral holiday; sometimes, fathers themselves are viewed with ambivalence.
Mother’s Day is the biggest day of the year for brunch, for splurging on flowers and chocolates. Spending on Father’s Day is only 60% as much as for Mother’s Day; the stereotyped dad-gift is a goofy tie that is quickly retired to the deep recesses of the closet. And while Father’s Day cards can be thankful, many poke fun at dad. The most common Father’s Day ads that arrive in my email are from the likes of Home Depot, as if a new wrench is the ideal gift. This gender stereotyping extends to the Census Bureau, which blithely suggests that the best places to buy presents for fathers are hardware and sporting-goods stores. (Not that some dads don’t appreciate a good grilling accessory.)
To add insult to injury, 53% of Americans think that mothers do a better job caring for a baby, compared to 1% who think that fathers do, and 14 times as many believe that it is more important for the child to bond with her mother than father. While Hollywood has portrayed heroic and sympathetic fathers like Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” or Marlin in “Finding Nemo,” more common recently have been bumbling dads like Homer Simpson, or Ben Stiller in “Night at the Museum.”
Don’t get me wrong: Being a father is the most important role that any man can play, just as being a mother is the most important one a woman can. Most parents of both sexes deserve to be honored. I am proud and eternally grateful to be a dad, as are millions of other men.
Yet, sorry for the downer, but something is rotten in the state of American fatherhood. In fact, there are many, often overlapping problems we need to face honestly, lest they get worse.
The state of fatherhood in America has dramatically changed since 1910, when a Spokane woman, Sonora Dodd, initiated the holiday, or even 1972, when President Richard Nixon signed a law making the day a permanent fixture on the calendar. The changes have been both for the better and worse: More fathers are spending more time with their children and are primary caregivers than ever before, yet more than one in four do not live with their father most or any of the time; 40% of babies are born outside of marriage in “fragile families” that are likely to dissolve, and 1.1 million fathers are in prison.
In addition, many people have distorted views about both the positive and negative changes. Some inside-the-bubble progressives in cities where many fathers push baby strollers believe, against other evidence, that we are rapidly marching toward gender equity in parenting. Meanwhile, despite stats purporting to show that 2 million fathers are “stay-at-home dads,” the Census Bureau counts fewer than one-tenth of these as deliberately staying at home to care for their children.
Another widespread — but wrong — belief about absent fathers is that they are generally good-for-nothing “deadbeats” who get women pregnant and head for the hills or a new, younger partner. Even Barack Obama, a model father, said in 2008 Father’s Day remarks that “a lot of men...need to know that makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one.”
Some surely are, but in reality, as a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center found, the vast majority of fathers not living with their children want to spend more time with their kids. The most common reasons that “missing” fathers don’t see their children have to do with feelings of loss, made worse by occasional visits. Many feel shame over the breakup with the child’s mother and their inability to provide economically. Many are also uncomfortable around stepfathers or mothers’ new boyfriends, face restrictive custody and child-support orders, and mothers who prevent fathers from seeing their children by moving away, calling the police for alleged harassment, or — alone or with others — forcefully blocking access.
When I interviewed fathers separated from their children for my recent book, “Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life,” men of all class and racial backgrounds talked, often tearfully, about how much they missed their children.
“People think they don’t care, but we know they do,” Joseph Jones, president of the Baltimore Center for Urban Families, has said. “We see how dads are fighting against the odds to be engaged in the lives of their children.”
Kathryn Edin, a Princeton University sociologist and author of “Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City,” found that even poor men “desperately want to be good fathers” but can’t because they are dead broke — not “deadbeats" — and mothers are “playing gatekeeper with the biological father.”
Although some states have enacted divorce laws stipulating the presumption of joint custody, legal and cultural biases in favor of mothers persist. The most common complaint about women among men I interviewed was the inequity of child-custody practice. A common refrain was: “Women want equality in the workplace but still want to rule the roost at home.”
Few unmarried fathers go to court, most divorcing fathers don’t have the resources to hire an attorney, and even fathers who do fight for custody live in fear of what some divorce lawyers call the “nuclear option” — allegations of domestic violence. Prominent on the National Organization for Women’s website page about custody is a story worthy of the British tabloids: “California Family Courts Helping Pedophiles, Batterers Get Child Custody."
Of course, children are the real losers of divorce, fragile families and being without a father. While some breakups are certainly for the best, statistics tell us that kids without fathers are about twice as likely to drop out of high school than children with fathers in their lives, four times more likely to be poor, and five times more likely to commit suicide. An estimated 90% of homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes. Children without fathers tend to score lower on standardized tests and receive lower grades in school, and the risks of behavior problems and getting in trouble with the law go up sharply.
As the late U.S. senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, said: “A community that allows large numbers of young men to grow up in broken families...never acquiring any stable relationship with male authority, never acquiring any rational expectations about the future — asks for and gets chaos.”
Okay, this isn’t exactly the sugarcoated story with all the oomph of a greeting-card holiday. But, as we mark Father’s Day, it’s important to recognize that a lot could be done to make fathers equal and valued parents who spend time with their children. It’s better for them, and better for the rest of us.