Fathers and “paternalists”

About a month ago, I had an op-ed in The Boston Globe about the rise of single motherhood and what it means for fathers — ironically, at a time when equal parenting as an ideal has been making a lot of inroads.  A couple of days later, there followed this commentary from Shannon LC Cate on the Strollerderby parenting blog.  I meant to reply to it sooner, but first I was busy with other things and then I decided to put it off until Father’s Day.  So, here is it.

Ms. Cate’s post is titled “Unwed Motherhood on the Rise; Paternalists on the Warpath.”  Evidently, to point out that in general, children are better off having a father (and that, among other things, the glorification of the mother-child family unit takes us back to the not-very-feminist notion of child-rearing as women’s work) is to be a “paternalist on the warpath.”

Ms. Cate also points out, in an unmistakably snarky tone, that I’m an unmarried non-mother, which presumably means that I have no real standing to comment on the subject.  I wonder if she would have said the same thing had I written in defense of single mothers, or in defense of married women’s right to a career of their own.

Says Ms. Cate:

I do find her questions about where the unmarried (at least to these mothers) fathers of unmarried women’s children are, both in reality and in the discourse about the issue, to be refreshing.  I think it is indeed decidedly unfeminist to go on and on about women and children these days with nary a reference to the men who, let’s face it, make single motherhood possible in the first place.

Well, as much as I appreciate the compliment, I have to wonder what planet she inhabits.  Evidently, one where there are no campaigns to stigmatize deadbeat deads or billboards promoting “responsible fatherhood” — one of the few issues on which Barack Obama and George W. Bush are in complete agreement.

More from Ms. Cate:

The research shows that children with two parents fare better than those with one, not that children with parents who are married to each other fare best.  Marriage per se does not provide a child with a functional parent and lack of a marriage certificate does not deprive a child of one.  Rather, even in this recent research, it was found that a sizeable percentage of “unmarried” mothers are not, in fact single mothers, but mothers who co-parent with their children’s fathers either in the same home without benefit of marriage or in separate homes.

True.  However, there are also a lot of data showing that unmarried couples are considerably more likely to break up.  I have not seen data that separates out unmarried couples with children.  If this trend holds for them, then unmarried co-parenting is not a fully co-equal substitute for marriage.

As for mothers who choose to to go it alone via unknown or at least uninvolved “fathers” whether sperm donors, ex-boyfriends or one-night stands, those children need not be deprived of the benefits of a multiple-parent home just because their mothers are not married.  There are many ways to raise children these days including living in various forms of community or cooperation with others, including extended family arrangements.

Here, Ms. Cate makes the assumption that close friends and family members can replace a father.  Sometimes, perhaps.  In general, I don’t think this is true, and the studies do show that, all else being equal, father absence still has a negative effect.  Among other things, Ms. Cate’s commentary displays a pervasive characteristic of a lot of “progressive” social thinking: what Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge (both of whom are sane feminists) call “biodenial” in their trenchant critique of women’s studies, Professing Feminism.  In other words, the cavalier dismissal of biology as irrelevant.  Of course biology isn’t everything.  Otherwise, we wouldn’t have millons of loving and devoted adoptive parents.  Still, it is useless and — well — silly to deny that biology forms a strong bond between parent and child.  Adopted children, no matter how well-loved by their adoptive parents, very often have a powerful yearning for their biological parents.  A British newspaper recently published the amazing, poignant story of a woman who recently reconnected with the son she had at the age of 14 after being raped by a stranger, and who was given away for adoption.  Incidentally, his first question (particularly heartbreaking under the circumstances) was, “Who’s my father?”  Where we come from, in the purely biological sense, is a part of us.  It has something to do with who we are, not only in terms of inherited traits but also of personal identity.  That’s a pretty incontrovertible fact.

I also have to wonder what percentage of these births to “unwed” mothers might have been to lesbian couples, whom most states do not allow to appear together on a child’s original birth certificate.  (Birth certificates were used as the basis for the study.)  Again, these are not really single mothers.  (And am I the only one whose irony censor is bleeping away about the fact the on the one hand, we are told to encourage marriage among “unwed” mothers and on the other we are told that lesbians with a mad, raging desire to marry and support one another’s children can’t be allowed to do so?)

Lesbian couples are a very small part of the overall picture.  In 2000, there were 7. 5 million unmarried mothers with children under 18.  There were also an estimated 250,000 same-sex couples raising children, 60% of them (or 150,000) female couples.  That’s 2% of the total.  Actually, one excellent argument I have seen for same-sex marriage (from Jonathan Rauch, I believe) is that there are a lot of same-sex couples raising children together, and allowing (and encouraging) them to marry will send the message that marriage is the most appropriate environment for raising a child.

That said, and to open up a bit of a hornets’ nest: I do think that, at the same time, same-sex marriage makes it harder to answer the question, “Why wait to get married before having children?”  If all you need is a partner in child-rearing and the biological connection doesn’t matter, it is not immediately evident to me that a romantic partner is the best choice for that role.  The primary reason marriage and parenthood are linked for heterosexuals is that male/female relationships tend to produce kids.  But that’s another issue for another day.

Ms. Cate wraps up her post with:

Rather than pulling out the rather musty notion that paternalism, and/or downright patriarchy is what these women and their children need, why not directly open our society’s resources to benefit these families?  How?  Universal healthcare access, generous family leave benefits to workers, better quality free schooling, and family law that recognizes families as they are rather than wishing for what they never were.  Because regardless of how much society encourages marriage among parents, women will continue to get pregnant and bear children outside of marriage, just as they have from time immemorial.  All the encouragement in the world will not make it go away.

A mother and her child is not a defective family unit.  It’s just a family unit.  Period.  Recognizing that is the first step in making the road smoother for such families and most importantly, the many, many children growing up within them.

So there you have it: the idea that fatherhood is as important as motherhood is now not only “musty,” but denigrated with the pejorative term “paternalism.”

Let’s leave aside for the moment Ms. Cate’s idea that single mothers deserve to raise their children at the expense of other people (including, presumably, married couples, some of whom would probably be less able to afford the number of children they want with higher taxes — or, for that matter, other single mothes who made the effort to get good jobs).  Or the inescapable conclusion that, in her view, female independence from men demands the growth of universal dependence on government.

The fact remains that Ms. Cate’s vision, which completely normalizes single motherhood, also institionalizes a huge gender inequality.  The mother-and-child family unit becomes as normal as married-couple parenting.  The father-and-child family unit presumably remains a marginal phenomenon.   (While more divorced dads are now getting custody of children — generally over the opposition of feminists — for single fathers to receive custody is extremely rare.  Even steps to make it easier for single dads to contest an adoption and claim their own children encounter widespread resistance; the common assumption is that a father who does such a thing is a creep trying to control the mom.)

What does this mean for our society’s attitudes toward women and men, and male and female roles?  How does this affect the roles of mothers and fathers in two-parent relationships?  How does it affect children?  All these are important questions that need to be addressed, not brushed aside with glib comments about “paternalism and/or patriarchy.”

I am not saying that there are simple answers, or that it is always better to raise a child with a father than without.  I know wonderful single mothers.  I also know women who married “Mr. Not-Quite-Right” because they wanted a child and felt that the child needed a father; some of these marriages turned out quite well, others were a disaster for all involved.  There is no one-size-fits-all solution.  But there is a problem, and recognizing this is the first step in finding ways to reconcile and balance the competing values at stake.

And on that note — a musty and paternalist (but not patriarchal, please!) Father’s Day, everyone.

20 Comments

Filed under fatherhood, feminism, gender issues, men, motherhood, women

20 responses to “Fathers and “paternalists”

  1. colagirl

    Excellent blogpost, Cathy. The idea that fathers are not a vital and necessary part of a child’s well-being–that somehow they are “extra” or more dispensible than mothers–is one that I always find infuriating. I have witnessed the devastating effects of fatherlessness up-close and personal in my own family: my maternal grandfather was absent during my mother’s and uncles’ childhood, and the lack of a father (not “another parent” but their actual, biological *father*) caused *huge* problems with all of their psyches which continue to impact them to this day (at least, continue to impact two of them; the third committed suicide before I was born). I also benefit from having a wonderful, loving father in my life who has done his best to care for us kids despite my mom’s craziness (a lot of which pretty clearly stems from her own paternal abandonment), and can attest to the powerful effect a good father has on his children’s growth and development.

    Are all fathers perfect? Of course not. Neither are all mothers. And yes, there are pretty clearly some instances in which children are better off if the father is out of their life–*just as there are with mothers.* To say that fathers as a whole are unimportant and unnecessary because of this makes no more sense than to say the same thing about mothers because some of them are abusive. And very good point that to insist that the mother and child be treated as the primary familial unit goes right back into the patriarchal notion that childrearing is something that is primarily women’s work. I fail to see how arguing that as a whole, men do not have an important role to play in the lives of their own children benefits anyone–least of all, the children themselves.

  2. Rather than pulling out the rather musty notion that paternalism, and/or downright patriarchy is what these women and their children need, why not directly open our society’s resources to benefit these families? How? Universal healthcare access, generous family leave benefits to workers, better quality free schooling, and family law that recognizes families as they are rather than wishing for what they never were. Because regardless of how much society encourages marriage among parents, women will continue to get pregnant and bear children outside of marriage, just as they have from time immemorial. All the encouragement in the world will not make it go away.

    The irony. She denounces you for paternalism while demanding a paternalistic state that will take over the role of provider and protector that men traditionally performed for their wives.

  3. Trey

    Wow, great post. I appreciate your logic and the way you were informed by the copious research in this area. Thanks for putting this out there, I hope it catches on.

  4. The irony. She denounces you for paternalism while demanding a paternalistic state that will take over the role of provider and protector that men traditionally performed for their wives.

    Ah yes — very true, and indeed the very definition of “paternalism”!

  5. mkg4583

    Thank you for your response and blog post on what was clearly a sexist article on “motherhood.”

    I think Mike T. got it right. She extols the virtues of the single mom (ignoring the massive amount of data about that failed paradigm) and suggest that “big daddy” Obama and government should take up the slack where men have left off.

    As a divorced father of two, I like to make the distinction that Dr. Laura does about single moms v divorced moms. They are not the same.

    And as far as dads not being involved? Ask Ms. Cate to write an article on why the government HHS department provides massive incentives for states to grant single custody to moms over dads, criminalizes divorced dads when they can’t pay child support yet refuses to criminalizes moms that refuse to allow dads to see their children.

    I bet she doesn’t know that 40 percent of all dads cannot see their children under court order, have restraining orders, yet only 10 percent of dads are considered deadbeat.

    What about the 40 percent of moms that keep children from dads? What do we call these moms? Hateful Hens?

  6. Bob Smith

    Or the inescapable conclusion that, in her view, female independence from men demands the growth of universal dependence on government.

    In what meaningful sense is dependence on government independence from men? Men pay a lot more tax to that government than women do. I suspect she knows government doesn’t create independence from men, she just wants to steal from men and give to women.

  7. Ah yes — very true, and indeed the very definition of “paternalism”!

    And the irony of it is that it will be either the state or individual men providing what she wants. The libertarian option here is the traditional one.

  8. Nice post. There was one thing Cate wrote that particularly rankled me:

    “…why not directly open our society’s resources to benefit these families? How? Universal healthcare access, generous family leave benefits to workers, better quality free schooling, and family law that recognizes families as they are rather than wishing for what they never were. ”

    As you alluded to yourself, resources are produced by and justly belong to particular persons, not “society.” In large part, what Cate is calling for is letting promiscuous, sexually irresponsible men have their fun, and then forcing responsible men who are hardworking and productive- but who usually lack the raw “bad boy” sex appeal of the kind of man who leaves a string of abandoned children in his wake- to pay the cost. What she proposes boils down to making decent, industrious, honest, but unflashy men the serfs of womanizers and pick-up artists.

  9. John, very interesting point that Cate’s proposal for expanded welfare-state benefits for single mothers would benefit not only those mothers, but irresponsible men at the expense of responsible ones.

    Bob Smith:

    I suspect she knows government doesn’t create independence from men, she just wants to steal from men and give to women.

    Personally, I prefer to avoid speculation that my opponent in a debate is aware of “the truth” and resists it out of selfish/dishonest motives (George Orwell wrote about this pattern of thinking many years ago).

    There are a lot of people, male and female, who do not see extensive government welfare programs as creating “dependence.” I’m sure Ms. Cate is one of them.

  10. M. Repton

    Cathy writes:

    “I also know women who married “Mr. Not-Quite-Right” because they wanted a child and felt that the child needed a father…”

    This is the ultimate selfishness. Children are not accessories for people to acquire. Marrying someone because one wants a child and a child needs a father is just the acquisition of *two* accessories with complete disregard for both the father and the future child.

    Of course, some will point out that this is merely the flip-side of the traditional practice of men marrying with the expectation of an heir to carry on the royal line, family name, etc. The fact that women suffered for centuries because of this practice does not justify the reverse in the present.

  11. I’m not sure why “wanting a child” implies that you want that child as “an accessory.” Having children is a perfectly acceptable life goal, for men or for women — in fact, one that’s essential to society’s survival. Are you suggesting that it’s ignoble to have a child unless that child is unwanted, or at least an incidental product of its parents’ love for each other?

    I don’t think any of the women I mentioned were using the men in question as “instruments” of their own goals. Usually, it was a case of both the man and the woman being in the marriage market with the goal of starting a family, seeing each other for a while and realizing that they are not in love and not perfectly matched in every way, but deciding to marry anyway to fulfil the goal of a family. Is there really anything wrong with that? (Particularly given that the failure of most advanced democratic societies to have a sustainable birth rate is already a huge problem — at least in Europe, though not yet in the U.S.)

    I think the word “selfish” gets thrown around much too easily, on all sides of this debate. To some extent, any personal goal from which a person derives or expects to derive satisfaction is “selfish.”

  12. M. Repton

    Certainly the situation you describe is quite common. However, when I read your post, I understood “wanting to have a child” in the sense of “I want to have a child. It would be better if the child had a live-in father, so I should find someone who will agree to do this job so I can achieve my goal of having a child.” As if “a child” is something that can be checked off a list like climbing Mt. Everest. You must admit that is not the same thing as “I’d really like to have a family and hope to find someone I can love who also wants to have a family,” which is what you described in your reply to my comment.

    I agree with the main point of your post. That last bit just struck me the wrong way, I guess.

  13. I’m not sure why “wanting a child” implies that you want that child as “an accessory.” Having children is a perfectly acceptable life goal, for men or for women — in fact, one that’s essential to society’s survival. Are you suggesting that it’s ignoble to have a child unless that child is unwanted, or at least an incidental product of its parents’ love for each other?

    I think what he is that a lot of people want a child like they want a pet, and that is true. They are unwilling to do things like sacrifice their career or make compromises with a spouse to ensure a stable household. The main reason that so many marriages fail is that so many people put their own happiness above that of their spouse and children. When a woman chooses to be a mother, she chooses to subordinate her career and happiness to the needs of that child. At least that is the behavior of a woman who tries to behave in a moral and just way toward her children.

    As I see it, the primary problem with the way that most libertarians view family life is that they no longer believe that natural duties come with natural rights. Part of what makes the modern family life so damning is that people choose to fall in love, choose to have children, and then choose to not abide by the duties that come with those decisions. In more authoritarian eras gone by, one could at least have a measure of mercy for someone who becomes derelict since they were often borderline coerced into relationships.

    Unfortunately, a free society cannot exist without people voluntarily choosing to abide by their duties to their loved ones and to those who they have freely obligated themselves like their children. People like Cate want to have freedom without responsibility. The natural result is that either there will be conflict and poverty between those like her and those who refuse to subsidize that behavior, or the government will get involved and use its standard means to restore order.

  14. yamantaka

    This term “patriarchy” which I see all over the feminist blogosphere seems to have no fixed or precise meaning. When you ask for a definition, they’ll give you a meaning– and later on use the word in ways tenuously related to the meaning they gave 5 minutes before.

    It gets used in so many different contexts, that I can only conclude it means: “anything I don’t like about society.”

    And, furthermore, those who use the word “patriarchy” swear that it is not merely a form of blaming all men for everything bad. And yet, despite this disclaimer, these same individuals play-up the link between maleness and patriarchy as much as possible.

    Is it too much to ask that those who assail “patriarchy” refrain from playing endless linguistic games with the term?

  15. Yamantanka: couldn’t agree more; I think the P-word is meaningless as used in most feminist discourse today, and often, as you say, a roundabout way to “blame men.”

    I did want to respond to this, from Mike T:

    I think what he is that a lot of people want a child like they want a pet, and that is true. They are unwilling to do things like sacrifice their career or make compromises with a spouse to ensure a stable household. The main reason that so many marriages fail is that so many people put their own happiness above that of their spouse and children. When a woman chooses to be a mother, she chooses to subordinate her career and happiness to the needs of that child. At least that is the behavior of a woman who tries to behave in a moral and just way toward her children.

    To be honest, this type of comment is something that contributes to the (generally quite unfair) perception that all this talk about the importance of fathers is a way to relegate women to a submissive role. All of a sudden, the reference to the need for “people” to make career sacrifices when they have children turns out to be really about women.

    I agree, of course, that a woman who is never there for her children because she has an exciting job is selfish. So is a man who is never there for his children. So, incidentally, is a woman who believes she has a “right” to be at home full-time with her children even if it means that the father has to work longer hours and weekends and hardly ever see the kids at all.

    The pro-fatherhood movement is not a movement for traditional male-female roles. If it was, I most certainly wouldn’t be a part of it.

  16. To be honest, this type of comment is something that contributes to the (generally quite unfair) perception that all this talk about the importance of fathers is a way to relegate women to a submissive role. All of a sudden, the reference to the need for “people” to make career sacrifices when they have children turns out to be really about women.

    I agree, of course, that a woman who is never there for her children because she has an exciting job is selfish. So is a man who is never there for his children. So, incidentally, is a woman who believes she has a “right” to be at home full-time with her children even if it means that the father has to work longer hours and weekends and hardly ever see the kids at all.

    The pro-fatherhood movement is not a movement for traditional male-female roles. If it was, I most certainly wouldn’t be a part of it.

    The problem with your assumption is that it goes against female psychology. The average woman wants a man who makes at least as much as she does, preferably a lot more. To do that, the average man cannot sacrifice any aspect of his career and still remain genuinely appealing as a mate. If you want to blame anyone, blame women for not being more “progressive” on these issues.

    I also didn’t say that a woman has to give up her career, but rather that a woman has to be prepared to subordinate her career. Men do that all the time for their families, frequently working jobs that they actually hate so that their family can be well-supported. That is one of the biggest unsung sacrifices that men make for women and children.

  17. So, incidentally, is a woman who believes she has a “right” to be at home full-time with her children even if it means that the father has to work longer hours and weekends and hardly ever see the kids at all.

    A few things about this point:

    1) You will find that typically the homemaker type of housewife who genuinely does want to stay home with her kids to take care of hearth and home is just as willing to sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of her family as her husband. There are housewives and then there are “housewives” (what I like to euphemistically call marriage licensed, salaried prostitutes).

    2) Couples that have a real division of labor often end up with less stress than those that work full time when it is not necessary incomewise. A husband who has to work a lot of hours to support his family is better off with a wife who will take care of things around the house and with their children so that when he comes home, there is minimal work for him to do around the house than one who “shares the burdens” and ends up having to work and do many of the domestic chores as well.

  18. The Fragile Families project at Princeton is an excellent source of information about low income and unmarried couples with children. This is a long term study producing an abundance of solid research.
    http://www.fragilefamilies.princeton.edu/

    Too often committed parents are desperately trying to scramble around uncle sam.

  19. Nick S

    “The irony. She denounces you for paternalism while demanding a paternalistic state that will take over the role of provider and protector that men traditionally performed for their wives.”

    Alas, the likes of this writer who have been raised on a diet of PC victimhood groupthink don’t usually get irony. It goes straight over their heads.

  20. Mike: actually, I have extensively written about the fact that gender inequity is often perpetuated largely by female attitudes (though I wouldn’t necessarily attribute them to innate psychology).

    However, the impression I get from your comments is that you have a definite preference for traditional arrangements in which the man is the primary breadwinner/achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of his domestic needs.

    Such a preference isn’t a crime, of course. I, personally, prefer to steer clear of suggestions that advocating for a strong role for fathers means advocating for traditional roles.

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