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Paternal Parenting: Mentoring counters media messages on fathering

Published: Friday, June 13 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

While that struggle feels unique to today's men, it's actually an ongoing trend, says historical sociologist Ralph LaRossa, a professor emeritus at Georgia State University who studies family, gender and fatherhood.

The culture and conduct of fatherhood has always ebbed and flowed. In colonial America, many fathers spent all day working with their children on the family farm. Then the Industrial Revolution pulled fathers into factories and required a complete work/life rebalancing.

In the 1920s, media portrayed men as bumbling and incompetent fathers, while in the 1930s, men were increasingly encouraged to play more of a child nurturing role since the Depression made economic providing so difficult, says LaRossa, author of "The Modernization of Fatherhood." By the 1940s, fathers were seen as noble protectors who helped their children by serving the country during war.

The post-war boom of the 50s and TV shows like "Father Knows Best" and "Leave It to Beaver" promoted a traditional image of fatherhood, which was upended during the 60s feminist movement, bringing a second wave of "new fatherhood" that encouraged fathers to, again, engage emotionally with their children.

"I think it's important that people have a sense of history so that they understand that today's fathers are not the first generation to change a diaper," LaRossa says.

When fathers appreciate that the culture of fatherhood fluctuates, they realize they're not necessarily destined to become amazing simply through some type of fatherhood "evolution," LaRossa says. Effective fathering takes constant work and introspection.

More than money

But time for introspection is rare when dad is working several jobs or long hours just to make ends meet.

"Fatherlessness and marital dissolution are mostly due to economic difficulties," says Nomaguchi. "So to keep telling fathers, 'You should keep staying in relationships' or 'keep being responsible for (your) kids' is probably not helping."

When financial stress breaks up relationships, these fathers — who are trying to be the providers they think society demands — become non-resident fathers, Nomaguchi says, which not only affects them psychologically, but makes it difficult to be close to their children.

"Perhaps because they are socialized to be providers, men seem to take financial conflict particularly hard," writes Jeffrey Dew, a faculty fellow at the National Marriage Project and an assistant professor of Family, Consumer, and Human Development at Utah State University. He found that couples who argue over money at least once a week were over 30 percent more likely to divorce than couples who disagreed about finances just a few times each month.

To lessen financial conflict, experts say society needs to redefine words like "provider," "breadwinner" and quit tying the idea of masculinity to a paycheck.

"A dad taking care of his child at home is not called babysitting, it's called parenting," says Kenneth Braswell, executive director of Fathers Incorporated, a New York non-profit devoted to responsible fatherhood and mentoring. "We need to take some time to redefine what masculinity is in this time and day, because it's not what it was 40 years ago."

Data show that men spend 6.5 hours a week caring for children, up from the 2.6 hours in 1965, according to Pew Research. Men also spend about 12.5 hours a week doing housework, compared to 6 hours in 1976. (Women now spend 16.5 hours on housework, down from 26 hours a week) according to the University of Michigan's Panel Study on Income Dynamics. In 2013, the U.S. Census listed 214,000 full-time stay-at-home dads, though that number is disputed as low.

Glazer still hears people refer to "stay-at-home dads" with skepticism and scorn, which is unfortunate.

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