Stephen Marche writes in Esquire about why fathers matter more than ever.
1. THE CRISIS OF FATHERHOOD IS REAL
The brute facts: The number of American families without fathers has grown from 10.3 percent in 1970 to 24.6 percent in 2013;* that percentage has more or less been stable over the past few years, at about a quarter of all families, with 17.5 million children currently fatherless in the United States. At the same time, those who are fathers, those who stay with their children, have taken on the role with an unprecedented intensity. American fatherlessness is a national disaster and, according to the latest research into its effects, more of a disaster than anybody could have imagined.
2. FATHERHOOD MEANS MORE THAN ANYBODY THINKS
The new fatherhood, and the new fatherlessness, are reshaping contemporary life, from its most intimate aspects to its most public, a mostly hidden force as powerful as it is unacknowledged. In a 2014 study of more than forty million children and their parents, researchers at Harvard and UC Berkeley examined the relationship between economic mobility and racial segregation, income inequality, school quality, social capital, and family structure. Family structure showed the strongest connection. The crisis of income inequality and the decline of social capital are the subjects of wide-ranging, furious debates. The quality of schools is the main subject of almost all local politics. Family structure matters more. From the report: “Family structure correlates with upward mobility not just at the individual level but also at the community level, perhaps because the stability of the social environment affects children’s outcomes more broadly.”
Fatherlessness significantly affects suicide, incarceration risk, and mental health. The new fatherhood is not merely a lifestyle question. Fathers spending time with their children results in a better, healthier, more educated, more stable, less criminal world. Exposure to fathers is a public good.
3. THE ATTENTION OF FATHERS IS IRREPLACEABLE
A single small but vital fact distinguishes men of the past fifty years from all other men in history: Most of us see our children being born. It’s one of those changes to everyday life that we take for granted but that have the most radical consequences. Up until the mid-1960s, the mysteries of birth were mainly the preserve of women. Then, suddenly, they weren’t. Men insisted on being with their wives as they gave birth, and with their children as they came into the world. Of all the grand upheavals between men and women over the past two generations—the sexual revolution, the rise of women in the workplace, and the rest—the new fatherhood has been, in a way, the easiest. Despite no historical examples of male nurturers, no literature of the macho caretaker, men have taken to the new fatherhood in all its fleshiness and complication without much struggle, indeed with relish. Today the overcaring father has morphed into a mockable cliché—you’ve seen them comparing stroller models at the playgrounds, or giving baby a bottle in a bar during the Final Four, or discussing the latest studies on the merits of early music education for “executive function.” The new father is an engaged father by instinct. Witnessing birth was the beginning of a widening intimacy. The new father holds his babies. He bathes them. He reads to them. The new father knows that the role of the father is not merely to provide food and shelter. The role of the father is to be there, physically and mentally.
This intimacy is instinctive, and research into the development of children has shown how powerful a force it is. The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child puts the strength of early impressions on a biological level: “We have long known that interactions with parents, caregivers, and other adults are important in a child’s life, but new evidence shows that these relationships actually shape brain circuits and lay the foundation for later developmental outcomes, from academic performance to mental health and interpersonal skills.” The presence of a father affects a kid on the level of brain chemistry.
Working fathers are reckoning with the consequences of these new insights. A 2013 study from Pew Research found that men and women found nearly identical levels of meaning in childcare. The problem of work-life balance isn’t just for women anymore, and the father who works eighty-hour weeks because his job is so important is no longer seen as something to aspire to. He’s pitiable. The fact that women are increasingly breadwinners has opened up new options for some—the stay-at-home dad has changed from sitcom-worthy freak into the subject of endless lazy trend pieces—but even men who have power are finding new strategies. Sigmar Gabriel, the vice-chancellor largely responsible for dismantling the nuclear-power industry of Germany—a big job—has decided to take Wednesday afternoons off to spend with his young daughter. “The only luxury is time, the time you spend with your family.” This is not the quote of a family-values Republican senator. That’s Kanye West talking.
4. FAMILY POLICY MUST BECOME ACTUAL FAMILY POLICY
The majority of two-parent American families have men and women who work, and men and women are increasingly sharing the childcare load.13 That reality—basic domestic egalitarianism—is for the most part treated as a surprising novelty, as news. And not just by op-ed writers. By tax law. By the courts. (Men pay 97 percent of alimony3 although women earn the majority of the income in 40 percent of families.12) The major institutions in American life are playing catch-up with a fifty-year-old development in home life—women are earning more money in more families all the time, and fathers are vital to the well-being of the children involved.
Fatherhood is taking on a political imperative: Every American man deserves a chance to spend time with his children without being fired. Every American child deserves a chance to spend time with his or her father without being impoverished.
Click here to read the rest of the article.