Fathers in the Shadows

I’ve had this conversation on Facebook so many times, that I couldn’t write another comment. It had to be a full blog post.  I shudder to think about how much research I’m about to go do.

Let’s Start with Social Policy

There are reasons why the IRS gives people tax breaks for buying houses, being married-filing-jointly, and having kids.  These are not reasons of values or morés – these come down to money, policy, and ease of governance.

These structures are as built into the culture as much as they are into the tax code. When I told people that I never wanted to have kids, I faced a huge amount of weirdness and backlash. I got everything from the condescending “You’ll change your mind” to the rude “What’s wrong with you?”

When Brett and I lived together for 7 years before getting married, we were nagged quite a bit by acquaintances and relative strangers about our marital status. No, I take that back. We weren’t. I was. Because men are expected to avoid being “trapped” by women in marriage.

It is baked into the social fabric that we would want to settle down in these ways, and if we wanted to avoid those particular choices, we were met with resistance.

Now, we’re a cis white couple with plenty of privilege. We were just met with friction, rather than downright destructive stereotypes and vile assumptions.  I think about the women of color on my street. Some are child free – do you think people assume that of them? Some are lesbians. Some are happily married. Some are single moms. Some of them live with their parents, and the grandparents help raise the babies.  Some of them are on their own with the kids, and sometimes don’t have lights on because they couldn’t pay the electric bill.

Think about the above policies and the stigmas against these women.  I happen to know the teenaged son of one of the women who can’t pay her electric bill every month. He’s played with my stepson since they were eight years old. This kid is about 6′ even, and a little socially awkward. He makes straight-As in school, is kind to animals, and is really funny and creative.  His older sister is applying for college scholarships. Mama can’t pay for the electricity, but her kids are doing just fine. Yet, according to policy, she’s seen as a drain on the system.  According to stereotypes, she and her family are seen as “less than”, and everyone acts a little surprised that the daughter in her late teens isn’t pregnant yet.

Now, For Motherhood

To see the shadow side, we have to look at what’s in the light.   What’s in the light? June Cleaver.  White, cis, het, married, stay-at-home, beautiful, thin, spotless mom with 2-3 kids.

  • If you are a woman of color – you are suspect. You stay home because you’re lazy. You have too many children.
  • If you are LGBTQ – you are suspect. You can’t possibly be a good parent with those questionable morals.
  • If you are unmarried – you are suspect. You had sex outside of wedlock you unspeakable whore. Who is going to take care of you and your baby?
  • If you work – you are suspect. Don’t you love your children and want to spend time with them?  Is that daycare safe?
  • If you have 0 or 1 kid – Why not have more? Why not have kids. Child-freeness is widely seen as pathological.
  • If you have 3+ kids – Are you Catholic? Evangelical Christian? No, then what the hell is your problem. Get some birth control… and a hobby or something. Geesh

You’ll notice here that the stay at home 1950’s mom is the ideal. This is the mom that is not going to work. As soon as her man came home from the war, she quit the riveting and never looked back.

The other thing that’s important to note is that the mom is 100% responsible for child-rearing. This is the “Oh, you just wait until your father gets home!” mom. This is the individual who is responsible for her children’s emotional and mental health.  The dad in this model “shouldn’t be bothered by” the children.

Oh, and one more thing that’s very important to point out – this model is entirely fictional and impossible, and in some ways quite unhealthy.

Fatherhood Stereotypes

When the men came home from WWII just before the baby boom, the role of fathers in the American family changed drastically.

First, can we just point out that veterans were not treated as even a little bit damaged by their experiences at war? That their mental health was completely ignored? “Shell shock” was a WWI term that was generally whispered, and not really dealt with.  This has persisted into the next generations of vets from Vietnam, and the next from the Middle East. I suspect that because of the PTSD the men experienced, this is also where the emotionally distant male figure comes from. Where real men don’t cry, don’t have feelings, really can only safely express anger.

Second, most women did drop out of the workforce after the men came home. Most, but not all.   Which meant that a lot of mothers were stay-at-home. This was primarily because (a) they were married, and (b) their husband’s job was enough to support the family’s needs.

This set up the man of the house as the primary breadwinner. Who had to make the bacon, but wasn’t responsible for anything at home. The stay at home wife and mother was responsible for being thrifty with his money to support the household.  Dad didn’t have to worry about when the kids were sick – mom was home to take care of them. Further, because of this built in childcare, if dad’s demanding job required him to work over time or late nights, that was okay.

The father’s role in childcare was disciplinarian and structure, far more than emotional needs, bonding or care-giving.   Remember, real men don’t have feelings.

How does this flat-topped 1950’s dad stereotype persist today?

  • Men don’t have feelings
  • Men don’t care about their kids
  • Men don’t usually “get attached” with babies until they are older
  • When people say dads are “babysitting” their own children (they aren’t babysitting, they are parenting)
  • Men of color are reduced to “baby daddy” and assumed not to care about or parent their kids
  • Men are not awarded custody at the same rates as women
  • “deadbeat dad” is a term – but have you ever heard of a “deadbeat mom”?
  • How many times have you heard women talking about their husbands as if they are one of the children in their household? Men are reduced to “being taken care of”, rather than equal partners.
  • The wage gap (see below).

This is just a tip of the iceberg.  Think about the fact that so many men still – to this day and age – define themselves and their self-worth by their ability to “make the bacon”. Their jobs and earning potential is a huge part of their identities.  And for the men who this isn’t the case? It’s still expected to be.

I personally know a lot of dads. Stepdads, dads via adoptions, divorced dads, married dads, stay-at-home dads, gay dads, white dads, black dads, Latino dads.  Not one of them is this stereotypical dude above.  They take turns staying home when the kids get sick. They tend to tackle the early pediatrician shot appointments. They do either drop off or pick up at daycare. They love their kids to little bitty pieces and will do absolutely anything for them. They are parents.

This is the aspect of fatherhood that is in the shadows. Its underrated. It’s ignored. It’s impossible! It’s absurd! These aren’t real men!  Until we get these guys the social respect they deserve for parenting, we’ll never have gender equality.

Unhealthy Legacy

How the father’s role is diminished in importance to childhood development in all circles except psychology and child development and actual families. As far as all of the experts are concerned, fathers are just as important as mothers in their children’s development of self-concept, self-esteem and understanding of healthy expression of emotions.

The legacy of these stereotypes about gender means that men are inheriting years of veterans’ PTSD. They are inheriting anger as the only acceptable emotion (and often alcohol as one reasonable escape). And unless they are strong enough to break that chain of inheritance, they are passing those stereotypes down to their daughters and sons. Daughters would then persist in feeling like the feelings of everyone in their family is their responsibility.  Sons would then persist in repressing feelings rather than expressing them.  As a society, we’ve been actively working on this one. But our dads need to get waaaaay more credit for that.

The Wage Gap

I’m frustrated by intersectional feminists who don’t talk about the societal expectations of fathers, and how that is a huge part of the persistence of the wage gap.

  • Men aren’t granted paternity leave except through FMLA, and no one expects a man to take that time off with his newborn baby
  • It’s not expected that a man’s sleep would be affected by a newborn at home
  • Men aren’t expected to be responsible for the childcare drop offs or pick ups or school functions, or trips to the pediatrician
  • Men aren’t expected to stay home if the kids get sick
  • Men aren’t expected to have housekeeping or other duties in the home
  • Men don’t have to stop in the middle of the day and pump their breasts
  • Men are not expected to be stay-at-home dads
  • Men are not expected to be single dads
  • As primary breadwinners, men are expected to prioritize their work over their family when it comes down to it.
  • The “no emotions” stereotype – men aren’t expected to care about their kids

On the flipside, women are expected to do all of the above. Take off more time, take maternity leave, stay home if the kids get sick, decide to leave their careers to spend more time with their kids, get custody of the kids and be single parents in the event of a divorce.

Now, think about all of these stereotypes from the cold humans-are-resources-and-numbers perspective that most businesses these days have toward employees.  If you’ve got equally qualified candidates and one is a dad, and one is a mom – which do you hire? Which do you pay more?  Remember, cold-business-wise, absenteeism and turnover are things you don’t want in a potential employee.

Moms are financially risky.  In fact – even single (pre-menopausal) women are financially risky investments, because we are expected  to get married and have children at some point. Even if we aren’t the sure-risk of the mother, we are the potential risk of the female. Women are paid less than men, but moms are paid less than anyone.

Until dads are given their due from the society for actually parenting, this will persist.   If we could bust these 60-70 year old stereotypes of fatherhood:

  1. Women / Moms would be considered less risky if they are not expected to be shouldering the childcare on their own
  2. Men / Dads would actually be considered equally risky as an investment as women are if they are expected to share parenting responsibilities

Corporations don’t really think about us in terms of gender, race, or anything beyond dollars and cents. How much do they have to put into us and how much can they get out of us.  And the people making those decisions are subconsciously still putting us into boxes based on stereotypes, and pay us according to those boxes.   We’re not going to get equal pay until we smash the boxes – all of them, even the privileged ones.

5 thoughts on “Fathers in the Shadows

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  2. Good post! You’ve explored a lot of things that really get to me, not least of which is the fact that when I host a creative workshop for 6 1/2 hours once a month, people say, “Oh, you’re so lucky your husband is taking the kids.” When they were infants, he worked more than that every weekday, but no one told him he was “so lucky” to have me babysitting for him. I wonder if these attitudes go back even further–at least to the Victorians–with the whole “man works, woman is responsible for rearing up good little British citizens” mentality.

    • I didn’t have time to really research how far it goes back that fatherhood is less important to child rearing, though I’ve seen a lot of evidence suggesting it’s a more recent thing, even if “spheres of influence” were separate much earlier

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