by Pauline A. Connole
On our first "date" after our twin daughters were born, my husband and I went to see the movie Toy Story. We enjoyed it, but afterward my husband asked, "Where was the dad?" At first, it seemed petty to criticize an entertaining family movie because of one small point. The more I thought about it, however, the more glaring an omission it seemed. Not only was dad not around, he wasn't even mentioned -- despite the fact that there was a baby in the family, so dad couldn't have been that long gone. It was as if the presence -- or absence -- of a father is a minor detail, not even requiring an explanation.
This is only one example of the media trend toward marginalizing fathers, which mirrors enormous social changes in the United States. David Blankenhorn, in his book Fatherless America, refers to this trend as the "unnecessary father" concept.
We are bombarded by stories about the struggles of working mothers (as opposed to non-working mothers, I suppose). Meanwhile, a high proportion of media stories about fathers focus on abusive husbands or deadbeat dads. It seems that the only time fathers merit attention is when they are criticized for not helping enough with the housework (a claim that I find dubious anyway, because the definition of "housework" rarely includes cleaning the gutters, changing the oil in the car or other jobs typically done by men) or when they die. When Mr. Blankenhorn surveyed fathers about the meaning of the term "good family man," many responded that it was a phrase they only heard at funerals.
One exception to the "unnecessary father" syndrome is the glowing media attention that at-home dads have received. I do not mean to imply that at-home dads do not deserve support for making this commitment. I only mean to point out the double standard at work when at-home dads are applauded while at-home mothers and breadwinner fathers are given little, if any, cultural recognition.
The very language we use to discuss men's roles (i.e., deadbeat dads) shows a lack of appreciation for the majority of men who quietly yet proudly fulfill their family responsibilities. We almost never hear the term "working father," and it is rare that calls for more workplace flexibility are considered to be for men as much as for women. Our society acts as if family obligations are not as important to fathers as they are to mothers -- as if career satisfaction is what a man's life is all about.
Even more insulting is the recent media trend of regarding at-home wives as "status symbols" -- like an expensive car -- flaunted by the supposedly few men who can afford such a luxury. The implication is that men with at-home wives have it easier than those whose wives work outside the home because they have the "luxury" of a full-time housekeeper. In reality, however, the men who are the sole wage earners for their families suffer many stresses. The loss of a job -- or even the threat of that happening -- is obviously much more difficult when that job is the sole source of income for a family. By the same token, sole wage earners have less flexibility when it comes to leaving unsatisfying careers because of the loss of income such a job change entails. In addition, many husbands work overtime or second jobs to make more needed money for their families. For these men, it is the family that the job supports that makes it all worthwhile. It is the belief that having a mother at home is important to the children, which makes so many men gladly take on the burden of being a sole wage earner.
Today, there is widespread agreement among researchers that the absence of fathers from households causes serious problems for children and, consequently, for society at large. Yet, rather than holding up "ordinary" fathers as positive role models for the dads of tomorrow, too often society has thrown up its hands and decided that traditional fatherhood is at best obsolete and at worst dangerously reactionary. This has left many men questioning the value of their role as fathers.
As a society, we need to realize that fathers are just as important to children as mothers are -- not only for financial support, but for emotional support, education and discipline as well. It is not enough for us merely to recognize that fatherlessness is a problem -- to stand beside the grave and mourn the loss of the "good family man" and then try to find someone to replace him (ask anyone who has lost a father to death if that is possible). We must acknowledge how we have devalued fatherhood and work to show men how necessary, how important, they are in their children's lives.
Those fathers who strive to be good family men by being there every day to love and support their families -- those unsung heroes -- need our recognition and our thanks for all they do. Because they deserve it.
Copyright 1999 by Pauline A. Connole. Reproduction or dissemination of this work - or any part of it - is expressly forbidden without the written consent of the author.