Of absent fathers and the culture that allows that choice…

Received a nice note from a reader that’s worthy of discussion:

I stumbled upon your website. Being that I am a single mom (sole parent) and a member of our neighborhood single mom’s club (which is really play dates involving wine), it was refreshing to read some of your articles and how you actually spend time with your children and take care of them, and most importantly love them. Most of our group’s ex-husbands do not take care of their children at all, either monetarily or emotionally. Heck, I don’t even know where mine is! It’s always games or court battles or absenteeism and it’s hurting the kids! My kids mean the world to me. I guess what I am saying is the women I am surrounded by would like to know where real men like you are! That’s right, real men….men that will go to the ends of the earth for their children to help raise them into decent human beings!!! Applause!!!

Of course it’s flattering to get this sort of email, but it’s troubling too as I know so many men who are devoted fathers, whether they’re single dads or in a relationship. Heck, one of my circles of friends are Stay-At-Home Dads, who have chosen to remain at home and nurture their children while their spouse or partner is off in the workforce earning the income they need to stay afloat.

children living with mother alone, by ethnic groupAnd yet the statistics don’t lie either. My friend Ryan at the National Fatherhood Initiative writes that fully 1/3 of children grow up in the United States without a biological father in their lives. And in some ethnic communities, the statistics are far worse, as shown in the accompanying graph from the National Center for Fathering.

There are just a lot of men who walk away from their partner and children, as if this is a primitive society and once the male imperative of seeing their seed implanted in a woman has been accomplished, they are free to go on to the next conquest. But that’s not quite right, because I think that it’s a more subtle issue and that rather than disinterest or the desire for another woman, a whole lot of men vanish out of fear.

I’ve talked about this before, but our culture is broken on the parenting side, as is visible when you watch how children are enculturalized: girls are taught and encouraged to be nurturing with dolls, doll houses and babysitting while boys are taught to be more competitive with sports, video games and a culture that leads to the horrible “no means yes, they’re just playing hard to get”. Empathy? That’s a girl’s emotion, and yet it’s a critical ingredient to being a good parent. Boys never learn how to be fathers, but girls are in training to be mothers almost from their first conscious breath.

Worse, we humans are an extraordinarily judgmental bunch and there’s nothing more judged than parenting, whether you’re in the market and some stranger tells you that how you’re treating your child or even talking to your child is bad for them, or how parents gossip about how other families are raising their children and how all the ills in the world are due to problems in nurture. As if. And us Dad bloggers aren’t immune either: I write about anything to do with my parenting or children, and it’s predictable that mixed in with the support and suggestions are stark criticisms of my choices and approach.

Put these together and we have a recipe for disaster: Men never learn how to be fathers, their relationship with their fathers is too often damaged, and they are then harshly judged by the women in their live about their ability to nurture and parent their own children. It’s no wonder men throw in the proverbial towel and resign themselves to being less of a factor in their children’s lives. And then it goes around again as the next generation has grown up believing that Moms are critical and Dads are optional in the parenting journey.

national fatherhood initiativeIn some ways, it all might have been easier 100 or 200 years ago when the male/female roles were more clearly differentiated. Women ran the household and raised the children and men ran the kingdom and fought the wars, never really expecting much more than to have their children give them a hug and say “nice to see you sir” on occasion. But we live in enlightened times — a good thing, don’t get me wrong — but a time when we’re still trying to figure out how this all fits together.

So yes, there are men out there who are devoted fathers even in the face of ceaseless adversity from the mother of their children and even as they realize they haven’t learned much about how to be a great father and are making it up as they go. In fact, some of us even band together dad 2.0 summit conference logoand are trying to define the new man, Dad 2.0, and even go to conferences to compare notes and enjoy the camaraderie of other men with a similar perspective and passion towards parenting.

But there’s still a long way to go, and as with many conflicts, it’s sometimes beneficial when you see a challenge to ask yourself what am I doing to make this better? What am I doing to make it worse?

Because you gals aren’t completely innocent in this mess any more than us men are completely to blame for what is happening in too many households in America and throughout the world.

12 comments on “Of absent fathers and the culture that allows that choice…

  1. I applaud men who are there for their children after a divorce (or separation). It really makes a difference in their children’s lives. However, there are enough men out there that slough off the responsibilities in terms of financial and physical support. My son has not seen his father in 11 years even though I kept sending him info and addresses and ways to reach his son. Nothing. Selfish, cowardly man. No reason for it only because it was too darn hard to stay emotionally engaged. I have no respect whatsoever for men like that. So keep up the good work it matters.

  2. I honestly think that a huge role in fathers not being part of their child’s lives is that is how they are brought up to be, it becomes a vicious circle, “my dad wasn’t there, so I won’t be there for my child” and repeat.

    I also believe the media have a huge role to play, more and more the types of dad that we see are bad, want away, incompetent dads, again this further promotes the stereotype, it is rare that a dad is portrayed as caring and good at being a dad, and often when they are they are likened more to mums than dads (something that really doesn’t help).

    I’m starting to think more and more that we, as “good” dads need to stand together and start forcing the world to recognise us more than the recognise “bad” dads.

    • I definitely agree that more focus on good fathers and good fathering — which isn’t the same as mothering — would be a definite improvement, Ashley!

  3. An interesting take on the issue and while I don’t disagree with you, I think it’s bigger than that. As your graph shows, African-American fathers leave more as do hispanic, so what’s different in those cultures. I think there are a ton of factors – I also bet there are more women who leave their children than there used to be. It makes for an interesting discussion.

    • It would be interesting to see a break down of single-father families in America by decade. I have long suspected that since the time of Kramer v. Kramer, more and more men are raising their children.

  4. Dave, I agree with you that there are a good many fantastic Dads out there. My brother is one. My current husband is one. My ex-husband, though he lacked some empathy skills and blamed me for the divorce, was ‘there’ and did what he felt he could to support the kids. I with more people had men like you and my brother and Tom in their lives. I wish more women would step up and share the good parenting their husbands or the father of their children are doing, instead of leaning so hard to the “he’s never here” camp.

    I agree that women need to take responsibility for their roles in the whole “what kind of dad are you” discussion. Because, we can learn a lot reading good blogs like this. Contrary to popular opinion, we don’t know everything and…sometimes, a ‘bad’ dad is not a bad dad, he’s just different and he needs support.

    Love the Dad 2 Summit, too. Way to go! Wish I could be there but… my step daughter is getting married then. 🙂

  5. Appreciate you citing NFI and calling me your friend. Reading that made my day. Thoughtful and insightful post, my brother. Hate to be missing Dad 2 this year. I’m attended the last two years and loved it. Maybe I’ll be able to attend next year if it’s closer to the east coast. Keep up the great work. Go dads.

  6. It seems kind of tragic that the concept of marriage and family is as broken as it is now. I have heard, more than a few times, from men who suddenly found themselves alone with their kids fifty percent of the time, that it was a tremendously difficult adjustment. They learned life changing patience, selflessness, more domestic work than they ever imagined possible, empathy, true love, personal responsibility, and deep personal interconnectedness (when it went well.) Most had an epiphany that they would now be the spouse they should have been when they were married. As the sole parent of teen boys, I’ve taken this comment to heart, how do I raise them to be great spouses and dads from the start? I thought I was this wonderful role model through all the turmoil, learning by example, but in recently talking with my boys about relationships, marriage, being a great spouse and parent, I found that there were huge misconceptions. Shockingly huge. As parents we spend so much time on hygiene, and discipline, and homework, etc, but we don’t really talk about the most important parts of their future lives, the nuts and bolts of relationships. So, Dave, try this exercise, ask your kids directly about this stuff, and then tell us, are they going to make great spouses and parents?

  7. Great article. I’m a single dad with custody of my three kids. I use to get insulted when people told me I’m a “good mom” because I am “nurturing” because it was robbing me of recognition as a dad. I felt like they should either say I am a “good father” or a “good parent”, but then I realized that women are expected to be the nurturing parent; and it has somehow become socially acceptable for men not to nurture their kids. While it is an indictment of deadbeat dads everywhere, it is also embarrassing that many dads who are involved in their kids lives (whether divorced or in an intact family) are not emotionally available to their kids and do not take the time to nurture them. Maybe it comes easier for some men than others. For me, it wasn’t something that I had to learn. I grew up with just my mother, who is an amazing parent. So, I had NO example of how a dad, good or bad, was supposed to be. I did, however, have my mother showing me how to be a great parent everyday. She stressed good values, nurtured me and was a pretty good disciplinarian. I would like to think I am instilling the same values in my two sons and my daughter.

  8. This was a great article and love all the different points of views and statistics. Myself single dad full custody for 12 years, his mom was in and out of his life but now making a better attempt over the last few years. I live by the idea of it takes a village to raise a kid. My son didn’t have his mom around all the time to be a strong female role model, but that is were I was blessed with an amazing mom and 2 strong sisters to go with great female friends who were great role models.

  9. Loved this post, and many of your others, Dave. I also loved the wonderful opportunity I had at the summit to have a little one-on-one time with you, to hear your insights, and to get some answers to questions about raising teenage boys. You’re a very good writer, and even better dad. Being a divorced dad myself, I love reading about how devoted and involved you are, how much you care and love, and what a difference it makes in your children’s lives. May our tribe increase.

    The beautiful note you received and posted in this blog is well-deserved. I join the applause!!!!!!

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