Why are millions of fathers a trivial presence in their children's lives, and what might we do about it? Legions of fatherhood projects have cropped up around the country, seeking to reconnect fathers and their children. Promise Keepers and other national groups are raising public awareness and struggling to stir in men some sense of moral responsibility. However, a crucial key to bringing men back into the fold may lie neither in programs nor in marches, but in the far more mundane work of changing the fundamental practices of the institutions—schools, health plans, religious organizations, community agencies—that interact with families day to day.
Fathers are drifting away from their children in a wide range of circumstances. About half of American marriages are ending in divorce; in some 90 percent of divorces, mothers are awarded custody of their children, whose contact with their fathers drops off at a staggering rate. Only one-sixth of all children will see their fathers as often as once a week after a divorce, and close to one-half will not see them at all. Ten years after a divorce, fathers will be entirely absent from the lives of almost two-thirds of these children. About 30 percent of children are now born to unwed parents. While children of divorce typically have a tie with their fathers that is severed, most children born to unwed mothers never develop this tie at all.
There is, to be sure, great debate about whether this is in fact a great loss to children. Many women clearly view men not as partners in raising children but as another caretaking responsibility—or as outright abusive and destructive. And claims of the fatherhood movement notwithstanding, there is a paucity of solid, large-scale research demonstrating that children are damaged when they have little or no contact with their fathers.
Yet several small studies do indicate a significant correlation between fathers' level of engagement and children's emotional health and cognitive development. Many children clearly miss their fathers and feel stigmatized by their absence—the children say so—although the degree to which children feel stigmatized varies widely by culture and community. And there remains a strangeness in even asking whether fathers are important to children. Would we ever ask this question about mothers? To argue against reconnecting fathers and their children is to deprive children of the opportunity for a unique and profound human tie.
There may also be substantial monetary value in keeping nonresidential fathers engaged with their children. A significant correlation exists between fathers' amount of contact with their children and the payment of child support. (The causal relationship, however, is unclear. Are fathers who are engaged more inclined to pay child support, or are fathers who pay child support more inclined to be engaged?) Child support is no small concern given that about 41 percent of divorcing men walk away without a child-support agreement, and even when child-support agreements are in place, nearly 50 percent of all fathers renege on the full amount. Children are almost twice as likely to be living in poverty after their parents divorce as before.
The problem is not simply a matter of the evaporation of nonresidential fathers. Even when fathers do live with their children, large numbers are emotionally remote and function as appendages to mothers in the basic care of children. To be sure, the entry of women into the full-time labor force has changed this some. The percentage of children whose fathers cared for them during their mothers' working hours increased from 15 percent to 20 percent from 1977 to 1991. But a good deal of research now shows that while fathers may still play important roles—as breadwinners, as supportive partners, as role models in certain respects—mothers, on average, spend substantially more time with children. Moreover, while some fathers spend a good deal of time with their children playing, watching television, or engaged in other activities, in the vast majority of households, it is still mothers who maintain the infrastructure of children's lives. It is mothers who know what time to give the antibiotic, what stuffed animal must be packed, where the lost sock is. One informal survey asked fathers and mothers their children's shoe sizes: 90 percent of mothers answered correctly, and 10 percent of fathers did.
When it comes to basic child care, Scott Coltrane observes in his book Family Man: Fatherhood, Housework and Gender Equity, most fathers tend to "wait to be asked" and to "require explicit directions." Coltrane adds, "[M]ost couples continue to characterize husbands' contributions to housework or child care as 'helping' their wives." The roles of fathers and mothers, to be sure, don't need to be identical. But it would make the lives of large numbers of women far easier if fathers took on more of the hard work of parenting. It seems likely that it also would benefit children—widening their sense of their own possible roles and identities, reinforcing their notions of equity and fairness—to see their parents sharing the parenting burden.
There are assorted complex reasons for fathers' marginal roles. Variations depend in part on race and culture. Studies show that some men have little contact with their children because they are working long hours, while nonresidential fathers often have little contact with their children because they are ashamed of their unemployment or underemployment.
The nature of a father's relationship with the mother and the mother's attitude about the father's involvement strongly predict both residential and nonresidential fathers' degree of engagement with their children. Because some women do not view fathers as competent caregivers, they very explicitly seek to limit a father's role in direct caregiving.
Some psychologists now argue that depression is as common among men as among women—it's just more disguised among men—and depressed fathers may be less likely to struggle through the obstacles and wounds that separate them from their children. The irony, of course, is that a man's failure to develop close relationships, including with his children, may well be a prime cause of his depression.
About four years ago, I became alert, however, to a very different kind of reason that fathers remain such a slight presence to so many children. My wife and I were in the emergency room with my son, then three years old, who required stitches for a head wound. The pediatrician and the nurse caring for him—both entirely lovely, competent people —gave directions to my wife about how to tend to his wound. Not once did they make eye contact with me. Soon after, I was bringing my older son to school, and his teacher asked me, "Would you tell Avery [my wife] to make sure to pack an extra pair of shoes tomorrow for Jake [my son]?"
I am not making the bizarre claim that teachers or health care providers are discriminating against fathers. They are only responding to reality, to the fact that fathers are commonly peripheral to the basic care of children. My point is simply that many of those in the community who interact with families are inadvertently reinforcing a set of expectations of fathers that is dismally low, expectations that get men off the hook for the hard work of parenting and in some cases fail to communicate basic moral responsibilities. The great majority of fathers have been perfectly willing to oblige. My point is also that with little effort, a community's professionals could send quite different and powerful messages to fathers. What if my son's teacher had simply asked me, "Would you make sure to pack an extra pair of shoes for Jake tomorrow?"
Nor would it be hard to change routine bureaucratic habits and symbols that routinely convey low expectations. Noncustodial fathers, for example, are rarely sent report cards or invited to parent-teacher conferences or school assemblies and graduations. Fathers are rarely asked to volunteer in schools or to be class parents.
In producing a video regarding African-American men in health care systems, James May, director of the National Fathers Network, observed that health care professionals typically ask mothers 90 percent of the questions regarding a child's care, even though both parents are in the examination room. Rarely is eye contact made with fathers. "Mothers are seen as the designated experts," May says. "When fathers come to an appointment by themselves, professionals tend to ask, 'Where's your wife?'" We have come light years from the days when fathers were not allowed in birthing rooms, but the notion that not only bearing but raising children is fundamentally a female responsibility is encoded in our most basic health care symbols. As Felton Earls, a family and community researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health, points out, we still have departments of maternal and child health, not departments of parental and child health.
The marginal role of fathers is reinforced in many other ways that would not be difficult to change. The wide gamut of parent education programs in health care, child care, and other community settings still tend to be geared to mothers'—not fathers'—needs and concerns. The birth of a child is clearly a crucial time for fathers to attach to their children, yet Lamaze classes tend to be tuned to the peaks and valleys of feeling that women, not men, are likely to experience. Common male struggles—such as the worry the baby will rob them of the mother's focused attention and love—are ignored. A friend of mine pointed out another Lamaze class oversight that commonly causes men to feel rejected and to become detached: "If Lamaze classes were really concerned about men, they'd talk to them about the fact that their wives are not going to be much interested in sex for about six months after the baby is born."
Dads Can Do More
It is crucial to distinguish the notion of communicating high expectations from the growing tendency to celebrate men who have any involvement with their children. A small number of schools and various community groups around the country are now periodically holding "dad's days" and other father events in which a child brings a father or significant male figure to a school or community activity, as a way of encouraging fathers to engage with their children. Yet the notion of celebrating these fathers for appearing at school for a single day reveals how little is really expected of them. Schools should communicate that ongoing engagement is presumed, as it is for mothers. These father events also understandably often rile mothers and deepen the divide between mothers and fathers. One school principal who holds a popular dad's day told me that mothers regularly complain to her that there are no days designated to celebrate them, even though they're doing all the parenting work.
For a few years, I volunteered at my children's school once a week and was praised by school staff for making this commitment. When I told this to my graduate students, one was brave enough to say to me, "Men volunteer in their children's school once a week, and they expect to get a trophy. What do women get who do this all the time?" Celebrating fathers may be a necessary first step in engaging them, but institutions should do it in the context of high expectations of fathers' day-to-day contributions to child raising, and they need to be equally vigilant and energetic about celebrating mothers.
These changes in institutional practices will not, of course, change fathering practices overnight. The fact that baby stations are now in men's restrooms in airports and some other public places has had both symbolic and practical importance, but I rarely see men using them. A friend recently told me that he was in an airport restroom and sure enough, a baby station was unfolded and a man in a business suit was standing in front of it. But there wasn't a baby on it. He was interacting deeply with his laptop computer.
To dramatically raise the number of fathers who are meaningfully involved in the care of their children requires taking on huge and complex problems. It means improving men's employment prospects and adopting policies that change workplaces so that fathers can expand their parenting role—including paternity leave, flexible scheduling, company-based child care, and reasonable work loads. It means focusing mediation programs and parent and family support programs on helping couples manage their acrimony in ways that keep fathers involved with children. Many current fatherhood programs and initiatives fail because they skirt the hard issues—issues of work and love—that so commonly rend fathers from families. It means teaching young men, starting in junior high school, both about the responsibilities of parenthood and about its wonders. It means guiding parents in talking to their children about these things as well as using mentoring programs and other community interventions to regularly communicate the message and to model responsible fatherhood.
The media and celebrities, too, could do much more to promote a culture of responsibility for children among men. Actor and singer Will Smith's song "Just the Two of Us" celebrates not fathers but the treasures of a father's day-to-day involvement with his child. Why not do a public service announcement with Michael Jordan holding a baby, explaining the magical capacities of infants and encouraging fathers to spend time with their babies? Filmmakers and television producers have long recognized the potency of children and single fathers. My Three Sons, Bonanza, Kramer vs. Kramer, Sleepless in Seattle, My Girl, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid are but a few of a long list of popular portrayals of fathers struggling solo to raise children. But these shows and films tend to heroize fathers for doing the things mothers routinely do. Fathers need instead to routinely see themselves in television and films, without any fanfare, managing alongside mothers their children's daily lives.
At the same time, more people need to wake up to this crisis—if women were so disconnected from their children, we would see our country as fundamentally awry—and nonresidential fathers need to be reminded, repeatedly and forcefully, about their basic obligation to provide for their children. (A colleague recently reviewed a proposal to a foundation to put the names of "missing" fathers on beer bottles. I can't see beer companies seizing on the idea, but it does make the point.)
Yet important as these strategies are, especially in combination, they will never achieve their full might if fathers fail to redefine their parenting role, and fathers are unlikely to redefine their role if it is not consistently expected of them in their day-to-day interactions. If we believe that it benefits children to have fathers engaged with them—and engaged in many aspects of their lives—then that needs to be reflected in the institutions that help raise children and support families.