I just posted a piece on the BBC series entitled “A Century of Fatherhood” that, among other things attempts to dispel certain myths about the behavior of fathers over the last 100 years. Specifically, it mines the actual historical record found in diaries, letters, memoirs and interviews and unearths the fact that, in the early part of the 20th century and beyond, it was the norm for fathers to be actively involved in their children’s lives in addition to working full time, serving in the military, etc. It goes on to debunk myths that held that fathers were cold, distant, brutal and drunk. While some of those things were true (of fathers and mothers alike) and surely still are, they were hardly the norm.
The current enthusiasm for greater father-involvement with children tends to take for granted that it’s a new thing, that we’re fearlessly going where none have gone before. The BBC series tells us that’s not true.
Hard on the heels of that series comes this article by Aaron Traister (Salon.com, 7/22/10). Traister is a stay-at-home dad. His wife works and earns the family’s daily bread; Traister cares for their son and daughter.
The point of his piece is the extent to which their arrangement is accepted as unremarkable by the people he meets and who live in his neighborhood. And his neighborhood is not some enclave of affluent liberalism in which political correctness about gender roles obscures actual practices by men and women. No, Traister and family live in a fairly blue-collar neighborhood. Into the bargain, his wife’s family is right-wing enough to possibly be Tea Party enthusiasts although he’s not sure.
So Traister finds it worthy of note that his staying at home while his wife earns is simply a matter of course for most people. He’s found no one for whom it’s any big deal.
It would be nice if family laws and family courts were as accepting of evolving parental roles as are the people who live next door to Traister. After all, it’s one thing for the Joneses to take your full-time dad role in stride and another for the judge to do so if you get divorced and your wife accuses you of child abuse. The simple fact is that until family laws and family court practices change, the attitudes of your neighbors, while nice, won’t amount to much.
But Traister goes further and uses a casual conversation with an old lady in the park as his jumping off point for comparing anti-dad sentiment with anti-black sentiment. His point is that anti-dad sentiment is less resistant to change, while anti-black sentiment hangs doggedly on.
Well, there’s a lot wrong with that. For example, the fact that his neighbors and in-laws accept his staying home with the kids is nothing beyond anecdotal evidence for his assertion. With a little effort, he could easily find an African-American family living peacefully in a white neighborhood and draw sweeping conclusions about racism in America. But that wouldn’t make any sense because it ignores the larger picture of the many ongoing problems African-Americans face.
Traister does the same with male and female roles. The fact is that men still do the lion’s share of the working and earning and women still do the lion’s share of the childcare. Any number of easily accessible datasets like those maintained by the Bureau of Labor Statistitics make it clear. And whatever may be true of his friends and relatives, countless family laws discriminate against fathers in either word or application. Child custody laws, adoption laws, putative father registries, laws regarding paternity fraud, child support procedures and temporary restraining orders are just a few of the many legal barriers placed between fathers and children. Does Traister not know about those? Or do they fade into insignificance because, to date, he hasn’t felt their sting?
But I suspect he’s right about the fact that popular acceptance of stay-at-home dads is greater than many believe. It’s true that many – perhaps most – men strongly associate self-worth with working and earning. And it’s true that, for those men, abandoning that role is difficult. It’s also true that many women look at a man without a job as a deadbeat for whom it’s difficult to have respect. The sexes agree on that to a remarkable degree.
Still, times are changing in the direction of greater fathers’ rights, greater women’s earning power and the recognition that children need both parents in their lives. So why are those changes easier than similar ones between the races? Well, maybe the BBC series can suggest an answer. Maybe we’re more open to stay-at-home dads because, contrary to the thin gruel of anti-dad discourse we’ve been fed for the past forty years, we’ve mostly had fathers at home. We know what that’s about and we like it. Our actual experiences trump the political agendas of the anti-dad crowd.
As I said in my piece on the BBC series, as recently as the early 1930s, most Americans lived on farms and in small rural communities. Transportation to and from those places was slow and poor. Until rural electrification, a huge number of people had little communication with anyone beyond their immediate neighbors. In short, dads were right there with their families, just like they were in feudal times.
So the idea of dads at home with the kids is familiar to us. It’s not strange or unusual; it’s something we know and know the value of. As usual, laws are behind the curve. And the anti-dad elites continue to peddle their message that fathers are dangerous, incompetent and uncaring. But the truth is otherwise. “A Century of Fatherhood” tells us that dads were never what they’ve been made out to be. Aaron Traister tells us that we’re discovering that all over again, as if for the first time.