BBC’s ‘A Century of Fatherhood’ Debunks Myths about Fathers and Children

You don’t have to read far about family-related matters before you run into the word “myth.” That word features prominently in titles of books dedicated to repairing the image of fathers as uncaring, incompetent and dangerous louts that has been patiently created over the past forty years. So books like Sanford Braver’s Divorced Dads, Shattering the Myths (that disposes of at least six), and Ross Parke and Armin Brott’s Throwaway Dads, The Myths and Barriers that Keep Men from Being the Fathers They Want to Be (that deals with its own six) crop up time and again. We’ve acquiesced in the construction of those myths and have learned to our dismay that doing so has consequences. Demonizing dads has contributed to the spike in divorce and out-of-wedlock
childbearing that, as early as the 1960s, Daniel Patrick Moynihan labeled “pathological.” We now face several generations of young people who’ve grown up without fathers and who demonstrate the many social, educational and relational problems that sociology shows are associated with fatherlessness. So tearing down the many myths about fathers is vital to our social cohesion and wellbeing. It’s also vital to any accurate understanding of ourselves, our families and our society. Put simply, we can’t know ourselves and take seriously the fanciful caricatures of fathers foisted on us over the past forty years. So the BBC series “A Century of Fatherhood” is welcome as yet another effort to replace myth with fact. Not surprisingly, this article about the series is entitled “The Myth of the Tyrannical Dad,” and that too is well worth tearing down (BBC, 6/17/10). The particular myth it deals with is that of the cold, distant and physically aggressive father of bygone years that so many have come to accept on faith. As with all those other myths, this one has a slight basis in fact, but is far outweighed by the fact that most dads in the past century were caring and involved in childcare, despite the requirement that they work long hours away from home. For example,

In Professor Joanna Bourke’s study of 250 working class autobiographies written during the first decades of the century, she found that “for every one who said that father did not do childcare, 14 explicitly stated that he did.”

I would add that, as surely as fathers a century ago cared about and for their children, so did fathers of the more distant past. It’s worth remembering that it was the rise of industrial capitalism that first tore fathers from their homes and children. Before that time, the typical (European) home consisted of a structure adjacent a field. Dad tended to do the plowing and the heavy work involved in animal husbandry, mechanics and artisanry. Mom did the bulk of childcare and housework including cooking, spinning, weaving and sewing. But neither often left the house for long periods and dads did childcare as surely as moms helped with the animals and in the field. Feudal duties might take Dad away from hearth and home for a time, but mostly both parents were at home and to a great degree, duties were shared. By contrast, industrialization required the concentration of a lot of labor at a single spot and, for the most part, it was Dad who left home and family to go off to work at the factory or mine. But that only began about 500 years ago, and it took centuries for industry to dominate patterns of labor. As late as the 1930s, most Americans still lived on farms and in small rural communities. And as far as connection to the family went, farm life then was not much different from farm life under feudalism. Again, Dad was present most of the time and took part in raising the kids. The point being that the idea of fathers as historically absent from their homes and families is – dare I say it? – a myth. The myth of the distant father is debunked by the BBC series as is the myth of the brutal, drunken father. In fact, the vast majority of men drank only in moderation. Corporal punishment was indeed used on children, but by mothers and fathers both. And of course the “wait til your father gets home” may have meant that it was Dad who spanked the child but in no way that Mom abhored spanking. She just didn’t want to do it herself. And, just like today, fatherhood is not only important for children, it’s important for fathers as well.

Lancashire-born Wilfred Copley, now in his 100th year, can still vividly recall how after he was seriously injured in the Normandy landings of 1944, it was the vision of being a father and seeing his newborn baby son for the first time that helped keep him alive. I was in hospital and covered from head to toe in plaster cast and they lowered him onto me. What a meeting. That really gave me the will to live.”

The series uses the real stories of fathers and children as told to diaries, memoirs and to interviewers to trump the myth of the cold, distant father. The truth is not what we’ve been told. What we’ve been asked to believe is a myth told and retold by those who would separate fathers from children. They’ve been enormously successful so far and we’ve got a lot of work to do to repair the damage they’ve done. “A Century of Fatherhood” is doing some of that work.

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