FAMILY AND SOCIETY by Jenet EricksonNews Weekly
Research finding hardly a shock: men don't mother
, July 18, 2015
There’s been a strange turn of opinions about fatherhood – at least in recent public debates. Decades of research have now documented the tremendous challenges children face when they grow up without their fathers. But you would never know it by looking at some of the recent public arguments for “genderless parenting”.
So, what do the decades of research on fathers say? Boys from fatherless families are twice as likely to end up in prison before age 30. Girls raised in homes without their fathers are much more likely to engage in early sexual behaviour and end up pregnant as teenagers – for example, girls whose fathers left home before their daughters turned six are six times more likely to end up pregnant as teenagers. Children who grow up without married mothers and fathers are also more likely to experience depression, behavioural problems, and school expulsion.
There is also more abuse in homes without fathers. In studies of abuse, fathers living with their children emerge as strong protectors – both through watching over their children’s activities and communicating to others that they will protect them. In one study, abuse was 10 times more likely for children in homes with their mother and an unrelated boyfriend.
These differences can partly be explained by the fact that these children are more likely to grow up in poverty. But that too reveals the importance of dads, as married fathers are the primary breadwinners in almost 70 per cent of married families – providing resources that benefit children.
In spite of this evidence, two researchers in 2010 argued in a top-tier family science publication, the Journal of Marriage and Family, “The gender of parents only matters in ways that don’t matter.” Though it may be important to have two “parental figures”, their genders and relationship to the child don’t matter that much.
It is easy to see why these claims seem believable. We all know mothers who are breadwinners, and fathers who perform the traditional female role of providing full-time quality child care. And a body of research shows that fathers have both the desire and capacity to be protective, nurturing, affectionate, and responsive with their children.
But are fathers and mothers really the same? Do mothers “father” and do fathers “mother”?
Canadian scholar Andrea Doucet has explored this question in her book, Do Men Mother? Her research led her to conclude that fathers do not “mother”. Although mothering and fathering have much in common, there were persistent, critical differences that were important for children’s development.
To begin, fathers more often used fun and playfulness to connect with their children. No doubt many a mother has wondered why her husband can’t seem to help himself from “tickling and tossing” their infant – while she stands beside him holding her breath in fear. And he can’t understand why all she wants to do is “coo and cuddle”. Yet, as Doucet found, playfulness and fun are often critical modes of connection with children – even from infancy.
Fathers also more consistently made it a point to get their children outdoors to do physical activities with them. Almost intuitively they seemed to know that responding to the physical and developmental needs of their children was an important aspect of nurturing.
Fathers were also more likely to encourage children’s risk taking – whether on the playground, in school work, or in trying new things. While mothers typically discouraged risk taking, fathers guided their children in deciding how much risk to take and encouraged them in it. At the same time, fathers were more attuned to developing a child’s independence – in everything from children making their own lunches and tying their own shoes to doing household chores and making academic decisions.
As she evaluated these differences, Doucet wondered if it was in fact true that fathers just weren’t as “nurturing” as mothers. Their behaviours didn’t always fit the traditional definition of “holding close and sensitively responding”. But a key part of nurturing also includes the capacity to “let go”. It was this careful “letting-go” that fathers were particularly good at – in ways that mothers often were not.
Doucet ends her report by sharing an illuminating moment from her research. After a long evening discussing their lives as single dads, Doucet asked a group of sole-custody fathers: “In an ideal world, what resources or supports would you like to see for single fathers?”
She expected to hear that they wanted greater social support and societal acceptance, more programs and policies directed at single dads. Instead, after an awkward silence, one dad stood and said: “An ideal world would be one with a father and a mother. We’d be lying if we pretended that wasn’t true.”
Nods of agreement followed with expressions of approval from the other dads. Although many had had bitter experiences of separation and divorce, they couldn’t help but acknowledge the inherent connectedness of mothering and fathering – and the profound deficit experienced when one or the other is not there.
Arguments for the non-essential father may reflect an effort to accept the reality that many children today grow up without their dads. But surely a more effective and compassionate approach would be to acknowledge the unique contributions of both mothers and fathers in their children’s lives, and then do what we can to ensure that becomes a reality for more children.
Jenet Erickson is an assistant professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. This article originally appeared in Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, New Jersey, and is used with permission.