The role of fathers in American society

New Thinga-reader Rob suggests a discussion topic that concerns him:

“I’m British and my wife is American. We live in Washington, DC and are expecting our first child in January. I have a view that American society is strongly geared towards Mum-focused parenting only, whereas my feeling is that the United Kingdom, and some other European countries (Sweden, etc.), are slightly less polarized between the sexes. My perception (I admit) is someway due to the social care system in the states compared to Europe (no mandatory paternity leave), but I do wonder what the general view is.”

Here is my e-mail reply where I go totally over the deep end:

Regarding the role of dads in America, there isn’t a consensus. There are varying levels of participation that mothers are comfortable with, how non-parents view us, and how employers view us… and it’s all mixed up based on the viewer’s age, ethnicity, culture, etc.

What matters to me is how popular culture, namely the mass media, portrays fathers. Either we have the new father who is played for laughs as he performs baby care, or the extremely sensitive man who women are supposed to fawn over because it’s so special that he’s a good father.

There is something of a super-dad persona of the father who is well-employed, a good provider, is involved in his kids’ activities in the evenings and weekends and takes off work to be there for his kids, provides good parenting support, is a superior lover to his wife, and is a carpenter on the side.

There’s also the issue of how society views children, which I’d argue is not very well. It begins with atrocious paternity leave (and maternity leave, including prior to birth) and disregard for universal health care that allows kids’ teeth to rot out (among many other tragedies).

Children are best seen and not heard in public, or better yet, not seen. And by the pre-teen years society wants to treat them like adults, at least in how they dress and the media they consume. Schools and libraries are regrettably funded by the government, but now it’s okay to close libraries. Companies view children for their monetary value, and the general public views children for their economic drain on society.

Sorry to go overboard, but when looking at America in the big picture, I don’t think families are valued much except by other families that contain non-adult children. A father’s perceived role in his family is equally broken — either you’re a bumbling babysitter or a super dad who performs both a motherly role and the classic bread earner role at the same time.

What say you Thinga-readers? What is the role of fathers, mothers and children in America? Not what you think the roles should be — what’s the popular perception? Is that perception correct?


10 Responses to “The role of fathers in American society”

  1. Katie says:

    I totally agree. It seem to me like society views parents as people with some weird and sometimes annoying hobby, instead of the cultivating of our future. In our society we seem to value money more than anything, and there is no monetary gain to having children so, by a large part of society, parenting is seen as pointless and even a bad decision. The father role itself, though, is in flux and I see fathers taking positions all over the spectrum you mentioned, from super dad to sperm donor. I do think that in those couples that value families and decide to have children, there is a trend towards a more involved, but equal partner dad, but that is just from my personal experience.

    December 2nd, 2009 at 8:07 am

  2. Michael says:

    I totally agree with Katie.
    My husband & I both work & our son goes to day care. My husband is not the bread winner & my bread earning is not so much more that his is for the “extras” or enough for him to be a SAHD. So we are both like Dads on TV with our day care center provders being the TV Mom…

    December 2nd, 2009 at 8:37 am

  3. Michael says:

    The above was written by the mom – not that it matters, using the dad’s log-in… sorry for any confusion.

    December 2nd, 2009 at 8:38 am

  4. Kimberly says:

    My husband feels tremendous pressure to be “super dad”… and I admit I have high expectations for him when it comes to parenting (maybe not high, but I expect him to be on the level as me). For example I don’t like it when dad’s “babysit” their kids… I expect my husband and I to be equal parents when we are both with the kids. He actually likes that part. My kids worship him (well the two month old just likes to smile at him a lot). Where things get rough for him is that his work is super demanding and having a newborn and two year old at home is super demanding and then meeting his own needs is super demanding and meeting the needs of his wife are demanding.

    We live in a VERY pro-family, pro-dad, pro-kid town, Portland, OR… so I don’t really see it as society problem here.

    December 2nd, 2009 at 9:44 am

  5. Shannon says:

    Katie said “It seem to me like society views parents as people with some weird and sometimes annoying hobby”

    I think that’s entirely accurate. Sometimes I feel like I might as well just have a goldfish instead of a child for all the respect I get sometimes for being a parent.

    Two months ago, the wife of a male coworker of mine had a baby and he took one week off work to be with his family. My 76 year-old female boss’s comment was “what does he need a week off for? it’s not like HE’s the one having the baby!” He also had to take it as vacation time, instead of kin care.

    AND I live in a supposedly very liberal area of California. I was disgusted by this. It was only a week (!) and there was no consideration that maybe this father would want to spend some time at home caring for his wife and older children and bonding with his new daughter.

    December 2nd, 2009 at 9:52 am

  6. Kimberly says:

    Oh Shannon that is too bad about your coworker. My husbands work offers 6 weeks of paternity leave (not paid)… most men take some of the leave and they can save their vacation too or do a combo of both. My hubby took 4 weeks off and works from home several days a week. His job had a big push for work/life balance several years ago though they are demanding of time, they also let you figure out the best way to balance it (i.e. working more hours, but from home).

    December 2nd, 2009 at 10:42 am

  7. Elizabeth Wickoren says:

    I think the perception is that today’s dads are pretty involved, but pretty inept at child rearing. Which makes sense because the only way you get good at dealing with kids is by jumping into the action and today even in houses with 2 working parents, mom usually puts in more hours in childcare and child related tasks (dr. appts, school meetings, etc). So it would only make sense that moms would tend to be more skilled at parenting (generalizing of course). But I think that today’s dads are a far cry from dads a generation or two ago who didn’t think they had any business in child rearing at all.

    Interestingly, I have a friend who is British with an American wife who now live here but had their first child in England. He was telling me that in England he was basically ignored as a father. At the hospital and just friends and family they would only talk to the mom about baby stuff, they actually told him he was in the way when he tried to be involved. So he had the opposite perception of dads in America than Rob did.

    December 2nd, 2009 at 4:50 pm

  8. gertie says:

    I think there is a general assumption, even among well-meaning people, that fathers will be incompetent with their children. Questions are directed towards mothers instead of fathers, etc.

    Also, a man who takes a break from his career to be a SAHD is often assumed to have somehow failed in his line of work. My husband stayed home with our older daughter for 2 years, and often felt he had to explain himself. There was also the opposite reaction–people gushing about how wonderful he was for being such an involved dad (all of which is absolutely true, but he got a lot more lip service for it than any mom would have ;)

    When I visited London in 2001, I was surprised by how many dads I saw out with their babies/toddlers/kids (without mom). It also seemed like the dads who were with their spouses were more “parent-like” than many American dads in public. It was an anecdotal, intangible thing, but the perception stuck with me. Overall, the British dads just seemed happier to be dads.

    December 2nd, 2009 at 9:27 pm

  9. Inki says:

    I grew up with a stay-at-home dad (in Norway), so this is a topic close to my heart!

    There is a reason why I and my American husband moved from the US to Norway when it was time to start a family… I don’t know much about parenting in the UK, but in the Nordic countries, there is definitely much more of an expectation of the dad being more of an equal partner, although the mother is still seen in many cases as the primary parent. Parental leave here is 54 weeks at 80% pay or 44 weeks at 100% pay, of which 10 weeks are reserved for the father and 9 weeks (!) for the mother. The rest of the time is up for grabs, although the tendency is for the mother to take most, if not all, of it. The father’s portion was increased from 6 weeks to 10 this year, because there are still many employers who believe the father should take only the time that is strictly reserved for him, and the movement here is towards more equal parental leave, so the lawmakers had to reserve more for the father. Also, with only 6 weeks, a lot of families would have the mother spend vacation time during the father’s leave, and she would still be the primary parent while the family went on vacation, which is not really the point of having the father stay home and get to know the kid better.

    Anyway, long story short (too late, I know…), I do feel that Americans (like my husband’s family) expect me to be the primary parent, and Norwegian society is at least tilted more towards equal partnership.

    December 3rd, 2009 at 12:49 am

  10. Alison says:

    After 20 years of working for Boot Camp for New Dads, it’s clear that men are more hands on than ever when it comes to being parents. It helps when they can see examples of other guys taking care of their babies in their own way, without being “assistant moms”. And it’s better for the baby to have the richness of both parent’s contribution. Not to mention, it makes for a happier mom!

    December 3rd, 2009 at 11:11 am