The Eclipse of Fatherhood

Gilbert Meilaender

Copyright (c) 1995 First Things 54 (June/July 1995): 38-42.

Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem. By David Blankenhorn. Basic Books. 328 pp. $23.

Suppose we accept for the moment a widespread depiction of how our society has systematically oppressed women. It has connected the biological fact that women give birth with the cultural task of childrearing, assigning by far the larger share of that task to women because of the biological "accident" that they are the birthgivers. The woman has already "borne" the child; yet, we have assumed that she must also be chiefly responsible for that child's nurture. Men, by contrast, beget but do not give birth. Biologically, therefore, the link between begetting and nurturing is more attenuated for men than for woman. Our culture has-unjustly-allowed that biological fact to shape the way it apportions the tasks of child-rearing, thereby depriving women of full and equal participation in the many realms of life outside the home (the professions, the arts, business, politics, etc.).

How should we respond to such a standard depiction? Scratch anyone who has taken the right courses at college, and he or she is likely to respond that the injustice of this situation can be rectified only if we set ourselves as a culture against biology. We must overcome the male's tendency to opt out of childrearing by emphasizing that those who beget but do not bear are equally responsible for nurturing their children. That task of nurturing, maternal work, is work that men and women are equally obliged to undertake. Men need, in effect, to become more like women, and, however millennia of biological evolution may have shaped us, our culture should set itself against the male as we know him. This will, in effect, free women for fulfillment outside the home, and, happily, it will be better for men as well-encouraging them to be more nurturing, less aggressive and competitive, less focused on earning a living, less . . . well, less masculine and paternal.

In Fatherless America, a work of cultural criticism of a very high order, David Blankenhorn subjects this now deeply entrenched understanding to thoroughgoing scrutiny. His approach is shaped by a distinctive starting point: what is good for children. It turns out that one of the things that is very good indeed for children is to have a father. Not just another human being who provides an additional set of hands with which to carry out what is understood as essentially maternal-or just human-work, but a father. Among other things, this book is a slashing attack on the emphasis upon self-fulfillment exalted by those who propose androgyny as the solution to the standard depiction of the oppression of women. In Blankenhorn's words, the androgynous ideal "constitutes the most radical conception of expressive individualism that a society can imagine. It is the belief, quite simply, that human completion is a solo act." Putting the welfare of children first leads Blankenhorn to conclude, in contrast, that the task of childrearing requires "mutual dependency, grounded in the realities of gender complementarity." A society unable to measure up to the requirements of the task is a society whose future is endangered-because its children are endangered.

A profound issue lurks just a little beneath the surface of Blankenhorn's discussion. Though the "realities" that Blankenhorn wants us to take into account, accommodate, and affirm are biological realities about men and women, he himself does not want us simply to take our moral norms directly from biology. Quite in conformity with the standard depiction of our situation, he too sees men's sexuality as much more "hit-and-run" than women's. He too believes-and very helpfully uses the state-of-nature political philosophers to argue-that the socialization of males into fatherhood is a necessary "precondition for the rise of successful human societies." In his analysis, too, there is something a little suspect about the male.

We may therefore legitimately wonder whether he makes his peace too quickly with masculine, paternal tendencies. Since he himself wants to socialize those tendencies and transform the male into a more nurturing fellow, since he wants a "cultural script" for fathers that is not simply a transliteration of biological fact, why not do it more thoroughly? Why not do it in the way the standard depiction recommends? His argument is, I think, systematically ambiguous on this point. At times the androgynous ideal seems simply to be one that fails because it does not reckon with what men are like. Why not, then, just work harder to change what men are like, to make them less masculine and paternal? Because at other times the standard depiction seems to be normatively mistaken, an inadequate depiction of our humanity at its highest and best. This problem needs some sorting out, but I set it aside for the moment in order to outline the basic themes of Blankenhorn's case.

Everyone knows, if only because we have heard it repeated regularly, that an increasing number of homes in our society have no father in them. And almost everyone now seems to grant that this situation is bad (even if such an admission came a little too late to help Dan Quayle). But Fatherless America would not have to be as big a book as it is, and it would not be as important a book as it is, were that its only point. For Blankenhorn, the problem we face goes far deeper. It is not simply the loss of fathers, but the loss of the idea of fatherhood and of our belief in the importance of fathers. We no longer have a distinctive "cultural script" for fatherhood. When I become a father, what have I become? What am I to do in that paternal role? How should it alter my life and habits? A society in which there are no culturally given answers to such questions is one that may experience grave difficulty drawing men into the role of fatherhood and its accompanying tasks and burdens.

In short, our cultural script for fathers is that they are unnecessary. "Today's expert story of fatherhood largely assumes that fatherhood is superfluous." Indeed, since we identify a distinctive paternal role with the "Old Father," who was distanced and authoritarian, we may even suppose that fathers are part of our problem. Blankenhorn is quite willing to grant that, in a sense, they are. "Certainly this combustible contradiction inherent within fatherhood-closeness partly through distance, affection partly through coercion-helps explain why fatherhood constitutes such a problematic contrivance in human societies." Given the flaws of the Old Father, and the difficulty we have reconciling ourselves to him, many scholars have concluded that we may be better off without him. They worry less about the absence of a good father than about the presence of a bad one. Blankenhorn is quite convincing in arguing that, while it is true that having a father sometimes fosters anger, having no father at all fosters much greater anger. It leads to "mistrust, violence, nihilism." A violent society results not from the bad example of fathers who abuse their power; it results from fatherlessness.

That many of us have not matured beyond the desire to slay the father is cause for concern, but Blankenhorn is not interested in defending every aspect of the Old Father. What he does seek to accomplish-and what he achieves with devastating effect-is debunking the ideal of the New Father so often offered as a replacement for the Old. The New Father is to be a deeply involved parent and companion, nurturing his children, freely expressing emotion, eager to move beyond gender stereotypes, more interested in being emotionally available than in being a good provider for his family. He is likely to see family and work as conflicting domains. Time spent at work is not time spent in service of his family and its needs; it is time that conflicts with his role in the family. Whereas for the Old Father work was a way of being committed to his family-"proximity through distance"-the New Father sees only competition between the demands of work and family. Precisely such a tension has, of course, led to a good bit of role strain for women in recent decades. "Yet this typically maternal ambivalence and stress about employment are exactly what the New Father model prescribes for men. The New Father's plea is: role strain for me, too."

Blankenhorn is right to note that it is peculiar to find a society downplaying the father's role as "provider" while simultaneously criticizing fathers for failing to support their children. Moreover, he sees the provider role as peculiarly suited to the male.

Paternal attachment to breadwinning is neither arbitrary nor anachronistic. Historically and currently, the breadwinner role matches quite well with core aspects of masculine identity. Especially compared to other parental activities, breadwinning is objective, rule-oriented, and easily measurable. It is an instrumental, goal-driven activity in which success derives, at least in part, from aggression. Most important, the provider role permits men to serve their families through competition with other men. In this sense, the ideal of paternal breadwinning encultures male aggression by directing it toward a prosocial purpose.
That passage is an instance of Blankenhorn's tendency to read a norm directly off biological and anthropological evidence, and I think more is needed than this to construct a normative argument. But there is more. It flows from Blankenhorn's fundamental commitment to the wellbeing of children. In attacking distinctive parental roles for husbands and wives, advocates of the New Father may serve the interests of autonomous adults in search of self-fulfillment, but they oppose precisely what children need. Compared to the offspring of other animal species, the human child is dependent on parental care for a comparatively long period of time. During that period which David Gutmann has termed the "parental emergency"-"the needs of the child compel mothers and fathers to specialize in their labor and to adopt gender-based parental roles." That is an argument that takes its start from a certain biological fact but is also based upon a prior normative commitment-the wellbeing of children as central to human society.

Thus, although Blankenhorn can applaud certain features of the New Father model-its emphasis upon paternal tenderness, for example-he argues that it cannot provide a satisfactory cultural script for fathers. Advocates of the New Father are often also eager to claim that single-parent (usually single-mother) families are fine, which means that fathers-as men who fill a distinctive cultural and familial role- are superfluous and unnecessary. Another person, another set of hands, is always helpful. Lacking that extra set of hands can sometimes be harmful. But lacking a father is not in itself harmful.

At bottom, the New Father idea presupposes the larger thesis that fatherhood is superfluous. In this respect, the New Father is indistinguishable from the Unnecessary Father. In our current cultural discourse, the two are usually understood as opposites; one good, one bad. But in this larger sense, they are interchangeable characters in a single cultural narrative.
These three-the Unnecessary Father, the Old Father, and the New Father- are the central characters in the cultural script for fatherhood currently dominant in our society (or, at least, in its opinion-making wings). There are also five more minor roles into which fathers are placed: Deadbeat Dad, Visiting Father, Sperm Father, Stepfather, and Nearby Guy. These may be minor roles, but Blankenhorn's discussion of them is very perceptive and illuminating. Here I discuss only the first two, leaving the reader some pleasures to discover.

Everyone seems to agree that the Deadbeat Dad is a bad father, a judgment from which Blankenhorn does not dissent. But why is he bad? Blankenhorn's target is the sort of view expressed by Andrew J. Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University, who told the U.S. House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families that "the major problem the children have in a single-parent family is not the lack of a male image, but rather the lack of a male income." The chief problem, in other words, is not that the Deadbeat Dad has abandoned his children; it is that he does not pay. Ironies abound here. The New Father is encouraged to think of himself less as a provider; yet, the Deadbeat Dad is cast in essentially that role. Thus, the Deadbeat Dad also testifies to our belief that fathers-as men playing distinctive roles in families-are superfluous.

One might object, of course, and argue that such criticism is a little unfair. Obviously, one might say, we would prefer that fathers not abandon their children. But common sense suggests that, if they do, it will be better for the children if they pay child support. On Blankenhorn's own principles, that ought to be obvious. It turns out, however, not to be so obvious-and for a reason that is very important to the entire argument of this book. Particularly for the increasingly large number of Deadbeat Dads who never were married to the mothers of their children, our culture sends contradictory signals. We devise social policies that encourage unwed fatherhood, and we become outraged if anyone suggests that a family without a father might be deficient as a family-in short, we send the message that fathers aren't all that important-and then we want to crack down on Deadbeat Dads, insisting that it is very important that they accept responsibility for their children. We cannot articulate a believable moral ideal; for to hold up such an ideal as normative is understood as demeaning those who have failed to achieve it. Toward them we must be understanding, compassionate, and empowering-without ever reflecting on how this undercuts our ability to articulate a moral norm credibly.

This, Blankenhorn suggests, implies a lack of moral seriousness. And he is right. He notes that many of those classified as Deadbeat Dads do not really think of themselves as that, since they have taken seriously what our culture has been telling them about the superfluity of fatherhood. "Their reasoning may be sad, but at least it is consistent. They do not think of themselves as deadbeats precisely because they do not think of themselves as dads. These guys never signed on to anything. They never agreed to play by any fatherhood role. . . . By what reasonable principle do they owe anybody anything?"

We should note in passing that this is one place where the powerful cultural criticism of this book suggests more than its author is willing to develop. Throughout, Blankenhorn is careful to focus his attention simply on fatherlessness, which he, perhaps rightly, regards as our most urgent domestic problem. Seeking allies wherever he may find them, he steadfastly avoids being drawn into discussions of related questions. Yet these cultural issues are often of a piece, and Blankenhorn's discussion of Deadbeat Dads cannot be insulated from the issue of abortion, a topic he everywhere avoids. When in Roe v. Wade the Supreme Court unearthed a right of privacy broad enough to encompass the right to an abortion, it permitted that right to be limited by only two opposing state interests, if and when they are relevant and compelling: the state's interest in protecting maternal health and life, and the state's interest in protecting potential life. Had the Court added a third possibly compelling state interest for which there is precedent in our jurisprudence-an interest in preserving the family bond-its concept of a right of privacy might have been different. But in Roe v. Wade it ratified the idea that bodily acts in themselves do not constitute personal or moral commitments of the self. One becomes a mother only if one explicitly consents to become a mother. Deadbeat Dads think, not altogether unreasonably, that they should benefit from similar logic. This is an issue to which Blankenhorn's argument inevitably drives us, however much he may himself avoid it.

If the Deadbeat Dad is clearly a bad guy in our current discourse, the Visiting Father is not. His is a rather effete role, however-"fatherhood lite" as Blankenhorn so nicely puts it-and it is not surprising that many men who are cast in that role resent it. The Visiting Father, who maintains some sort of presence in the life of his children after divorce, is finally another example of the Unnecessary Father. He is seen as harmless, perhaps mildly helpful; he "pays child support and does not make trouble." Visiting Fathers try to sustain a certain emotional bond with their children, but, Blankenhorn argues quite persuasively, that bond is not fatherhood. "When it becomes an emotion, detached from daily life and stripped of any empowering context, it is no longer fatherhood. It is an adult sentiment, and it amounts to very little for a child to count on." More strongly still: "Visitation unfathers men. This phenomenon gradually strangles the father-child relationship."

There is much in the book's discussion of the Visiting Father that is worthy of attention; indeed, it may be the single strongest chapter in the book. I focus here only on its astute dissection of our culture's attempt to help the Visiting Father (and the children whom he visits) through the idea of "better divorce." Blankenhorn's analysis of the movie Mrs. Doubtfire is itself almost worth the price of the book. The movie's explicitly ideological aim is "to affirm the possibility of better divorce," a possibility whose realization depends on a father who, in order to become a good Visiting Father, must transcend masculinity and become a woman.

Lacking any better idea about how to deal with the prevalence of divorce in our society, we endorse the idea of a better-more amicable, cooperative, and communicative-divorce. Again, it seems at first like an idea that common sense ought to endorse; yet, it proves to be an idea that makes it difficult to sustain a normative understanding of what marriage and family should be. We are exhorted to eliminate the stigma of the broken home, to provide children with positive and empowering images of the unfortunate "family" circumstances in which they find themselves. What we are endorsing, however, is love without structure, feeling without body-as if divorce will be no problem so long as we do it right.

The "better" a divorce looks, Blankenhorn notes, the more it will resemble a marriage. "Living near each other. Cooperating. Communicating. Sharing the joys and responsibilities of parenthood. Making sacrifices and compromises for the sake of family. Reproducing for children what exists in intact families. It all begins to sound like a good-enough marriage, minus the sex." Minus, that is, the body-minus the full meeting of those whose very differences are complementary, but who now run from each other. We deceive ourselves and "indulge in comforting fantasy" if we suppose that we can in this way retain for children the true sense of what it means to belong to a family. Rather, the "solution" of "better divorce" is really "a sign of our unwillingness to confront the problem" that we have become a "divorce culture," unable or unwilling to raise our normative standards-deceived into supposing that we can find even in divorce a good way to seek the wellbeing of our children.

This book is, I have said, cultural criticism of a very high order. Moreover, in not only the direction but also the directness of its argument, it is a courageous book. But does it go beyond criticism? Does it point us toward any superior "cultural script" for fatherhood? In his concluding two chapters Blankenhorn first depicts an ideal of fatherhood to which we should aspire-what he calls the "good family man"-and then offers twelve proposals as beginning steps toward promoting that ideal.

The Good Family Man wields authority in the home, believes that his fatherhood is necessary and important, seeks to provide for his family. Is this the Old Father redivivus? No, Blankenhorn assures us, for the Good Family Man "knows that his wife also wields authority. He knows that her work in the family, while not identical to his, is equally important and also irreplaceable. He aspires to the ideals of paternal tenderness and companionate marriage. He believes that men who lead are men who serve." I suspect that some Old Fathers might well have affirmed most or all of those tenets, but let us grant that the Good Family Man is different from the Old Father. What are his peculiarly paternal functions? They are to provide, to protect, to nurture, and to sponsor.

He seeks to provide for his family, explicitly viewing his work in instrumental terms. Earning a living does not simply take him away from his family. More fundamentally, it unites him with his family as he uses his work to serve the family's welfare. In a world saturated with the idea that work is the sphere of self-fulfillment, it is refreshing to watch Blankenhorn recapture what is in fact an old idea: that work is less a place to realize ourselves than a place to serve the needs of others, among whom are the members of one's family.

Nevertheless, in his understandable polemic against the view that work separates a father from his family, Blankenhorn may underplay the possible conflict between demands of work and family. Even if I understand my work as breadwinning in the service of my family, that work turns out to make its own requirements and have its own demands. It serves the needs of others besides my family and obligates me to those others. I am therefore somewhat reluctant to endorse wholeheartedly the formulation Blankenhorn offers at the outset as a one-sentence distillation of the book: "A good society celebrates the ideal of the man who puts his family first." First? Ahead of his own desire for fulfillment, to be sure, and that is no doubt chiefly what Blankenhorn has in mind. But, first? We need here a little more of the poet's spirit: "I could not love thee, dear, so much, Lov'd I not honour more."

There may, that is, be obligations and callings even more compelling (at certain moments) than that of the good family man. We can, I think, say this without in any way denigrating the immense significance of the ideal Blankenhorn sets forth; for a society of would-be autonomous individuals intent on fulfilling themselves will probably be as deaf to other claims as to those of fatherhood. Even fatherhood itself, as a necessary cultural ideal, may need to be grounded in something that transcends the biological and anthropological "givens" of human development and the social necessities of healthy societies. As a normative role that both attracts and compels us, fatherhood may need to mirror something that transcends such givens-a Father whose glory is to serve the child, even if the child slay him.

In addition to providing, the Good Family Man protects, nurtures, and sponsors. As protector, he seeks to help his children learn how to navigate their way amid the dangers of social life. As nurturer, he spends time, together with his wife, in caring for the children and the household. As sponsor-the "heart of fatherhood"-he seeks to pass on to his children a valued way of life, showing them what sort of persons they are to be and how they are to live. Mothers also provide such sponsorship, of course, but mothers and fathers will do it, Blankenhorn suggests, in ways that are specifically maternal and paternal respectively. A father's sponsorship may be more expectant and demanding, focusing especially on "preparation for the future and on children's success in the larger society." Still more, a father's love will be significantly more conditional than a mother's-dependent on having expectations met. Here again, I question whether this given of the masculine psyche is one with which we must simply make our peace. Should not the norm of fatherhood-instructed once again perhaps by the example of a transcendent Father-be shaped by an unconditional love that goes beyond what is given in the natural paternal impulse?

Most readers, I suspect, will be just a little disappointed by the policy proposals of the final chapter. Perhaps that is inevitable, given the scope of the book's critique. Most of the proposals are surely sensible, though I am not much drawn to the request that every man in our society pledge himself to effective fatherhood. Pledges make sense only within ritual contexts surrounded by a shared web of belief, and the largely unanswered question of this book is whether the web in our society has been irreparably torn. Nor am I persuaded that we would be helped much by statements supporting marriage from an interfaith council of religious leaders, or by encouragement to clergy from such a council to commit themselves to programs of marital preparation and enrichment. It would be far more effective if clergy simply declined to continue the routine practice of conducting marriage rites-with few or no questions asked-for those who have been previously divorced. But that, of course, may seem less compassionate, and we are once again led to ponder how we can establish practices that are compassionate but do not undercut the norms we seek to uphold.

Much more interesting is Blankenhorn's recommendation that public officials across the nation follow the example of the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners in Minnesota. That Board drafted a vision statement which called upon its citizenry "to move toward a community 'where healthy family structure is nurtured and fewer children are born out of wedlock.'" It should surprise no one that the Commissioners received enormous criticism for their proposal. The moral of the story, in Blankenhorn's words, is that "if you want to say something controversial, say that every child deserves a father and that unwed childbearing is wrong."

David Blankenhorn has said that and more with vigor and grace in this important book. We are all in his debt.

Gilbert Meilaender is Professor of Religion at Oberlin College.