Saturday, July 6, 2013

I Am Thinking About Fatherhood In America

     A few days ago the Pew Research Center released an analysis that concluded the number of households headed by a single father has increased ninefold since the Sixties. The survey estimates that there are 2.6 million households headed by single fathers making up 8 percent of the households with minor children in the United States.  Almost one quarter of single parent households are headed by single fathers.  My situation is not as rare as I thought.
     Digging into the numbers, I found some very interesting things.  Single fathers are likely less educated than single mothers but also less likely to be living in poverty.  The wage gap works to our advantage here I guess but I wonder if there aren't other factors in play.  My guess would be that single dads were more likely to have already had a job when they became single parents than single mothers were.  Also, it seems to me that women are more likely to reevaluate their lives when they become single parents and do things like go back to school whereas men seem more likely to just keep on doing what they're doing just with less help.  I know that's been the case in my situation.
     Single dads are more likely to be living with someone else than single moms but the thing that really interests me is that single dads that are living with someone else are more likely to be living in poverty than single fathers that don't have a partner living with them.  I would guess this is because single mothers are the most likely partners for single fathers and, as I mentioned, single mothers are more likely to be living in poverty.  So moving in with someone is more likely to negatively affect a single dad's financial situation.  I'll have to keep this in mind.  I hate to consider money when it comes to romance but I think it's something I have to do now.
     Another recent survey form the same group suggests that the role of fathers in the United States is changing.  A dad is now expected to place more importance on educating their children on values and morals and providing them emotional support than they are the traditional fatherly roles of discipline and providing financial support.  Studies and articles like these always slightly mystify me because that just doesn't seem like a change in my life. That was my household growing up.  Mom and Dad both took responsibility for teaching their boys how to be good men and for paying the bills.  So when I became a father that's the way it was for me from the beginning.  I guess my old fuddy duddy parents were just modern and ahead of their time.
     This different focus of fatherhood in America today has lead to many working fathers dealing with the same work and life balance issues that working mothers have always dealt with.  The irony is that, as this article from Bloomberg Businessweek suggests, men might actually be better at dealing with those issues than women despite having less experience dealing with them.  It claims that men are more assertive when demanding time from their employers to spend with their children.  We don't ask for it.  We demand it and we don't feel guilty about it either.
     In my own life, I can say this has been absolutely true.  I've never had a problem saying no to overtime if it conflicted with something I've had planned with my son or something he's needed.  Conversely, if I've really needed the overtime to pay the bills I've never felt guilty for missing something at home when I've really had to.  Life is about choices and priorities and I just use my best judgement and go on with my life.  I don't feel guilty about not being able to do it all because no one can do it all and that's one of the best lessons I can teach my child I think.
     Of course, it's easier for working parents at my job than for most.  I'm not saying the company I work for is more understanding than most because they absolutely are not.  We're a union workforce, though, so the company has rules they have to follow on changing schedules, forcing overtime, and many other things that often lead to conflicts between work and home.  It's easier for us to say "No, I'm doing something more important than work today" without getting in trouble than it is for most workers.  That's one more advantage of unionization that America needs to wake up and realize.
     The article also touches on how modern fathers are often angered by their portrayal in culture.  It suggests that the idea that men are more fulfilled by parenting than work is more often mocked than accepted and that the stereotype of incompetent dad is still alive and well.  This article from a year ago in Huffington Post talks about the same anger.  More often than not, I'm disappointed in the touchiness, political correctness, and implied censorship that goes along with such objections to cultural portrayals and I have to admit I find Homer Simpson quite funny.
     Still, the problem with stereotypes comes when they become accepted as truth instead of being acknowledged as broad caricatures that public takes with a wink and a smile.  I think that has already happened with the bumbling dad stereotype.  It's very much just assumed in America that children are better off with mothers than with fathers and fathers depictions in the media have a lot to do with reinforcing that view.  The bigger danger in my mind, though, is that there are a lot of boys growing up without fathers and so they have no one to learn fathering from.  When they see this portrayal of dads in culture as the overwhelming view of fathers they learn that dads are less important and are expected to be less competent than mothers.  So the stereotype becomes self fulfilling in a way.
     I don't think the answer is to get rid of the Homer Simpsons of the television and movie worlds, though.  I don't like to restrict creative people like that.  I think the answer might be just to balance it out with more portrayals like Full House where the father struggles but ultimately does a good job raising children without a mother.  Of course, even on that show he had to have two other men move in with him because, of course, one man couldn't do it all on his own.  Art reflects life, so I guess I can only hope that as fathers change in society their portrayal in culture will also change.  For me personally I find the show Louie to be the most honest portrayal of single fatherhood and if you aren't watching it I suggest you check it out.
     The more interesting part of the Huffington Post article, to me, was when it compares so called new dads to traditional dads.  It says that fathers that describe themselves as new dads are much more likely to watch their kids alone, drive their kids places, talk to their kids about their worries and problems, and show open affection to their children than fathers that describe themselves as traditional dads.  Again, I was somewhat mystified by this because that's the way my dad has always been and it is the way I have always been as a dad.  I didn't realize any of this was new.  I suspect sometimes that's what is really changing isn't what dads do but their willingness to admit what they do and society's willingness to accept it.  I might just have a more positive view of fathers because of my experiences, though.
     Another part of the article I found interesting was when it quotes various studies that say many men defer to the women in their lives for parenting advice or don't ask anyone for advice.  It also says that only four percent would ask for parenting advice from their own fathers and that seventy percent of fathers feel like they could use more guidance on parenting.  That makes sense because if you don't ask anyone you aren't going to get any advice.  I'm firmly in the four percent that will ask my dad for advice.  I also ask my mom. They're who I'm most likely to turn to for parenting advice because they are, after all, the best parents I know.
     I am though, as you can tell, more likely than the average dad, and I think more likely than the average parent period, to read and write and think and talk about parenting.  This tendency has been something positive that has come from my divorce.  I've always been a good dad and I've always taken pride in it but before the responsibility for doing the parenting was placed almost completely on my shoulders I was more likely to just go with my instinct and wing it.  I wasn't really worried about anyone else's advice or view on parenting. Now I still go with my instincts most of the time because I have good instincts but I'm more interested in talking about and reading about being a father.  I'm refining my instincts based on the success and failure of others and their thoughts and advice.  Also, I've just had to branch out more after the divorce because I didn't have examples to learn from in some situations because my parents aren't divorced.
     I wish I had some final thoughts to tie this all together but I'm not Jerry Springer.  I just fell into an internet rabbit hole of sorts this afternoon and read a lot about parenting and thought I would share some of my thoughts and reactions to some interesting things I found. I'm just thinking about fatherhood in America and in my life a lot lately and if you know me then it is no surprise that I enjoy rambling on about a topic that interests me.

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