Get Ready to Step Up, Dad

By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 25, 2008

There's a good bit of chatter these days about what some are calling "The Coming American Matriarchy." National Journal columnist Jonathan Rauch, drawing on census data, suggests that American women will soon outnumber men in top professions and enjoy increased earning power. This is largely because they will have had more years of formal education, a trend already established among Americans in their mid-20s to mid-30s.

This raises the question: Who will take care of their children? Will women continue to run themselves ragged trying to be boss at work, full-time caregiver at home and on call for either obligation day and night? Or will they look to their mates, who, should projections hold, may not be putting in as many hours at work as they?

If the latter, some things are going to have to change, not the least of which are women's attitudes toward their men as parents. A male friend who has three children put it this way, "Women have a way of making a father feel like the paralegal to her lawyer."

As much as I hate to admit it, he's right. Many of us mothers believe that we alone know what's best for our kids. How could we not? Our babies are, quite literally, flesh of our flesh. They recognize our voice before the voice of any other. We are frequently the first to sense changes in their physiology or their emotions. Doesn't that mean we always know what's best for them?

In a word, no. A personal example: After my son Jeff was born, I spent early mornings with him before going off to my full-time job at this newspaper. Husband Carl, who got home several hours before I did, took care of the early-evening duties.

But I took back over as soon as I walked in the house. I bathed Jeff and played with him for an hour or more before putting him to bed. And then he turned 2, at which point Carl insisted he learn to play by himself at night. "He's had adults by his side all day," Carl said. "He's not too young to start learning what he's capable of."

Without his mother, who'd been away for most of the day? Clearly Carl didn't know the first thing about attachment theory. This dispute flared up regularly for months until I began to observe Jeff learning to entertain himself very well without TV, video games or his mother -- a skill that has served him well.

Of course, other things keep today's fathers away from fathering. Their fathers, thinking it enough to be reliable heads of household and breadwinners, didn't teach them the same things our mothers taught us about tending to our offspring. As a result, many fathers assume they don't know diddly squat. (My husband is not one of those men, God bless him.) As men, they don't like doing something they don't excel at right away. So do we really need to tell them what temperature to heat the baby food? Would it kill Adam or Annie to eat their Gerber oatmeal cold -- as long as they eat it?

None of this is easy. We're talking about changing habits of thought that go back to the days when women tended children in caves while their mates were out catching game and fighting off intruders.

Now, women are leaving the cave in increasing numbers and some men get nervous thinking women may one day lead the pack. Could it be that as men tiptoe back into the cave, we women worry that they'll eventually take over?

Such concerns are common, says Paula England, a Stanford University sociologist and co-editor of the book "Unmarried Couples With Children."

Both women and men feel more comfortable, she says, when a mother assumes a traditional male role than when a father assumes a historically female role. "The men don't know how to take [child raising] on, and the women don't trust them to."

Such tugs of territory cross income and racial lines. The Urban Institute recently brought together university researchers who, under different federal grants, have been following thousands of young children and their mostly low-income, unmarried parents in cities around the country. One might assume the fathers in these families have little to do with their children or have disappeared entirely, but that is not the case, said Ronald Mincy, a professor of social policy at Columbia University and a principal investigator in one of the studies. Even among the dads who live apart from mother and child, half spend some time regularly with their children.

Conflict between the men and their partners keeps many of the dads from staying fully engaged, according to researchers. Is that because they don't want to have anything to do with their kids? Or are the mothers of their children keeping them away?

Sociologist England says "the answer is usually some messy in-between. The guys all have stories that 'She won't let me see them.' But the women will say there were good reasons beyond child support. 'I know he's been involved with drugs,' they'll say. 'Or, he used to say he'd come get our kid and not show up. My son got heartbroken and I don't want to expose him to that anymore.' "

That children do better in and out of school when in regular contact with fathers is well established. What is not as well understood is what that father-child contact should look like. "Our research on child development is entirely too matri-focal," said Mincy.

Mothers know intuitively why we are important to our kids, and research has expanded what we know. Perhaps if we understood better how valuable fathers are in ways similar to, and different from, our own, we would do more to make parenting a true partnership. It also wouldn't hurt if both mothers and fathers realized how forgiving kids can be. Kids give parents enormous credit just for trying. Neither sex has to get it perfect.

Even dads who don't make a lot of money know they are going to have to get in the game more deeply. Many, in fact, look forward to it, according to Alford Young Jr., a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan. Young, who supervised a study of such men in Boston and Indianapolis, quoted from two of them at the Urban Institute.

"From what I've heard," said a young man named Darnell, "fathers in the past were pretty much breadwinners and that was just about it. . . . The father wasn't back then . . . as emotionally invested in the father-child relationship as they are now. . . . It's definitely going in the . . . right direction, you know. Especially with women working more."

Another subject, Brian, recalled friends coming over one time when his little daughter was living with him. He was braiding her hair.

"They like, 'What you doing?'

"Ain't nobody else going to do it. It's all about being a daddy," he responded. "I know I ain't no punk. That's what daddies do nowadays."

If we mommies can let them. ¿

Comments: genderations@washpost.com.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company