This is a guest post by Lucinda Hancock.
Recently I’ve been trying to live with more respect for my husband’s role as a father. It’s embarrassing, but for many years of my marriage I bought into ideas that effectively consider men to be ‘defective’ women. This has been most stressful in our relationship as parents. Fathers are men and the failure of our society to be reasonable about gender has made it difficult know what that means.
Last October I was surprised by new wording on the birth-certificate application. Instead of “mother” and “father”, it used “parent 1” and “parent 2” with gender selection boxes for each parent. I’d actually heard people talk about this kind of thing happening, but when you’ve just given birth, and you have to put your name under “parent 1” and state that you are female, it really sticks out how you are contributing to a socially constructed fiction, like there is nothing objectively female about the event of giving birth. And I can’t imagine anyone fighting to be called “parent 1” or “parent 2”. Frankly it would be more consistently non-specific just to go with Dr. Seuss’s “thing 1” and “thing 2”.
So here we are, in a society that seems to be gleefully attempting to erase observable and factual differences between the sexes in the area most pertinent to the fact of gendered existence, that is, in reproduction and parenting. The question is whether such ideas can answer and guide actual parents who are anxiously seeking to know about best parenting practices for the sake of their children. Many men and women have no idea how to agree on important details because there is no room to allow for differences between moms and dads.
The research is clear that fathers matter, but for the most part, we are uncomfortable acknowledging the particular and gendered differences that make fathers so important. Much of the analysis seems to bring out the economic poverty suffered in many single-mother families, but this view often gives the impression that having a dad is all about increasing the income of a family, and fails to give adequate insight about why a dad matters even if he fails to prosper economically. Even more than that, our failure to convey workable guidance based in reasoning about gender is pushing many viable marriages and families to the breaking point, as husbands and wives struggle to hash out important details of unity.
Who is right?
I used to think that my naturally more tuned in and attentive approach to parenting was the correct one, and I read many articles that seemed to confirm this bias. I would regularly educate my husband in the ‘right’ way to parent. Then I started reading about the phenomenon of “helicopter parenting” and it’s damage to a child’s sense of confidence, self-direction and independence. I despaired because trying to avoid “helicopter parenting” felt like I was damaging my children’s sense of self-worth. But then I began to see that unity need not mean uniformity, and that the feminine approach, which some might call “helicopter parenting”, works very well in conjunction with the masculine “teach ’em a lesson” approach. (Watch this video to see some mom-comedians have a laugh about parenting. It’s interesting because it gives a very good overview of how confused moms currently feel about being moms.)
What makes a good father is not his ability to simulate motherhood, as I’d previously thought. It is using his masculinity in ways that are good for his family, such as his ambitious pursuit of know-how and resources that he can share with his family, providing for them, yes, but also setting an example of the interest and fun of adult life, being a hero for them, inviting them to become like him.
The difference between good fathers and self-serving men is not that one is self-debasing and the other self-interested. It is that a father’s self is wrapped up in the successful rearing of his children. His self-interest actually helps him remember his children’s needs and concerns, with a willingness to manfully fight for their success, because his own success is intertwined with theirs.
The importance of masculinity in fatherhood is often hard for women to understand. A mother tends to be far more comfortable with the dependent nature of small children, and so she sees it as part of mature behavior to mostly accommodate and tolerate childishness in her children. Mothers like to speak simply to children and generally make efforts toward compensating for their deficiencies. Fathers, on the other hand, do not accommodate childishness. Men are more comfortable treating children like peers who need to measure up. Men don’t talk baby-talk and they are much less tolerant of incompetence and deficiency. This comes across to women like the father is descending into childish selfishness and competitiveness, but is it such a terrible thing for children to be reminded of the gap between where they are and where they will need to be?
I cannot tell you how many times I have personally called my husband “childish” when he expressed a difference of opinion with one of my children. I repent, and let me tell you what that has looked like. When my husband gets irritated with one of our older children, I used to face my husband and defend my child. “You need to be the adult,” I would say. Now I face my child and support their father. “Your dad is trying to teach you an important lesson here. You should listen. It will be good for you.” You can bet my husband appreciates this new approach.
When both parents contribute the strength of their respective genders, the children win.
There is a strong feeling among many moms that there are no real answers, only personal preferences, guess-work and trade-offs. But returning to an understanding of the strengths and limitations of fathers and mothers as men and women immediately gives us a way out of the confusion. Mothers can be busy setting their children up for success and managing details while fathers challenge them and make them do things themselves expecting independence and maturity. And this cooperation works amazingly well…as long as they both stay engaged.
My problem with the oft extolled need for “consistency” in parenting while ignoring a reasonable discussion of the differences between moms and dads is that it has created a feeling of intolerance between men and women just at the moment when they most need to get along for the good of their own children, as well as the entire society. It has made men and women think they need to agree about ‘correct’ parenting, leading to perpetual disagreement and mutual disrespect that threaten the basis of homes where children can thrive.
As long as there is a battle over who is right when it comes to parenting, large numbers of decent marriages will fail, because the feminine perspective and the masculine perspective really are that mysterious to each other. Women will always suspect masculinity is, at bottom, prideful and heartless. And men are historically famous for considering femininity irrational and arbitrary. But the survival of our society depends on holding men and women together as mothers and fathers and setting up workable guidelines that help moms and dads bring out the best in each other.
In my own experience, I’ve come to appreciate a father’s ability to reinforce and counter-balance the love a mother offers her children: to her nurturing attentiveness and desire for social cohesion, he adds his example of self-interest and independent-mindedness; to her careful preparation and instruction, he adds his irritation with deficiency, giving the child needed correction; to her comforting willingness to share in the blame and consequences of her children’s actions, he adds his resistance against blaming himself, expecting the child to take personal responsibility despite excuses.
As society has turned away from appreciating masculinity in fathers, children have grown increasingly entitled and fragile. But turning away from the femininity of motherhood, which has been the point in much of the criticism of “helicopter parenting”, will only lead to different pathologies, not better outcomes.
Fathers and mothers need to reclaim the vitally important roles founded in their masculine and feminine cooperation. Our children and the future they will bring about are depending on it.