Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Either/Or or Both/And?

As Father's Day approaches, it raises a perennial dilemma for feminists. All too often the rhetoric concerning fatherhood has been subtly anti-woman, or at least anti-single-moms. And it's definitely anti-nontraditional-family, generally speaking.

The fact that this topic is framed in an either/or sort of way -- either you believe wholeheartedly in the unique and vital impact a father has on his children and reject all non-heteronormative family models or you denigrate the contributions of fathers and believe that a mother and child are better off without a troublesome man around -- makes it very difficult to have really helpful and constructive dialogue on the topic. This is another situation where those who dictate the terms of the debate control the debate. By forcing us into a false dilemma, they silence us. But of course, the best way to deal with a false dilemma is to reject it by either embracing both options and showing how they're compatible, or by pointing to a viable third option. And this is what I think we should do with the fatherhood debate.

Rather than merely focusing on the importance of parental involvement for both parents, we should move past this to look at a plethora of other issues concerning parenting. Some factors that play a prominent role in the way kids grow and develop are:
  • Having a loving network of family and friends who are engaged with the child. This family may or may not be the traditional nuclear family. In fact, kids whose grandparents and extended families are involved often experience a more rich environment than those who are isolated in the conventional nuclear family.
  • The resources that are available to the family. Families headed by a single parents tend to live on much lower incomes and have fewer educational and other resources that enrich a child's experience available to them.
  • An increase in the number of elderly people who are impoverished and lack good housing options also means a lower number of grandparents who can provide much-needed help with childcare and support for single parents.
  • Excluding gay and lesbian parents from the network of protections and assistance available to heterosexual married parents puts their children at a disadvantage.

But loosening societal norms concerning what counts as a family and providing better support for single parents and impoverished families and supporting the elderly so that they can contribute to the extended family and have a more meaningful connection with the younger generation etc. does not preclude a commitment to fatherhood and an acknowledgement of the important parenting contributions men have to offer. Fathers can be equally valued as parents even as we make the changes needed to support families in which a father is not actively involved. So I think it's important that feminists call out the implicit condemnation of single mothers and non-traditional families that often accompanies the moralizing concerning fatherhood. I think it's time we point out that it's not an either/or situation, that the conventional nuclear family is not the only option, and that we need to support and celebrate our families wherever and however we find them.


  1. Heather6/17/2009

    I often think that the "celebrating fatherhood" event at my parents' church every father's day has really strong undercurrents of "you must stay married so your kids won't be damaged by being fatherless no matter what issues you might have with your husband." Maybe it's just me reading into it, but it's always bothered me.

  2. What about a post about Mother's Day?

    Many feminist blogs I frequent from time to time are all about mother's day. Often times they wonder why Mother's Day is limited to one day, so forth and so on.

    But when it comes to fathers day, slow down, its time to evaluate implicit 'this' and 'subtly' that.

    An even more complete evaluation would look at Mother's Day and Father's day together, and not just comparing and contrasting the two, but putting them in a larger sociological frame work.

    Looking at one without the other is like ignoring an elephant in the room.

  3. Steven,

    I can't speak for anyone else, but I'm actually very critical of Mother's Day. There's a lot of implicit biological determinism in the rhetoric surrounding Mother's Day that I think is harmful to both women and men. It's simply not the case that all women are more nurturing than all men, for example, or that all women are intuitively better at parenting. It's certainly true that we've been socialized in dramatically different ways when it comes to parenting, but the whole there's-nothing-like-a-mother's-love shtick is really irritating to me and a patriarchal way to deny women full equality in other areas due to the social attitudes they will always face.

    And I'll be the first to point out that dads in our culture are second-class parents. Nothing irritates me more than all the snickering and expectations of disaster whenever Dad is left in charge of things and all the disproportionate praise dads get for correctly doing something simple like changing a diaper and the persistent habit we have of labeling childcare done by fathers as "babysitting." All of this hurts both men and women, even though it's supposed to look like a show of respect and appreciation for the work of mothers. It actually ends up being incredibly restrictive and harmful. So I'm with you on this one, although perhaps for different reasons.

  4. I think we are on the same page, I just came at it from a different direction...