What, where and why of fatherhood

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

What a juxtaposition! As Father’s Day approached last week, the Pew Research Center released a report on fatherhood that indicated mixed grades for the U.S. rendition — or, more aptly, renditions — of the oft neglected, negated, nullified institution of fatherhood. Based on an analysis of the most recent data from the ongoing National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), the Pew folks reported that the presence of fathers in the same home as their children has taken a big dive since 1960 — from 11 percent of children living apart from their fathers then, to 27 percent in 2010. But the data also indicate that fathers who remain are doing more stuff with their kids — eating together, helping with homework, playing together — you know, more actively parenting.

This is interesting because, as I recall, back in the 1960s, 70s and 80s — maybe more recently but less vocally — feminists asked fathers to take a more active parenting role, to share parenting responsibilities equitably, and what has happened? Some fathers did and some fathers ran.

Of course it’s not fair to assume a greater number of men now live apart from their children simply because feminists expressed concern about the division of parenting work, and the report doesn’t address the why of the data. Certainly the increasing divorce rate is partially responsible, that and the persistent social rule that women should take on the majority of parenting responsibility, which places the majority of children of divorce with their mothers. If anything is obviously to blame for fewer men living with their children, it is the white, male, dominant culture that invests its all in keeping women as the primary child caregiver. But whatever the dynamics behind the data, the report is as interesting as it is dismaying, and I highly recommend reading it: “A Tale of Two Fathers.”

One note, however: I found only one reference to same-sex couples in the NSFG (the basis of the Pew report), and that was in a portion of the questionnaire I found online. It read: “For the next several parts of our interview, the questions about marriage and other sexual relationships are limited to those with opposite-sex partners. In the final section of the interview, some questions will ask about sexual experience with same-sex partners.” I couldn’t find the final section of the interview online. I also couldn't find indication that the NSFG questionnaire includes the same parenting questions for fathers in same-sex couples and those in opposite-sex couples, or a live person at NSFG to answer that question. And it’s a question that warrants pursuing.
Stoop sitting in Baltimore circa 1930
In the meantime, after exploring and mourning the Pew report, I received an email message from the White House with the subject “Celebrating Fathers.” The message sent me to linked webpages jam-packed with hopeful and encouraging fatherly stuff. What a relief! There was a little fatherhood pitch from the President (whose father exited the family when Obama was two, so kudos to Obama and those who reared him!), an updated fatherhood.gov website promoting the Strong Fathers, Strong Families campaign; a new DadTalk blog intended to provide helpful fathering information; and my favorite page, which hosts the be-better-fathers propaganda commonly known as PSAs (public service announcements) — and I really enjoyed some of them. In contrast to the mass media in which men of color and many fathers are relegated to the roles of scary criminal, sex object or complete moron, what a refreshing treat to see them being themselves, practicing cheers and cooking dinner and just stoop-sitting with the kids.

However, after being inundated with a spectrum of daddy messages, I found myself wondering why men even become fathers. Are their motivations any different from mine for pursuing motherhood — biology, narcissism, errant rationalization? And what better way to find out than to ask them, which I did, and here’s what some of them had to say. …

This, from a local humorist: Why am I a father? Well, my wife looked so cute that night (she still does), and this reproductive urge just bubbled up. We mated. We reproduced, thrice. Now my kids are doing the same thing. Cute women — I guess that’s why all guys become fathers.

This one got into the meat of the Pew report: Like my father and his father before him and my mother's father before her, I am a father by biological consequence. I had a collision with the mother of my sons, and fortunately for us, we have continued to have such collisions. But there's a non-biological reason I'm a father. When things between my wife and I were not good, I decided to stay. Broken homes were pretty common when I was a boy. My wife's parents divorced, too. So when we had hard times, as I suspect all marriages do, divorce was an option. I would still have been a father but the family would have been divided. I remembered how that felt as a son and decided to stay with my wife, which meant working with her because we could not go on as we were. After my parents' divorce, my father drifted away. In a sense he resigned from the job. I'm a father because I spend time with my sons, and I can do that because I love their mother, which is how I became a father in the first place.

My friend of rosy hue once again focused on the positive: I am a father because my children fill my days with laughter, joy, and a sense of peace. They are also our most precious gift and best hope for a future filled with possibility.

This one always starts out with a joke, good or bad, just start with a joke: So, a very good question. There are of course some wiseass answers: Didn't anyone tell you about the birds and the bees — or did you miss that class; couldn't outrun the shotgun; whatever. But, I think my reasons are mostly self-serving. First, having the boys meant I didn't have to grow up. Not that I would have anyway. There are so many memories that have filled my life because of them, and their pain has been my pain, their success my pride, their joy my joy. I can't imagine that life would have been nearly as dear or as fulfilled had I not been a father. And the other reason is to attain immortality. We are all terminal. There's no getting out of that one. And, for the majority of us, there won't be a library or building named after us. But the legacy most of us leave behind will be our children. In them we can find the reason for existing.

This guy’s a writer — always has an artful beginning, a middle and an ambiguous end: My fatherhood was unplanned and found me 17 years ago in a moment when I already had more to manage in life than I knew how to do properly. However, I grew into it naturally and it changed me for the better. The bond I have formed with my daughter from infancy has made me stronger and more than once saved me from despair. I am proud of my daughter and what she is becoming. I am sure her achievements will surprise and amaze me in the future and continue to give my life more significance than I have been able to give it, hampered by my own doubts and failings, through my own lifetime of effort. Her future will be surprising and I have no dread or feeling of apprehension with respect to my child with the sole exception that the world she is inheriting upon her graduation last night from Fallbrook High seems precarious and degraded. I wish I could make it all better for her, but it is clear to me that I cannot and that all I can do is try to put a brave face on a dire situation and not discourage her or weaken her in advance of the challenges she will be facing.

This is from a fellow who fathered many more than he spawned: One of the most important things being a father has taught me is to check the oil. Sorry I’m late. I was coaching baseball with my son, for my father-less grandson. And I love/cherish every moment of it.

And this one drives it home to its core: Why am I a father?

– Because of some primordial drive to procreate. – Because a man of my generation was expected to marry and have at least one child, preferably          more, (but not "too many") if he was to be respected in the workplace. – As I age, because I may need care if I do not have a spouse to do the "job."

I suppose the why of it might not matter: I am certain what does matter is how we do it, fatherhood and motherhood, and how we do it does not have to be restricted to the binary choices our culture foists on us, choices based on location or sex or sexuality. We could simply choose to do parenthood equitably — for our kids.

Love, K-B

Crossposted at San Diego Gay & Lesbian News.

Note: Stoop-sitting photo from the Maryland Historical Society.