Fatherneed Why Father Care Is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child
By Kyle D. Pruett
Broadway Books Copyright © 2001 Kyle D. Pruett
All right reserved. ISBN: 076790737X
The most stunning change in the American family over the past generation is neither marital nor economic; it is how men and women have changed their expectations and behavior toward fathering. Co-parenting, a radical concept for most of our parents, is now a major expectation among newly marrying couples. And the children say it's about time. Over the course of sixteen years, Joseph Pleck at the University of Illinois compared changing survey responses by newly marrying couples who were asked to rank-order certain values they planned to instill in their marriages. He finds that co-parenting -- parents' sharing in the physical and emotional care of their infants and children as well as in the responsibilities and decision making -- has moved from the eleventh priority out of fifteen topics in 1981 to the second priority in 1997, a startling shift in values in less than one generation.
And this is not just talk. "Father care" is now as common in American families as all forms of day care combined. Acceptance of paternity by unmarried men is up threefold from 1995. Men from Wall Street to homeless shelters speak with conviction about wanting to father their childrenmore actively than they themselves were fathered. As a senior manager at the investment house Goldman Sachs puts it, "I don't want my son to feel the same void in his heart where his father belongs that I do in mine."
Research from the child's side of the aisle shows that kids yearn deeply for dads. Infants in the first months of life can tell the difference between a mother's and a father's style of care. Furthermore, children thrive when they experience those different styles throughout all the developmental stages of life. Developmental research clearly shows that children are born with a drive to find and connect to their fathers, and fathers have the internal capacity, the instinct, to respond. Children and fathers hunger for each other early, often, and for a very long time.
Yet even as newly married Americans embrace co-parenting aspirations, the shape of the American family continues to shift. Census data often awaken us to half-felt trends, and this one is an eye-opener: just 34 percent of all children born in America in the last three years of the twentieth century will reach the age of eighteen living with both biological parents. The bottom line: nearly two-thirds of our kids will reach majority in a nonnuclear family configuration. If co-parenting is indeed the dominant expectation during this era when nuclear families are becoming so uncommon, then we have an urgent need to understand how kids and their dads and moms are going to stay connected to each other during the time when it matters most to the healthy development of our country's children.
A prime example of why we need to understand soon: census data show that households headed by single fathers are the fastest-growing family type. U.S. Census Bureau data released in early 1999 indicate that the number of single fathers raising children increased by 25 percent in just three years while the number of single mothers remained the same (showing a slight slip in the 5 to 1 ratio). As single mothers tell us, parenting without a partner is not an easy way to raise children.
But more importantly, whether they are in a traditional family arrangement or not, parents are groaning under the strain of childrearing these days. Recent polls by Zero to Three, the national young child and family advocacy think tank, and by Newsweek magazine confirm precisely what I see and hear in my national speaking experiences: stress- and worry-eroded parental self-esteem is reaching epidemic proportions just about everywhere. Mothers feel uncertain and alone, and fathers feel excluded, relegated to the margins of their kids' lives, and incompetent even when they are far from it. It is precisely this strained and worry-filled climate surrounding the family that has strengthened interest in the father as a rich and enduring emotional resource in the nurturing domain, both inside and outside marriage.
Although families hunger for information about how men and children ought and need to be connected to each other for the benefit of the family, the parenting books on the bookstore shelves have let them down. While many of these otherwise helpful guides, some written by friends and teachers of mine, include father in the index and mention fathers in the introduction and maybe in a chapter here and there, they have not consistently included fathers, page by page, topic by topic, problem by problem, in their discussions on parenting. There is no definitive guide to the well-being of children that speaks as compellingly to men as it does to women. Consequently, many a parenting book, even those with much helpful advice on how to raise wonderful kids, gathers dust on dad's nightstand (usually after mom bought and read it first before handing it to him). In spite of the well-intentioned efforts of the authors of such parenting books, fathers usually stop reading them, because they cannot find themselves or their relationship with their children anywhere between the covers. When Dad seems to disappear from a parenting book after a few pages, fathers feel that "something's missing here" and are likely to close the book for good.
Fathers and mothers have asked me to write this book to explain exactly what it is that children need from their fathers, why a father has so powerful an influence on the kind of person a child eventually becomes, and why women need to encourage the profound father-child connection. So here it is, the first definitive guide to fatherneed from the point of view of kids and parents. This book began as a nagging question that first drew me into the homes of eighteen families in the early eighties: What is the effect of men, especially fathers, on the development of children? Today in America there is a new father speaking, and his children are listening carefully, sometimes to his and his partner's amazement.
From Madison Avenue to government bureaucracies and courthouses, we see signs that the importance of the paternal presence to our well-being as a culture is increasingly recognized. Tylenol, OshKosh B'Gosh, GantU.S.A., and Estee Lauder, to name just a few companies, have poured significant resources into creating new advertising campaigns featuring images of competent fathers and their children. Highly competitive, young MBA hopefuls being recruited at my university are increasingly bold in asking about paternity leave, flextime, and job sharing policies -- all questions that would have been perceived as evidence of a lack of "real commitment" and would therefore have sunk their father's (and mother's) hiring chances or career ambitions only a generation ago. Rappers have begun to record CDs that provide evidence that the streets, too, are beginning to embrace real, and not simply reproductive, fatherhood.
Former governor Roy Romer made public service announcements on fatherhood and earmarked budget resources to promote responsible fatherhood in Colorado. Maryland, Massachusetts, and Minnesota are among a growing number of states implementing programs to discourage the widespread phenomenon of father exclusion from such preschool programs as Head Start, Early Head Start, and Healthy Start.
Michigan, California, Florida, and Connecticut are a few of the states that regularly include the topic of the father's influence on child development in annual judicial education courses. A senior jurist took me aside after a recent judicial education lecture I gave in Hartford to say, "You have vastly raised my awareness of the potential benefits to children of making it possible for their dads to stay in their lives. Likewise, you've made me feel plenty guilty about all those cases where I did the opposite!"
Increasing numbers of states have measures similar to Minnesota's and Colorado's "responsible fatherhood initiative," which supports legislative and judicial practices based on the presumption of a positive, ongoing role of the father in the life of his children (and vice versa) before, during, and after marriage. The Clinton White House asked Lisa Mallory, deputy director of its Partnership to Re-Invent Government, to implement the president's memorandum and Executive Order to Strengthen Fatherhood. She established an office that monitors all government regulations, policies, executive orders, and directives that potentially affect father-family and father-child access and mutual benefit. Its purpose is to prevent government from making it harder for mothers and fathers to co-parent their kids in ways that make sense to them, not to the government. This has been especially important in monitoring the cynical Catch-22 inherent in establishing paternity and encouraging fathering connections for the sole purpose of collecting child support to ease the government's economic burdens.
Worthy though these initiatives may be, they are far from universal and are frequently opposed by conservative politicians and community leaders wary of intruding on the privacy of the family. Most of us understand the wisdom of promoting responsible fatherhood, yet we remain uncertain about how to extend or reliably apply what we know to the lives of all our children. Judges remain confused about how to decide child custody or foster parent disputes in ways that protect and sustain the well-being of the child and the father-child relationship. Corporations anxious to protect their human resource investments debate their obligations to unhappy young mothers and fathers over parental leave and on-site day-care benefits.
Despite our earnest desire to understand these changes, we are unsettled about what we do not know about what is evolving as a result of sociocultural and political forces. Twenty years ago I began to wonder about the impact on children of a father who is the primary caregiver. I had begun to see the number of families in my clinic who were choosing this intriguing alternative slowly increase, thanks to the fresh infusion of creativity pumped into families by the women's movement. About five years into this pattern, one of my medical students raised her hand after I had delivered my standard lecture on the importance of attachment to consistent caregivers in the first months of life, and asked, "If I return to my practice after our child is three months old and my husband stays home to raise him or her, what would be the effect on the child's development?" Great question. Halfway into my answer I stopped, because I realized I was making the whole thing up. I hadn't a clue. I suggested we take her wonderful question to our local reference librarian. As the librarian predicted, we found absolutely nothing in the world-renowned Yale University Library system (containing more than twelve million volumes) about the impact of fathers on child development. We found over nine hundred citations dealing with fruit fly genes but zip on the developmental impact on children of the primary caregiving by the male contributor of half of their genes.
My student's question came as a shot across my smug academic bow, riveting my attention to a huge, almost immoral oversight about the role that men play in the lives of their children. Consequently, two years later, I began the only ongoing study of men in intact families who stayed home in the early months and years of their children's lives. I did so in an effort to understand what it is that men and children actually do or do not have going for them from the first moments of life and whether they are or are not good for each other. Throughout this book you will hear the stories of these families and the fascinating lessons they taught me about fatherneed. The study continues as those children now enter adolescence, and I sit by, anxious to learn more and more.
What little literature did connect fathers with their children back then, before I began my study, almost always had to do with father absence, not presence. It was as though fathers mattered more when they were not fathering than when they were. Indeed, father absence remains exquisitely painful for the nineteen million children who are currently growing up without their father. Earlier sexual and drug activity, higher rates of school failure, school dropout, teen suicide, and juvenile delinquency stalk these children's histories. If science has shown us that father absence adds such a burden of risk factors, what on earth does father presence add?
Despite the pioneering work of child development experts and colleagues -- Michael Lamb, Frank Pedersen, Joseph Pleck, Henry Biller, Ross Parke, Norma Radin, James Levine, Tiffany Field, William Marsiglio, and a handful of others -- the field of father-infant relationships is just now leaving its own infancy as we quarry this domain for its intellectual cornerstones. In a scathing critique of the entire academic child development field, University of Connecticut's Vicky Phares reported in the nation's leading psychology journal that in scientific reports on the relationship between family and child development, fathers are not even mentioned half of the time! Furthermore, when fathers are included in research designs of important problems like attention deficit disorder, autism, childhood depression, or teen suicide, the author usually fails to discuss how the father might be considered part of the solution to the problem addressed. Interestingly, in the 25 percent of all the literature Phares reviewed that did analyze the father's influence on the problem being studied, the writers always found something relevant and important to understand. In other words, when we bother to look for the father's impact, we find it -- always. Not looking at the impact of fathers and children on each other has given the entire field (and the best-selling parenting books it produces) a myopic and worrisomely distorted view of child development, a view with staggering blind spots.
Fathers were practically nonexistent in the early writings of Spock, Brazelton, Leach, and White. To varying degrees, they each began to nod more often in the father's direction, particularly Brazelton, but in their souls they couldn't get past the old seduction of the sacred mother-infant bond. They all missed the fatherneed boat as the children kept boarding, departure after departure. We need to ask ourselves, How on earth could this have happened? These are not shallow thinkers, and it appears to have taken considerable effort to avoid studying this question. As a psychiatrist trained in understanding both adult and child mental health, behavior, and illness, I've learned to look at blind spots and wonder why we are not supposed to look there and, if we do, what we are forbidden to see. My own hunch: in order to look at the father, one must look away from the mother, behavior that can raise normal anxiety early in life. Will Mom be there when I look back? Will it hurt her feelings if I look or turn away from her, even for a moment? Maybe I'd best not risk it. Is this early pattern, this ambivalence, sufficient to preserve the black hole of ignorance surrounding father care, its effects, and its impact on a child's growth? Perhaps. Maybe the grown-ups among us who are studying children have some lingering maternal separation experiences and feelings that need further attention and resolution if we are to get the science right this time.
Things have improved, as pioneering fatherhood researcher Michael Lamb points out in his 1997 third edition of The Role of the Father in Child Development. The first edition was the field's first classic, and by the third the available references in the field could themselves fill a book. So, thankfully, we now know some things worth knowing.
In this book we shall see how fatherneed works in the lives of real mothers and fathers raising their children in a wide variety of circumstances and trying to do the best they can. I will show you what you can do on a daily basis to provide your children with father care that touches them deeply, changing their lives -- and yours -- for the better. By its end, you will understand what fatherneed is in yourself, your children, and your partner or spouse and what makes it such a remarkably compelling force in our emotions and behaviors, longing and growth, sorrow and joy. It is certainly not magic: the force of biology would never entrust something so crucial to something as ephemeral as magic. It is a thoroughly understandable physical and emotional force that pulls men to children just as it pulls children to men, related or not, to shape, enrich, and perpetuate each other's lives. Hence, the double meaning of the term fatherneed mirrors reality, as the warp of the need in fathers for children is woven together with the weft of the need of children for their father.
In Chapter 1, Fathers Do Not Mother, I explain how different father care is from mother care and how and why it matters so much to kids. We now understand that children from the first moments of life are equipped to find their father and distinguish him from their mother, even before their vision is twenty-twenty. At six weeks of age, infants can tell the difference between their mother's and father's voice. At 8 weeks of age, they can anticipate the complex differences in their mother's and father's caretaking and handling styles.
An infant's capacity to recognize father care in its own right so early in life alerts us to how critical connecting to the father is to the healthy development of the child. And this is only the beginning. Children often utter their word (or sound) for "father" before their "mother" word, and no one really knows why. Is it because the mother and child are so close that the mother does not need a name whereas the slightly more separate father entity does? By the time kids can walk and talk, they search out their father on their own.
Toddlers are particularly insistent in expressing fatherneed; they look for their father, say his name when he's not there, puzzle over his voice on the phone, and explore every inch of his face and body if given half a chance. School-age kids long to be with their father at work, to know his friends, to challenge his skills and strengths. Teenagers express fatherneed in yet more complex ways, competing with their father and confronting his values, beliefs, and, of course, limits. For so many sons and daughters, it is only at the death of the father that they discover the intensity and longevity of their fatherneed, especially when it has gone begging.
In addition to the child's contribution to the father-child relationship, the father's response to that contribution shapes the relationship even further. To begin with, father care differs from mother care in ways that are tremendously interesting to children. In Chapter 1, I describe the fascinating science that I and others have discovered about father care. I show you how fathers, compared to mothers, spend more of their time with their children in play that involves few toys and that encourages exploration and less of their time in play that is simply for the purpose of entertainment or distraction alone. Mothers, even when not home full-time, play less with their children, spend more of their time in giving physical care, and emphasize instruction and self-control. Fathers are more likely to encourage their kids to tolerate frustration and master tasks on their own before they offer help, whereas mothers tend to assist a fussing child earlier.
Dads discipline less with shame and disappointment and more with real-life consequences. Seven-year-old Morgan told me, "Dad makes me stop messing around without making me feel bad. I just stop without feeling ashamed." A retort more typical of a father than a mother is "Stop whining about the homework not being fair. Your teacher will not be impressed." Moms, however, tend to emphasize the emotional costs of misbehavior: "I can't believe you would throw your milk. How do you think I feel having to clean this mess up?" Fathers also tend to activate their kids emotionally and physically more than moms do, but with mixed results; the father who turns his toddler on just before bedtime and then complains when the child won't settle down and go to sleep is a classic source of maternal frustration.
We know now that fathers are in fact pulling more of their own weight, even though they are not mothering. The 1998 survey on shared parenting by the Work and Families Institute of New York shows a remarkable increase, compared to data collected thirty years ago, in the percentage of child care provided by fathers: whereas fathers used to provide less than 25 percent of the child care provided by mothers, they now provide 75 percent of the care that mothers provide.
Because children who have been raised with an involved father are different from those who have not, we are seeing more and more evidence of the impact that involved men have on their child's development. In Chapter 2, The Dad Difference in Child Development, I examine how father involvement actually works to promote a child's emotional, physical, and intellectual development.
Children whose dad has regularly changed their diapers, burped them and rocked them to sleep, and read to them enjoy a reserve of strength in dealing with stress and the frustrations of everyday life. They are less rigid in their gender stereotyping of their peers and in their response to other children and to society in general. They enjoy measurable intellectual benefits, especially in school readiness. Eight-year-old Ben says, "I feel bad for kids without Dads. Mine taught me how to read, but not like a teacher -- more like a reader." He's referring to an instructional style more common among fathers than mothers. I find in my own research a tendency among fathers to be as interested in the process of finding an answer as in the correctness of the answer itself. Perhaps that is why math competence in girls often seems to be associated with early connections to the father.
Interestingly, all of these positive effects are even stronger and endure longer when they are complemented by a mother's support of her partner's active contribution to her child's emotional, social, and intellectual life. Even more intriguing is a finding by Jay Belsky of the University of Pennsylvania that the parental competence of fathers is more sensitive to marital satisfaction than is that of mothers; that is, a mutually satisfying marriage seems to amplify the father's, but not the mother's, positive effects. At the other end of the spectrum, we see a mirror image: studies show that the caretaking ability of women in highly dysfunctional families and marriages suffers, placing the child's development at particular risk; if the father in such a family is able to function reasonably well and continues to provide for his children emotionally and physically, he can buffer the children from some of the more toxic effects of the dysfunction.
There is an expectation among children whose father was involved in their daily life that diligence of effort pays off and that frustrations need not defeat. Interest in the novel and the challenging seems slightly keener in children whose fatherneed is gratified; they tend to assume that there is usually more than one way to skin any cat. John Snarey's four-decade-long study of fathers who supported their daughters and sons in less conventional ways -- for example, by encouraging athletic competence and achievement in girls and being emotionally close to their young sons -- had daughters who were more successful in school, work, and career and sons who eventually achieved more academically and in their careers down the line than did the children of fathers who supported them in more conventional ways.
If father involvement changes kids this much, how does it change kids when fathers are so involved with them that they are in fact their mainstay? Chapter 3, Dad as the Primary Caregiver, shares wonderful stories from my long-term study of intact families in which men served as the primary caregiver when their children were infants. The results of this unique study are published here for the first time; they offer a clear picture of the powerful impact of the paternal presence on children and families. The children in that study, now preteens, are described in vivid journalistic detail as we hear them talk about their experience of having been raised primarily by their father in their early years. The benefits and burdens of this arrangement on the children, mothers, and fathers give a crystalline clarity to the power of satisfied fatherneed.
Although the proportion of children who are raised by their father as the primary caretaker is relatively small and probably will always be so, the actual number, now over two million, is growing steadily. The experience of this parental arrangement is a profound one for the entire family, and the stories of individual experiences are so riveting and intriguing in what they teach us that they shine like beacons.
The kids in my study often felt a bit strange knowing their dads so well and feeling so close to them when they realized that the fathers of most of their friends were relegated to the margins of their lives. Many of the lessons I learned are not what I expected. For example, even when a father is changing diapers, cleaning, and cooking, he still plays with and disciplines the child in ways that differ from a mother's approach, but his gender stereotyping tendencies disappear! It is the mother who begins to reinforce some of the old stereotypes; it is as though she is getting her kids ready for the "outside world."
What especially characterizes most of these children now as preteens is the closeness of their friendships with opposite-sex peers. As they begin to become reproductive males and females, they are surprised to discover that their fathers are actually parents who are males and not just parents. Sound familiar, Mom?
Chapter 4, Fatherneed Throughout Life, is rooted in the notion, always a surprise when first discovered, that parents are changed by their children nearly as much as children are changed by their parents. The requirements of parenting are so demanding that none of us is good at all of it at all developmental stages all of the time. The dance between adult and child development requires that the lead change frequently without losing the rhythm or forward motion of personal growth. This chapter takes aim at how fatherneed in children and childneed in men are expressed across the changing landscape of the life span.
The greatest challenge to a father's parenting competence, however, is not aging but, rather, the separation of his life from his child's. In America that usually means divorce, which affects nearly half of all families. Divorce is such a critical topic that Chapter 5, Divorce: Challenge to Fatherneed, plays a central role in this book. The topic of divorce connects what we know about how important fathering is to the well-being of children and what we now know of the huge cost to children and fathers when the fatherneed goes unmet or is damaged.
Conventional wisdom to date has been far too cavalier about the cost of divorce to children. Research and clinical observations made by my wife, Dr. Marsha Kline Pruett, my own original research on divorce involving children aged six and under, and my experience as expert witness on child custody matters across the country have given me a searingly clear view of what happens when divorce threatens, or far too often destroys, fathering. Men who must work to support two families lose time with their children -- and not only because they must now spend more time at work in order to meet the expenses of two households. Often the court won't give them more time with their children because they are too busy working to support two families to have enough time to be with their children. In this context, the concept of quality time is a cruel joke.
But divorce need not destroy fathering, ever. What terrifies children is what terrifies fathers: losing each other. What the kids want most is for their mom and dad to be "friends enough," as six-year-old Sambra said, speaking for herself and her three-year-old brother, "so they let each other love us the way we need loving." The adversarial process and litigation itself are seen by even preschool children as bad forces that destroy their parents' ability to stay "friends enough." Judicial caprice and the tattered reputation of family law practice itself combine to create the frighteningly out-of-control sensation that haunts so many divorcing couples and deprives them of the reassurance they so desperately seek, namely, the reassurance that they will not lose their life with their children.
Accounts of the experiences of divorcing men and the voices of their children fill Chapter 5, which also includes action plans that help families preserve competent postdivorce fathering (which are not too dissimilar to parenting plans that preserve competent mothering). The chapter closes with mention of new legal and judicial reforms that are more successful in sustaining contact between children and fathers, such reforms as shared custody, shared legal custody, divorce mediation, judicial education, and the use of special masters, (experienced, retired judges or attorneys who act as mediators).
Chapter 6, Expressions of Fatherneed, shows that fathering, like mothering, comes in an infinite variety of hues and shapes. Cultural and ethnic variety sculpt fatherhood in intriguing ways. African-American fathers, for example, are often more present in their child's community and neighborhood than in the home; looking closely, we see that nonresidential does not mean absent. Hundreds of thousands of fathers over age fifty are fathering and grandfathering kids in ways they could not imagine in their twenties; a certain relaxed freedom, even grace, characterizes their fathering now that they have either made it or not in their careers (or care less about making it than they did in their youth).
Abandoning and teenage fathers are both being better understood. Over 90 percent of teenage fathers in most studies want to stay involved in the life of their child and the child's mother. Those who do are more likely to finish school, stay employed, and avoid contact with the law. We are getting better at recovering these fathers, and in Chapter 9, I describe how. Incarceration poses special threats but, in some cases, provides opportunities to face one's role as a father. Cultural and ethnic variations in fathering are fascinating, as are those from the new age of assisted reproductive technology. Gay fathering, though politically controversial, is becoming less so clinically, and I explain why in Chapter 6.
Of course, what makes a man a father is a mother, and what women think and feel about the men with whom they create children strongly shapes fathering opportunities. Chapter 7, Mothers and Fatherneed, takes us into the lives of mothers, sharing what they feel, think, and remember about their relationship with their own father, a relationship that powerfully shapes a woman's expectations, hopes, and fears about her mate's role in the life of their shared child. Mothers also wield great power as gatekeepers to their child's world, beginning in the very first days of their baby's existence, and they have been culturally supported in this for eons. For biological and social reasons, mothers play a larger role in promoting competent fathering than fathers do in promoting competent mothering. Of course, the competence of each parent is intimately connected with and interacts with that of the other, but women do need to loosen their grip on the gate latch if they want their men and babies to fall in love with each other and stay in love.
Of course, not all children have a father in their life on a regular (or even irregular) basis. In this situation, how does a mother address her child's fatherneed? In fact, it is practically impossible for a mother to fill this need by herself, just as it is for a father to fill the motherneed in his motherless child. With the support of the caring, competent men in her life and in her community, however, a mother can provide her child with opportunities for ongoing and predictable physical, intellectual, spiritual, and emotional interaction with men, experiences from which her child will benefit measurably. Part of fatherneed in boys is the hunger to understand and practice maleness; in girls there is a wish to experience and explore its difference from femaleness.
Oppressions from her past can complicate a mother's desire or ability to embrace the idea of a healthy paternal presence in the life of her child. Such struggles and pain need to be respected and acknowledged, as must the right of her children to a potentially better experience of a paternal presence in their own growing up. Encouraging and supporting male involvement in child care settings, schools, camps, after-school activities, and events sponsored by one's faith community are wonderful ways to address male deficits in the life of a child. Mothers can encourage programs such as Read Boston, where men support literacy in the schools by reading regularly to classrooms of kids. A single mother can ask her married friends to include her child in their family outings and gatherings; most folks are happy to be asked.
Fatherneed does not doom fatherless or under-fathered kids. It does mean that we must support single mothers in their struggle to provide caring male relationships for their kids. And it means we can alert these mothers to the hunger in their kids for such relationships if their own hunger has been somehow damaged or wounded, tempting them to close the gate after their kids. Chapter 7 closes with how to keep this vital gate open, both within and outside marriage.
If father care can do so much for kids, the next question that arises is, What can it do for men? What are the effects on men of being so involved with kids? Chapter 8, How Fathering Changes Men for Good, provides some answers. Women are often the first to notice that a baby has changed a man. "More responsible" is the most common report, but "more patient," "more gentle," "more emotional," "nicer," "mellow," and "settled" are not far behind. Men enjoy better overall health after becoming fathers -- despite the reduction in sleep. Reduced contact with the law and increased work productivity are also reported for all social groups. There don't seem to be many downsides to fatherhood for men.
There is compelling evidence that men who feel involved in their child's life are much less likely to default on child support -- or, for that matter, mother support after divorce. When a divorced man feels that he has significant input into his child's everyday life and relationships, the financial and emotional commitment and sacrifice make more sense to him and feel less punitive.
Father care also appears to exert strong influence on the father's health. In a four-year National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) study of dual-earner couples, Wellesley College's Rosalind Barnett found that men who worried about their children were more likely to experience job fatigue, anxiety, headache, low back pain, and sleeplessness. But involved fathers also have fewer accidental deaths, fewer premature deaths overall, less substance abuse, and fewer hospital admissions. Being positively involved seems to affect men's well-being so strongly that their diminished worry improves their health-related behavior.
Buddy Fite, one of America's greatest living guitar players, had decided to let his throat cancer kill him. Then his son Michael was born. Buddy wrote a lullaby, fell in love with the baby, changed his mind, and had a life-saving laryngectomy to remove the cancer. His incredible story serves as star witness to the thesis of Chapter 8.
We all play a part in satisfying our children's inborn need for their father. But beyond gatekeeping there are countless barriers in our culture itself that discourage competent fathering within and outside families: the glass ceiling for the fathers of young children who seek flextime and paternity leave; the child care and educational settings that hold parent conferences only during work hours; bureaucracies involved in the healthcare of children whose forms do not even have a place for the father's name; the media treatment of fathers as fools or jerks, even for our youngest audiences. Chapter 9, Fulfilling Fatherneed, explores proven strategies to create father-friendly environments, from day care to boardroom, for fathers married and not.
Public policy has far-reaching implications for individual lives. Child support enforcement laws are a cookie-cutter approach to an enormously complex problem, resulting in shallow and devaluing stereotypes such as the deadbeat dad. Legal advocacy must be reworked so that men who want to establish paternity for their children are not garnisheed back into poverty in a draconian Catch-22 that punishes them for trying to do the right thing for their kids. Judicial reform is sorely needed for fathers like the sixteen-year-old who wants to establish paternity so that he can support his child and girlfriend but dares not lest he face statutory rape charges because the consenting girlfriend was fourteen years old.
In the last chapter, The Kids Get the Last Word, we see that no one can tell us about who fathers are, or what having a father means, and say it with more passion or conviction than kids. Four-year-old Stacey, one of twins born to a mother by donor insemination, eloquently sums up the meaning of fatherhood in a remark made after returning home from a birthday party hosted by a friend's parents: "Mommy, what did you do with my Daddy? I need a daddy or I can't be a kid!" The differences between fathers and mothers are understood best by the children themselves; eight-year-old Julie puts it this way: "Mom just yells, but Dad means it." The difference between the divorces that work for kids and the ones that don't are most clearly expressed by the kids; David, nine years old, says, "Mom makes it impossible for Dad to be her friend because all she wants to do is hurt him, get back at him. He's not perfect, but I need him, and she uses me to get even with him. I end up with the busted heart." I close Chapter 10 with the ideas and advice kids have for other kids on how to stay close to a dad without hurting a mom, within and outside marriage.
This is the first book to address what fathering actually does to children and to men. It combines science and common sense with the realities of daily life. I am a practicing clinician who has also researched and solved some of the problems you face, and I have worked hard with remarkable men and women to change the public policies that impede competent fathering. In the following chapters we will look at fathering's rich diversity, see how it works, and, finally, understand what it means to, and how it profoundly affects, us all. From deep within their biological and psychological being, children need to connect to fathers and fathers to their children to live life whole.
Excerpted from Fatherneed by Kyle D. Pruett Copyright © 2001 by Kyle D. Pruett. Excerpted by permission.
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