What is a father? Thefreedictionary.com defines a father as “A male person whose sperm unites with an egg, resulting in the conception of a child; a man who raises a child; a male parent of an animal.” However, this definition doesn’t represent how the image of the ideal father has changed over the last one-hundred years inside the American society. At the beginning of the 20th century, the ideal father was depicted as the hard-working, breadwinner who didn’t take time nor have time to partake in “women’s” work. As Brandth and Kvande note, “Traditionally, power, authority, and status were associated with the paternal role, especially with the father as patriarch. Being a father has also been associated with such masculine qualities as virility and potency and in the golden age of the nuclear family fatherhood meant being a good provider which again was strongly associated with masculine honor. Thus a real man was a good provider for his wife and children. Being a good father rested on income generating work which meant activities away from home” (1998:299). The culture embedded within American society at that time both separated and placed men and women onto opposite ends of the power and/or gender divide. “According to biosocial theory, there are both biological and social origins for traditional gender roles and gender typed characteristics. Gender roles refer to behaviors or occupations in which a particular gender is expected to engage. Performing these gender roles fosters expectations that women and men should have certain personality characteristics that are gender-typed and that correspond to the gender roles. For example, men have been expected to be the financial provider of their families; this gender role is associated with being dominant and assertive. In contrast, women are expected to be the caregiver of children, a gender role associated with being nurturing and affectionate” (Fisher and Anderson, 2012:17). With this acting as the foundation of American society, both the dominate institutions and the fathers during that time were in for a culture shift during the 1920s which in turn lead to a cultural revolution in fatherhood and the image of fatherhood during the 1970s.
The culture behind fatherhood took a dramatic shift in 1922 with the help of the Saturday Even Post and the cultural shifting comic strips, which depicted fathers caring for children without the help of their mothers/wives. The idea of what constituted a good father had come under scrutiny during this time. From the 1930s up until the 1950s, fathers had began to change their values and/or norms to match those of the broader society and the media (cartoon strips) of the time. However by the 1950s, the culture and the image behind the “new” father and his role in fatherhood underwent retrogression. During that time, “American television shows in the Fifties were often written about as if they were consistently traditional in format and content. A close look at the shows, however, reveals subtle patterns of change. Shows that debuted in the early Fifties were certainly traditional, but those that debuted in the late Fifties were even more traditional. Thus, using television as an indicator, the culture of fatherhood after World War II was not only more traditional than the culture of fatherhood prior to World War II, but the culture of fatherhood in the late post-war era was more traditional than the culture of fatherhood in the early post-war era. The traditionalization of fatherhood, in other words, intensified during the Fifties” (LaRossa 2012:46). As a response to these sudden changes, many fathers in the 1950s continued to be nurtures instead of just financial providers yet they did these acts within the privacy of their own homes. Many fathers did not seem to want to retrogress like the ever-changing times, yet they did not want to be viewed as outsiders and “different” by the dominate institutions as well as their peers. The re-emergence of the “old” cultural image of the father had once again found its place in society.
Over a twenty year time period, men had to suppress their nurturing ability in public spaces for the fear of cultural backlash. Fortunately, the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, and the civil rights movement during the 1960s lead to a re-emergence of the “new” father image again. “The 1970s marked a paradigmatic shift in the culture of fatherhood. The percentage of mothers in the labor force, the decline in birth rates, and the fervent advocacy of gender equality in the 1970s (brought on by the feminist movement) had prompted the traditionally minded Saturday Evening Post cartoonists to reduce their satirical attacks on nurturing fathers. A new, improved version of fatherhood had come on the scene. Figures also suggest that traditional gender roles were more likely to be endorsed in the 1950s and 1960s and that the concept of the “New Father” (i.e., the more involved father) was strongest in the 1970s” (LaRossa, Jaret, Gadgil, and Wynn 2000:376). During the 1970s, more women became empowered, went to college, and, at times, abandoned the forced “homemaker” role for equal chances in life. As women became more educated and in turn more employable, many men found that the culture and the society of the 1980s no longer revolved around men working and women doing the housework due to the fact that these gendered roles had crossed boundaries and now there was no such thing as “women’s” work anymore. “Between 1986 and 1988 approximately 489,000 men were reported to be stay-at-home dads to children up to the age of 14. That number has steadily increased; in 1998, the number of stay-at-home dads with children under the age of 18 was reported to be 1,273,000. This increase has been paralleled by a concomitant increase in media coverage of stay-at-home dads since 1990, with a particular large increase in coverage between 1997 and 2000” (Vavrus 2002:355). This ever-expanding media coverage help to foster an “18% increase from 1994–2001 in the number of fathers who stay at home with their children which jumped to a 65% increase in stay at-home fathers from 2004 to 2007. Also in 2005, there were an estimated 2.9 million children in married-couple homes in the United States who were cared for by their fathers. The 2006 census further estimates that 159,000 men who have remained out of the labor force for more than one year to take primary responsibility of their children” (Rochlen, Suizzo, McKelley, and Scaringi 2008:16). With the help of the media, fathers who have been displaced out of the workforce and placed more into the role of being an active parent note that they have “a stronger bond with their children than they could have had while working full-time, they recognize the importance of the “volume of time” spent with their children, and they also have more general discussions about “valuing” children and family more as a result of the experience. The unifying theme that underlies these discussions is the recognition that the daily care of children is important and valuable” (Chesley, 2011:656).
The role of fathers taking a more active role in parenting has undergone dramatic shifts over the last one-hundred years. Traditionally, fatherhood represented a job whose main function was to provide financial support for his family. Up until the 1920s, this was the cultural norm. However, when the general society and the cultural changes around work and equality took place during the 1980s, men found themselves transitioning from a paid labor job to both a rewarding and an active fatherhood role. With the cultural shift of fathers taking a more active role in parenting during the 1980s, many “new” fathers have values which are opposite of the values that their fathers employed in the past or at the same time, the values that men in the earlier part of the 20th century had. When it comes to values, Becker asserts that “Values are concepts people use to make choices, to decide courses of actions, to explain and justify behaviors, to judge and to be judged. Values are modes of organizing conduct and emotionally invested principles that guide human action” (2005:3). The great thing about values is that they can change and adapt to situations, especially those which are based on experience. For example, many “new” fathers who had a father that embraced the “old” financial provider only role noted that “they are striving to find out what it means to be a good father. They lack role models; their own fathers were not much involved in family-and care work. As their fathers emphasized work at the cost of time spent with their children, they were very distant fathers, and as such, they do not work very well as figures of identification for their children. Mainly their fathers served as a negative model which they have no desire to emulate. They don’t want their children to have the kind of father they had themselves” (Brandth and Kvande, 1998:300). Experience has helped create, change, and mold a “new” set of values into the image of fatherhood. As the culture began to change, so did the overall American society. These two components go hand-and-hand because as society changes, cultural and different cultural objects often change to mirror the actions of society as a whole. As Griswold notes, “Human beings create cultures through the externalization/objectification/internalization process, thereby constructing the worlds in which we operate. The assumption behind the idea of culture as reflection is a simple one: Culture mirrors social reality. Therefore, the meaning of a particular cultural object lies in the social structures and social patterns it reflects” (2012:23). The cultural object(s) behind fathers and parenting have shifted from the views which were held in the early 1920s and now they’re constantly evolving and changing to adjust with an ever-changing society. For example, during the 1980s, the culture behind fatherhood took a dramatic change in the broader American society with the introduction of Mr. Mom. During the early part of the 1980s, “Television news stories depicted the issues that stay-at-home dads face using quite similar themes that, taken together, copulsively reassert the competence and manliness of Mr. Moms, and reveal a clear and explicit tendency to validate men as primary parents, or, in the words of one stay-at-home dad, to show that “dads can be moms, too”. The “Mr. Mom” identity in television embodies the integration of a number of different contemporary cultural trends in the United States occuring the last 3 decades or so: a steady increase of married mothers in the labor force alongside a smaller, yet steadily decrease of married fathers in the labor force; changes in social acceptance of the gender appropriateness of particular occupations and practices; and changes in families roles’ articulations to consumerism- roles the media, and television in particular, have much at stake in constructing. The Mr. Mom identity embodies significant societal shifts vis-à-vis gender and domesticity occuring during the 1990s, and is picked up widely in television news for its commercial as well as cultural value” (Vavrus 2002:355).
With the emergence and acceptance of men doing “women’s” work, the cultural shift in parenting and work related opportunities further strengthened the new norm(s) around fathers being compassionate nurtures. This cultural shift also helped to change the image of the modern father as well as the modern mother over the last few decades. To illustrate in today’s society, “Women now make up about 47% of the labor force and most married heterosexual couples are dual-career couples with about 38% of women earning as much as or more than their husbands. Also as more women entered the workforce, the number of stay-at-home dads, who no longer look for work, increased from 76,000 in 1994 to more than 140,000 in 2008” (Fischer and Anderson 2012:16). To further illustrate, Chesley asserts that “Men in at-home father families tend to have less education both relative to their wives and to men in other arrangements. Furthermore, the majority of at-home fathers report staying home because they cannot find work or are ill/disabled. In contrast, most at-home mothers report “taking care of home/family” as their reason for staying home. However, the proportion of at-home fathers reporting that they are home to take care of family has increased, with less than 1 percent of at-home fathers providing this reason in the 1970s and 19 percent reporting this reason in the 2000s” (2011:645). When it comes to being a stay-at-home dad, more men have embraced this phenomenon over the last seventeen years compared to all of the years prior to 1995. Work was once viewed as a man’s way of providing for his family while at the same time escaping the hassles of everyday family life. In the early 20th century, if a man didn’t work, he wasn’t viewed as being a good man/husband at all. However, with the cultural shift in employment and fatherhood, the image of the “new” father is one that represents a man as more than just a father who provides financial support for his family; whereas, he’s a person who cooks, cleans, cares, loves, and provides support (not just financial) for his family which is the new norm for a strong, masculine man.
As LaRossa contends, “The culture of fatherhood, as it is being defined here, includes the norms, values, beliefs and expressive symbols pertaining to fatherhood. The culture of fatherhood, in this sense, is not meant to denote everything having to do with fatherhood, but is limited to the webs of meaning and interpretive practices (i.e. symbolic interactions) pertaining to fatherhood. Essentially, it consists of the norms that men are expected to follow when they become fathers or are about to become fathers; the attitudes and sentiments that people have toward fathers; the knowledge, valid or not, of what fathers have done in the past and what they are doing, and are capable of doing, in the present and future” (LaRossa 2012:39) When it comes to fatherhood and where we are now, I can say that the cultural shift that took place during the early 1980s was a turn in the right direction for children’s empowerment. Children look up to their parents. As Combs-Orne and Renkert assert, “Children value emotional connections to their fathers and both common sense and developmental research indicate that fathers can play central roles in their children’s growth and development” (2009:395). If one parent is absent in a child’s life during the most important developmental times, research has show that these children are more likely to use drugs, commit crimes later in life, have emotional problems later in life, and, most importantly, they are likely to commit the same acts to their own children later in life. “The most important aspect of a good father, is thus to have close contact with the child- which contrast earlier images of the father. The kind of father they would like to be, is a good care person for their children. Such an idea has many of the same elements as the ideal mother: closeness, care, and contact. This indicates that the father images are constructed by combining traditional masculine and feminine elements in a new way” (Brandth and Kvande, 1998:300). I believe that being an absent father problematic all-in-itself. I grew up in a neighborhood, which was its own subculture segregated from the “prosperity” of the dominate society, where being an absentee father was just as common as a baby needing a diaper change. My fatherless friends used to always question themselves on why weren’t they good enough/why didn’t their father want to be with them. As these same children grew older, developmental problems arose which often lead to constant fighting in our “society”. By the time my friends made it to high school, they had no real love for a woman because they were never taught that men can love and be sensitive to other people’s feelings.
This trend in fathers taking a more active role in parenting is not just happing in the upper class or the lower class, in blacks or whites, and it’s not just limited to people in the United States and/or Europe. This trend is taking place all over the globe. For example, if one examined the society and the cultural practices that true indigenous societies still employ today, it would be noted that fathers, who are often referred to as high leaders, teach their children, especially their sons, the cultural practices that their tribe has used for centuries to survive in their respective environments. In these societies, everything is about knowledge, connectedness, and teaching. After the Industrial Revolution, the broader American society shifted away from these practices which are often referred to as “hunting and gathering” practices to more capitalistic practices like mothers having as many kids as possible to raise workers to improve the society and, for the father, work, work, work! During this time, our society seemed to revolve around producing workers. A father’s role was to be a provider up until his children were able to work in the factories (child labor at the time). Once these children were able to work, the father would teach and train them in his craft and the process continued. This process continued all the way up until the initial cultural shift in fatherhood during the 1920s.
This positive cultural shift of fathers taking a more active role in parenting has made its mark and is here to stay for several reasons. One of the most important reasons is partially due to the fact that women in our current society outweigh men in educational attainment which has spilled over into the workforce. This is a positive effect just due to the fact that the American workforce has been unequally, segregated to women when compared to men over the last 100 years. As Chelsey asserts, “The data indicates that at-home fathers come to value their increased involvement in children’s care in ways that reduce gender differences in parenting and that have the potential to translate into institutional change, particularly when they reenter the labor force. Furthermore, at-home father arrangements generally appear to provide increased support for women’s employment and promote changes in women’s work behavior that may reduce inequities that stem from traditionally gendered divisions in work/family responsibilities” (2011:642). This trend has lead the United States government to offer support (money) in 32 states that have programs (National Fatherhood Initiative) which encourage and educate fathers on how to take a more supportive role in raising their children. Also, when it comes to fatherhood and defining both who and what constitutes an active, supportive father, their has been a increase in same sex couples, most notable males, who want to adopt and raise a child with the same love, affection, and care as a heterosexual couple. This “new” father and the shifted ideal image of the father has created a society where children are no longer just property that a parent holds until they’re ready to transition to the paid labor sections of the broader society. Fatherhood has shifted and now it seems to symbolize a meaning of support (not just financial), patience, devoted time, strength, and love. As society has shown, “Children value fathers who spend time with them; it seems important for children to have access to their fathers and a sense that their fathers have a personal investment in them. What seems to matter is that fathers place children in a special place in their minds and hearts—a highly symbolic dimension to father-child relationships—indicating that the father is connected psychologically, if not present physically” (Combs-Orne and Renkert 2009: 402).
Work Cited Page
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Chelsey, N. (2011). Stay-at-Home Fathers and Breadwinning Mothers: Gender, Couple, Dynamics, and Social Change. Gender & Society 25: 642-664
Combs-Orne, T., Renkert, L. (2009). Fathers and Their Infants: Caregiving and Affection in the Modern Family. Human Behavior in the Social Environment 19: 394-418
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Griswold, W. (2012). Cultures and Societies in a Changing World (4th Edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
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Vavrus, M. (2002). Domesticating Patriarchy: Hegemonic Masculinity and Television’s “Mr. Mom”. Critical Studies in Media Communication 19(3): 352-275