A Father's Lament
They always love Mom more, and they're right...
I don’t think it can be reasonably denied that this is a culture that values fathers considerably less than it once did, and considerably less than many other societies around the globe today. I have long used work from the sociologist David Popenoe on the growth and consequences of fatherlessness in a course on American society I have taught from time to time for more than a decade. (The above image is a PowerPoint slide I sometimes give students in this course to summarize the situation).
I’ve also used the image below in class in the past to indicate the cultural level of our lack of concern about fathers. You can find lots of baby products like this for children conceived through artificial insemination by anonymous sperm donor.
The celebratory angle of this erasure becomes still harder to engage in good conscience when you realize that research shows that kids who might be given such a bib are significantly more likely as adults to suffer depression and substance abuse than children raised in families that included their biological father. Many were understandably troubled by the idea that the sperm that fertilized the egg that became them was obtained in a purely financial transaction.
Try to imagine a bib that read “My mommy’s name is Surrogate.” I did find a book for children “My Mom is a Surrogate,” in which two children of a woman learn that she is carrying another child as a surrogate. Can’t see any of the pages on Amazon, so don’t know any more about the story. Is their father present in the story?
So that’s the contemporary American cultural situation for fathers.
At a deeper level, rooted in things that go below any specific culture, fathers are up against it in the contest for the affection of their children.
Because they always love their mother more.
And the father understands it. (OK, I won’t speak for all of them—at least this one does!) He even agrees with them, however desperately he wants to be tied for first in their hearts, when he thinks it through carefully. And even if he knows, as it is easy to know anecdotally and only slightly harder to demonstrate convincingly with solid social science data, that fathers routinely provide children and families benefits mothers are incapable of providing.
She carried you to term, after all. You inhabited her body for 9 months and you nursed at her breast. The hormonal bond between mothers and children is impressively strong, and nothing like it connects fathers and children. An excerpt from my latest book on this:
“In mammals, females carry fetuses to term and give birth to them, and they also lactate sufficiently to nourish offspring early in life. The mother-child relationship is therefore typically the strongest bond across a wide range of mammalian species, including our own. Lactation is the single factor most powerfully driving greater motherly commitment to nurturant care (Hrdy 1999:122). It is an entirely female phenomenon in the animal kingdom, apart from one species of fruit bat. The evidence indicates that it may have evolved from something like a plugged sweat gland that exuded nutrients that an infant cuddling near the mother might have ingested and then gained some nutritional and immunological benefits. Over evolutionary time, the sweat glands became teats. The neurochemical benefits of oxytocin are generated for mothers by breast-feeding…Oxytocin, an ancient chain of amino acids, plays an essential role in motivating mammalian care for offspring, especially by mothers. It triggers maternal action on behalf of the infant, from feeding to ensuring they are warm and protected from harm. Endogenous opiates are also involved in maternal mammalian brains, providing pleasurable sensations when the mother suckles and cuddles with an infant…Culture on top of this can of course further solidify the pattern, but it is produced from deeper facts driven by biology and natural selection.”
Against that, what chance have I got?
And in families with something like the sexed division of labor that has been normative for every human society in human history until yesterday in evolutionary time, that is, where the father does most of the labor external to the domestic realm, and the mother does most of the labor inside that realm (and close to it, to include the gathering of hunter-gatherer groups), the bonding will be still greater.
Almost no young child will be capable of understanding the importance of the contribution to his/her well-being made by labor hidden from view by someone who is absent from the home for significant periods of time. And ultimately, emotionally at least, the domestic labor is more essential to the child’s development. (And in hunter-gatherer world, mothers even supplied most of the calories). Not that father’s cannot or do not provide some of that—but there are no known societies, including modern Western ones, where fathers do nearly as much of it as mothers do, and in all existing societies fathers are still much more likely than mothers to be the main providers of material resource from labor outside the home.
That situation has changed to a significant degree in the US and other similar societies, but it’s still not close to parity. Some like to point to the fact that something like 40% of American families today are headed by female breadwinners, but for ideological reasons they overlook the fact that a small minority of that 40% consists of two income families. Most families with a mother as main breadwinner are single parent families at the bottom end of the socioeconomic spectrum (where in fact the state is typically the primary provider of material resource). So one of the de facto achievements of more female provider headed families is greater familial poverty because it is linked to father absence. When you do the math carefully, about 85% of two parent American families still consist of the old traditional model of father providing most of the resource from work outside the home.
And now add to this the biological fact that perhaps most informs relations between male-female sexual couples in our history: women are always more certain of their biological relationship to their children than men are. The male fear of a pregnancy he thinks was informed by his contribution actually having been produced by some other man’s sperm has driven much of the historical male effort to control the freedom of their mates and to vigorously defend against any other male efforts to approach them. We don’t like this aspect of male behavior much in our present culture, and there are good reasons to feel this way, but our dislike of the attitude doesn’t inevitably do anything to curtail the emotional manifestations of something programmed into male brains over long evolutionary history.
How much greater then is the father’s angst faced with a situation in which the child he desperately wants to be his but cannot certainly demonstrate to be so without a DNA test is almost invariably emotionally more distant from him than from her/his mother? (Aside: an attempt at a cultural partial fix here consists of a demonstrated greater impulse for family members to remark a newborn’s physical resemblance to the father than to the mother—"She looks just like you, Dad! So relax, she must be yours!”).
I admit I’m making a partisan pitch here, given the fatherly part of my own identity, but can we pity the poor father just a little bit?
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