Jewish World Review

July 30, 1999 / 17 Av, 5759

Essentially wrong?

Cathy Young
Jewish World Review

ABOUT TWO WEEKS AGO, I started getting e-mails from fathers' advocates alerting me to a vicious attack on dads in the June issue of The American Psychologist, the journal of the American Psychological Association. Since then, the article by Louise Silverstein and Carl Auerbach, "Deconstructing the Essential Father," has drawn fire from several conservative commentators. The title of a column by Maggie Gallagher, "Shrinks Who Think Dads Stink," sums up the reaction -- strong enough for the authors to gripe on the Internet that their work has been distorted.

Both the criticisms and the authors' protests have some validity. I don't believe Silverstein and Auerbach think dads stink; more likely, they think marriage stinks. While they insist that fathers aren't essential to child well-being (and throw in a nasty remark about "the potential costs of father presence," such as some dads' squandering money on booze and gambling), their disdain is gender-neutral. In their view, mothers aren't essential either; a single parent of either sex, or a gay or lesbian couple, will do.

Silverstein's and Auerbach's real target is not fatherhood as such but what they call "the neoconservative perspective" on fatherhood. That perspective, articulated by authors like David Blankenhorn (Fatherless America) and David Popenoe (Life Without Father), emphasizes a traditional division of parental roles in an intact marriage.

Now, in many ways, the Silverstein/Auerbach article is as bad as the critics say. It uses often flimsy research to push a political agenda. It's filled with ideological jargon about "heterocentrism" and "male power." It recklessly downplays the benefits of two-parent families and offers grist for conservative charges that "progressives" want the state to replace the family.

Yet, ironically, some aspects of the article are more. father-friendly than the "neoconservative perspective." The authors reject the Blankenhorn/Popenoe view that fathers do not have an innate bond with children or an ability to nurture them. While the "neoconservatives" assume that the mother-child bond is primary and good fatherhood is virtually impossible without a marriage, Silverstein and Auerbach want to "create an ideology that defines the father-child bond as independent of the father-mother relationship" and accords it equal status.

Unlike the authors, I believe children are generally better off when Mom and Dad are married to each other. But I also think the harms of divorce can be greatly reduced by enabling divorced fathers to remain involved parents, a goal to which Silverstein and Auerbach are far more sympathetic than the "neoconservatives" (who mostly dismiss it as unrealistic).

Interestingly, the traditionalists also tend to assume that divorced fathers have walked out on their kids, despite data showing that it's mothers who seek the divorce two-thirds of the time. Blaming the fathers supports the "neoconservative" belief that men are weakly attached to their children unless society forces them into fatherhood. Besides, if divorce isn't Dad's fault, telling him that it effectively strips him of fatherhood seems quite unfair.

What about parenting and gender roles? Silverstein and Auerbach undoubtedly go too far in denying sex differences; they also seem to favor massive social engineering schemes to bring about equal child-rearing. "Neoconservatives" are right to argue that traditional fathers, who may leave hands-on child care to Mom but work hard to provide for their families, shouldn't be put down. Unfortunately, in the process, they often end up putting down nontraditional "nurturing dads."

In a recent article, conservative writer Danielle Crittenden describes watching fathers tend to their young children at a playground -- not with admiration but with disgust. She mocks the "unnaturally high" voices in which they talk to the children and suggests that their wives must be secretly yearning for real men. Crittenden is all for the two-parent family, but isn't her slam against dads as bad as anything in the Silverstein/Auerbach article?

In different ways, both sides in this debate ultimately seem to agree that fatherhood matters and that the absence of many fathers from their children's lives is a cause for concern. It would be nice if, instead of squabbling, we could build on this foundation. But it probably won't

JWR contributor Cathy Young is co-founder and vice-president of the Women’s Freedom Network and author of Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality
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©1999, Cathy Young