The first thing to be noticed is that Father’s Day was an afterthought. Mother’s Day came first. Maybe the thought was that mothers needed a day, because it’s so easy to forget how much we owe to what mothers as mothers do. Honor—special days—we usually reserve to saints and heroes, to those who have done great deeds and displayed heroic virtue. And not so long ago most of that honor was given to men. But, in fact, nobody’s deeds and virtues have been more important to me than those of my Mother. Mother’s Day isn’t for mothers in general. It’s for my mother.
Surely Father’s Day must be viewed in the same relational, highly particularistic spirit. George Washington, the father of our country, hasn’t really done as much for me as my father, the man who raised me. Everyone owes George Washington a debt of gratitude, but most everyone owes more to his or her dad, who usually didn’t do much of anything for 99+% of Americans.
Fatherhood, of course, seems to have fallen on hard times. There’s many an expert calling upon us to remember the Fathers. As far as I can tell, most of that effort is directed toward men. Men, don’t forget that you’re happier when you become and act like a father, and don’t forget that women and children still really need you, despite some evidence to the contrary. Studies show that women—and especially mothers, of course—need a good, reliable husband, but it’s not that tough for a woman to live without such a man if she must. Studies also show that men live longer and are altogether less screwed up if they have any wife—good or not. And they need to be a real father just as much, whether they realize it or not. One of the most alarming statistics I know about is the skyrocketing number of men over 65 who are unmarried and without any real connection to children. Talk about loneliness! Talk about wards of the state once that dementia or some other form of debilitation kicks in! Our health care system is semi-affordable only because of the still huge amount of voluntary caregiving by women to those they love.
What about lonely old single women? The problem just isn’t as big. Divorced and widowed women are considerably more likely to remain close to the kids than comparable men. And women, let’s tell the truth, are just more relational—more able to make close friends at all points in life—than men. Now it’s true that old women have a tougher time finding a new husband or a new sexual companion than old men. But they’re typically more honest with themselves about who they are and what they need to live well. My “takeaway” from reading Tocqueville on the family for the first time decades ago was all about how unerotic vainly individualistic American men are in comparison to American women. And even American women Tocqueville described aren’t as pleasingly erotic as they might have been. They have to spend so much time calculating about how to manipulate men to help them make a relational home.
It’s American women, Tocqueville explained, who make American freedom the source of a new and in some ways fairly unprecedented practice of the virtue of chastity. Aristocratic and many traditional marriages were typically arranged for reasons having little to do with erotic love. That means it was hard to blame married men, at least, for giving in to the call of nature and fooling around. But in a democracy, the good news is that you’re free to marry who you please; the institution has been largely detached from issues of property. American men pretty much calculate—usually badly—about how best to have sex. And the American woman about locating sex within marriage. So she tells the man who proclaims his love that we can marry, and that, of course, she’s not about to lose her mind to a man whose words of love are just words. So, for his own good as well as her own, she directs his eros in its properly enduring and relational direction. She guards chastity—gratefully accepting the help of religion—as the foundation of democratic marriage and family. That there is a close connection between the decline in chastity and decline men thinking of themselves as responsible fathers should surely be clearer to today’s women than it is. Everyone knows when a woman “hook ups” or “moves in” with a man she's much more likely than the man to be thinking in a family way. She appears not to be calculating as well as she used to about the best means to achieve their end. Contraception, of course, has complicated the female calculus, liberating her in a way for both sexual enjoyment and from the necessity of motherhood but, the problem is, it has liberated men in much the same way. Contraception works against the connections between love and marriage and parenthood that democracy seems to have solidified, and has apparently weakened to the point of near-impotence the American woman’s defense of chastity.
It shouldn’t be surprising that in a democracy in particular the experience of fatherhood requires the active assistance of women. In aristocracies, fatherhood was, in forth, patriarchal; it was a political institution. The father proudly commanded the family, and his children and often even his wife lived in a rather reserved distance from him. The authority of the father was uncontested, and his honor wasn’t narrowly parental. The aristocratic family, obviously, was good for social order, but, Tocqueville adds, it wasn’t so good for paternal love.
Tocqueville highlights the new birth of love of father and son in a democracy. They’re stuck in the same small house, and there aren’t any emotional barriers to get in the way of natural affection. We see in our time that the last remaining barrier to a father's love—the idea of the division of labor between parents—has largely crumbled. And, of course, we now, for better and worse, educate girls—even at home—pretty much the way we educate boys. Since the time of Tocqueville, fathers have grown closer to their daughters too.
Before we criticize our democracy too much, we have to look around and see contradictory trends: more deadbeat dads, more single moms, but more loving fathers sharing (not quite, of course) equally in the joys of the daily duties of parenting. Studies show that men and women who are actually married with children today don’t feel all that trapped or oppressed, have found ways to share in some way or another the duties of economic productivity and lovingly caring for the kids, and are generally the happiest of Americans. I could go on and note some other new trends, including the high-tech breakthroughs that have made it easier to work from home, to be both a productive and a stay-at-home dad (or mom). It is also easier, of course, to school from home. For many Americans, it’s not a huge challenge to choose to be a father in full these days, especially for observant members of relatively orthodox churches.
There’s undeniably an increasingly pronounced class division here: Even without religious support, something like the traditional family is making a comeback among our rich and sophisticated “cognitive elite.” They talk “Do your own thing” Sixties, but act more like nuclear-family Fifties. Meanwhile, the lower part of our middle class continue to talk “traditional values,” while not having the wherewithal to live them. There’s the scarcity of decent jobs, the disappearance of the “family wage” with the collapse of unions and employee and employer loyalty, and the detachment from the support of churches. For both economic and more broadly cultural reasons, the relational lives of most of our bottom fifty percent are getting more pathological.
Still, I’m sticking with the generalization that these aren’t bad times at all for fathers, for married men with children. And traveling in prosperous, highly educated, and religious circles in the South, I sure see a lot of admirable and “self-fulfilled” fathers, who are often closer to their kids than their fathers were to them. The problem for men is fewer of them are thinking of themselves as fathers. It’s often been noted that the one relational tie that can’t be deconstructed by democratic individualism is the tie of mother to child, whereas the tie of the father to child is much more vulnerable. So the family form that’s surely more prominent now than ever, the single mom with a single kid.
The burden, in general, of being raised by single moms or in homes with deadbeat dads seems to fall harder on boys. Girls raised by single moms ended up pregnant out of wedlock more often. But boys without a responsible father as a model fare even worse. Consider that the decline of the experience of fatherhood goes a long way to explaining why men are disappearing from our colleges, and why our professions are slowly but surely becoming dominated by women. Young men are less about thinking about preparing themselves for marriage and the family; their adolescence is extending further and further. Women think they can no longer do what’s required to make men reliable husbands and fathers. And so they act accordingly. I often ask my class what a woman should be called who can’t earn her own living, who says she’ll depend on her husband for support. The answer, of course: a fool. That’s not to say there aren’t steadfast fathers. It’s just that it’s a mistake to bet one’s life on one.
The trouble is, of course, that too many Americans believe that being free means regarding all the relational encumbrances of life that flow from love as “lifestyle options.” Women have been taught by the Supreme Court that they are free to define the mystery of their personal identity as they please, and that’s one reason, to be sure, for our birth dearth. But women actually believe that less than men. And mothers, surely, almost never.
So the decay of institutional support for relational life—based, in some large part, in the sophisticated acceptance of anti-relational or “autonomous” ideologies—gives men the sexual liberation they often think they want, but also personal liberation that disorients and debilitates them. Remember what distinguishes the experience of being a mom from being a dad—paternity and maternity. The child is never part of the body of the father; his contribution to the new life is momentary and even forgettable. Motherhood is a more natural experience. Fatherhood much more a matter of choice and acceptance, a choice to be who you really are as a free and relational being. A woman can’t not acknowledge her child as hers (well, lets skip over abortion here); fatherhood is more an act of relational liberty, a free act of love. It’s easier by far not be father than not to be a mother, and it is easier to mix fatherhood up with all sorts of considerations that don’t have much to do with love of a particular child. That’s why men need lots of help they can’t provide for themselves to be who they should be as relational beings.
Men—including but not only biological “fathers”—have to be lovingly taught with both words and deeds that it’s good for them to be fathers in full. And we sometimes have to be reminded of the Biblical breakthrough that demands that fathers and mothers be honored equally. When fatherhood was “patriarchal” or a lot bigger deal than taking loving responsibility for a particular child, fathers were honored too much. In a high-tech, non-relational time, fathers almost seem superfluous, and the cultivation of fatherhood is too often no longer worth the mother’s time and trouble. Fathers these days—considered how they’re portrayed in popular culture from the Simpsons to Mad Men—aren’t honored enough. Men—because they don’t really think of themselves as fathers—are too often not acting honorably at all. The personal, Christian contribution—one based on the Biblical commandment—was to replace “paternal” with “parental” authority, equal authority and honor for both the man and the woman who assume loving responsibility for the care of their children. That fatherhood is not as “biological” as motherhood might be understood as an advantage for our time, when single men should come to see (be led to see) it’s good for them to assume loving shared responsibility in marriage for the children of all those single moms.