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Dads are dispensable: 5 myths about fathers and families

Dads are dispensable: 5 myths about fathers and families

by W. Bradford Wilcox | June 15, 2018

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With Father’s Day almost upon us, expect a host of media stories on men and family life. Some will do a good job of capturing the changes and continuities associated with fatherhood in contemporary America. But other reporters and writers will generalize from their own unrepresentative networks of friends and family members, try to baptize some father-related trend as good for kids that isn’t, or assume that our society is heading ceaselessly in a progressive direction. So be on the lookout this week for stories, op-eds, and essays that include the following five myths on contemporary fatherhood and family life.

1. The "Mr. Mom" Surge

Open a newspaper or turn on a TV in the week leading up to Father’s Day and you are bound to confront a story on stay-at-home dads. I have nothing against stay-at-home dads, but they still make up a small share of American fathers.

Dads now represent slightly more than 5% of all stay-at-home parents, which means the vast majority of stay-at-home parents are still moms, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. For instance, in 2017, 267,000 of America’s 21 million married fathers with children under 15 were at home caring for their children. By contrast, about 23 percent (4.96 million) of those families had a stay-at-home mom (as of 2017).

The focus on Mr. Mom obscures another important reality. In most American families headed by two parents today, fathers still take the lead when it comes to breadwinning, even though mothers play a larger role in breadwinning than they used to. Specifically, married fathers earn about two-thirds of the income in married families with children at home.

Providership is important to protect children from poverty, raise their odds of educational success, and increase the likelihood that they will succeed later in life. Thus, the very real material contribution that the average American dad makes to his family can be obscured by stories that focus on that still relatively exotic breed, the stay-at-home dad.

2. Women Want Everything 50-50

Another prevailing media myth is that contemporary women are looking for fathers who will split their time evenly between work and family life. It may be true for the average journalist or academic, but it is not true for the average American married mom.

Most married mothers nowadays do want their husbands to do their fair share of housework and childcare. But they do not define fairness in terms of a 50-50 balancing act where fathers and mothers do exactly the same thing at home and work. Instead, contemporary mothers generally take into account their husbands’ work outside the home when they assess the fairness of the division of labor inside the home.

Moreover, many women who are married with children are happy to have their husbands do a bit more of the breadwinning and do not wish to work full-time. For instance, a Pew Research Center study found that only 23% of married mothers with children under 18 wanted to work full-time; by contrast, 53% preferred part-time work and 23% preferred to be at home full-time. So, on this Father’s Day, dads who are fortunate enough to hold down a good job and make a major contribution to their families’ financial welfare should take some comfort from the fact that they are likely to be boosting not only their families’ bottom line but also their wives’ happiness.

3. Cohabiting Dads Are Just the Same as Married Dads

With the rise of cohabitation over the last 40 years, a large minority of American children will spend some time in a household headed by a cohabiting couple. Experts now estimate that more than 40% of American children will spend some time in a cohabiting household, either because they are born into such a household or because one of their parents cohabits after a breakup. Faced with this reality, many journalists, scholars, and advocates are tempted to minimize the differences between married and cohabiting fathers and families.

But the reality is that, on average, cohabiting fathers do not compare with married fathers. As Sandra Hofferth of the University of Maryland and Kermyt Anderson of the University of Oklahoma found in study from a few years ago, married fathers are significantly more involved and affectionate with their children than are cohabiting fathers. In fact, from their research, they conclude “that marriage per se confers the advantage in terms of father involvement above and beyond the characteristics of the fathers themselves.”

Married fathers are also much more likely than their cohabiting peers to stick around. The 2017 World Family Map found that children born to cohabiting couples are about twice as likely to experience a parental breakup by age 12 as children born to married parents. Another study by Wendy Manning at Bowling Green State and Pamela Smock at the University of Michigan found that 50% of children born to cohabiting parents saw their parents break up by age five; by comparison, only 15% of children born to married parents saw their parents’ divorce by age five. Dad is much more likely to stick around if he has a wedding ring on his finger.

This is because, for men, marriage and fatherhood are a “package deal,” as sociologists Frank Frustenberg and Andrew Cherlin observed a number of years ago. By force of law and custom, marriage binds men to their families and gives them a recognizable role to play in the lives of their children. Try as they might, unmarried men find it more difficult to be a consistent and positive force in the lives of their children.

4. The Kids Are Alright

Every couple of years, some journalist seeks to revive the myth of the so-called "good divorce"—often to excuse his or her own bad behavior. Sandra Tsing Loh did this awhile back in The Atlantic. There, she spent several thousand words trying to justify her divorce from her husband of 20 years—a man she admits is a “good man” and “loving father”—under the cover of a sprawling, incoherent, and frankly disturbing review of five books on marriage and family life. (Among other things, the reader was regaled with all too much information about Loh’s private life; we learn, for instance, that one reason she ended up divorced is that she could not replace the “romantic memory of my fellow [adulterous] transgressor with the more suitable image of my husband.”)

Loh claimed that her children appeared to be doing just fine. Her two school-age girls appeared to be “unfazed” and “relatively content” in the midst of their parents’ divorce. Who knew divorce could be so easy on the kids?

In reality, Loh was probably deluding herself. The best social science presents a rather different picture than the rosy one Loh sought to paint. According to research by Sara McLanahan of Princeton University and Paul Amato of Penn State, girls whose parents’ divorce are about twice as likely to drop out of high school, to become pregnant as teenagers, and to suffer from psychological problems such as depression and thoughts of suicide. New research indicates they are also less likely, as they move into adulthood, to attend and graduate from graduate school. Girls whose parents’ divorce are also much more likely to divorce later in life.

We are also increasing hearing the voices of adult children of divorce, who tell us that the loss of their parents’ marriages brings lifelong, though often hidden, suffering. Moreover, studies indicate that children experience the most harm when their parents’ divorce after living together in a low-conflict marriage for many years (as Loh appears to have done). Why? These divorces come as the most surprising ones to children who thought that their parents had a good-enough marriage.

Though Loh managed to find for her Atlantic piece a bunch of well-educated friends who are also entertaining thoughts of divorce, she is (fortunately) in increasingly rare company. The work of sociologist Steven Martin indicates that since 1980, college-educated Americans have grown less tolerant of divorce, and the divorce rate among this cohort has fallen off sharply. Thus, well-educated readers of The Atlantic are unlikely to take Loh’s misleading and self-serving essay to heart.

5. Dads Are Dispensable

The final myth propagated by some journalists in connection with fatherhood these days is the myth of the dispensable father. Often conjured up in glowing profiles of women who have become single mothers by choice, this myth holds that fathers do not play a central role in children’s lives.

This myth fails to take into account the now-vast social scientific literature showing that children typically do better in an intact, married families with their fathers than they do in families headed by single mothers.

It also overlooks the growing body of research indicating that fathers bring distinctive talents to the parenting enterprise. The work of psychologist Ross Parke, for instance, indicates that fathers are more likely than mothers to engage their children in vigorous physical play (e.g., roughhousing), to challenge their children—including their daughters—to embrace life’s challenges, and to be firm disciplinarians.

Not surprisingly, children benefit physically, mentally, and emotionally from being exposed to the distinctive paternal style. Sociologist David Eggebeen has shown, for instance, that teenagers are significantly less likely to suffer from depression and delinquency when they have involved and affectionate fathers, even after controlling for the quality of their relationship with their mother. In his words, “What these analyses clearly show is that mothers and fathers both make vital contributions to adolescent well-being.”

This is not to say that all journalists get it wrong when it comes to making sense of contemporary fatherhood and family life. For instance, Abigail Shrier had a recent piece at the Wall Street Journal arguing in favor of “dad-style” parenting. And a few years back in the Wall Street Journal, Sue Shellenberger had a great article discussing the ways in which mothers serve as gatekeepers for fathers to their children; she also encourages mothers to allow fathers to engage children with their own distinctive style of parenting. Likewise, Charlotte Hilton Anderson wrote a piece for Redbook last year that highlights how involved and affectionate fathers can play a crucial role in steering their daughters away from a host of unhealthy behaviors, ranging from eating disorders to early sexual activity. In fact, it turns out that dads are more important than moms in protecting their teenage daughters from early sex (for more on how dads positively impact their daughters into adulthood, read Linda Nielsen’s IFS article).

In the coming years, we will need more tough-minded and honest journalism like the kind offered by Shellenberger, Shrier, and Anderson. This is particularly true because of the cultural and economic storms of late have been eroding the marital foundations of family life in America—especially for poor and working-class families. Given the social scientific record on fatherhood, marriage, and family life, the United States could use more journalists who are willing to confront hard truths about the roles that fathers and marriage play in advancing the welfare of our nation’s most vulnerable citizens, our children, and the cultural, economic, and legal forces that are now undercutting marriage and fatherhood in America.

W. Bradford Wilcox is Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Alysse ElHage is the Editor of the Institute for Family Studies blog.

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