REFLECTIONS ON THE GOOD ENOUGH FATHER
Brad Sachs, Ph.D.
It has now been almost two decades since I first established The Father Center, when my wife became pregnant with our first child. Originally designed to address the unique concerns of expectant and new fathers, it has, over the years, grown to encompass the distinct and compelling needs of fathers at every stage of development and in a wide variety of family situations—from adoptive fathers to single fathers, from adolescent fathers to stay-at-home fathers, from step-fathers to incarcerated fathers, from fathers of teens to fathers of children with special-needs.
While much has changed in the past twenty years when it comes to how we understand and envision fatherhood, there are still some enduring struggles that remain for men who take fathering seriously, and some new challenges that have surfaced in response to what has changed. I will try to summarize these forces and trends with as much brevity and precision as possible in this article.
Perhaps the most obvious and important shift is that there is currently a substantially greater recognition of the important and essential role that fathers play when it comes to successful child-rearing. Recent research has documented the powerful and positive influence that fathers exert on innumerable aspects of child growth and development, including their offspring’s academic achievement, pro-social behavior, relational satisfaction, self-esteem, self-discipline, physical health, and moral judgment.
However, when I was in graduate school in the early 1980’s and preparing my dissertation , designed to examine and ascertain how expectant fathers’ relationships with their own fathers changed during their transition to parenthood, I was the envy of many of my fellow doctoral candidates, because my literature search was able to be completed so quickly—there was so little substantive research available that explored the salient role that fathers play in family life. What was also interesting was that the vocabulary that researchers used in their examinations of this topic revealed how marginal most fathers were considered to be.
The many studies designed to evaluate and predict the trajectories of children who grew up without mothers used the phrase “maternal deprivation” to describe this state. The few studies that were devoted to assessing children who grew up without fathers used the phrase “father absence” to describe this state. Children without mothers were seen as truly “deprived”, while children without fathers simply had something missing.
There has also been a notable increase in fathering behavior over the last couple of decades. It is now routine for men to handle a greater share of childcare and childrearing responsibilities, even during infancy and toddlerhood, to accompany their children to doctor’s appointments and on field trips, to coach teams, volunteer in classrooms, prepare meals and assist with homework. I remember being offended by being on the receiving end of comments like, “Oh, how nice, you’re baby-sitting” when I was trudging with my small children through the supermarket, as if the “real parent”, their mother, was temporarily unavailable. Now, such public occurrences are hardly uncommon or noteworthy.
Men are also seeking to establish a healthier balance between home-life and work-life. I have come across recent surveys of American men that concluded that 74% would rather have a “Daddy-track” job than a “Fast-track” job, that 48% have reduced their working hours at some point in their career to spend more time with their children, and that 23% of men have passed up promotions, increased responsibilities, or travel opportunities to be more available to their families.
With these changes in mind, I chuckle ruefully when I think back to an encounter from my first months of fatherhood. My wife and I had decided to split our days, such that she worked in the morning while I was home with our infant son, and then we reversed shifts for the afternoon. I used to walk my son each morning and always passed the same young mother, who was also pushing a stroller. We’d usually stop and chat for a few minutes, exchange notes on naps and feeding schedules, and then proceed.
At one point my son got sick, and I was unable to take him out for our morning constitutional for a week or so. When he was better, we resumed our walks, and, sure enough, I soon came upon my fellow new parent. “Oh, I didn’t think I was going to see you again,” were her unforgettable words, “I thought maybe you had found a job.” Now I had never said anything about my work schedule to her—it was simply her assumption that if I was this invested in providing emotionally for my son, I must have been failing when it came to providing financially.
One of the maladaptive societal frameworks that I have tried to bump up against is in my work with fathers and mothers is what I refer to as the Deficit-Based Model (DBM) for understanding paternal behavior. The DBM is rooted in many time-honored but erroneous assumptions about men’s parenting ambitions, desires and behaviors that conspire either to create a self-fulfilling prophecy effect—helping to maladaptively transform men into the deficient caregivers that they are supposed to be—or to make it that much more difficult for men to break out of the stereotypes that have been unfairly assigned to them.
The DBM promotes the conviction that:
- Men have no motivation or desire to adjust to socio-historical evolution, no wish to broaden their definition of what healthy manhood and masculinity entail
- Men are intransigent when it comes to adjusting their roles and responsibilities within the contemporary family
- Men are reluctant to relinquish the privilege and power that they have typically been provided with an inordinate share of
- Men are generally inclined towards sexual promiscuity and paternal avoidance and waywardness
- Men fear and eschew intimacy with women and children
- Men can be accurately characterized by assorted “un’s”—uncaring, uninvolved, uninterested, unskilled, uncommitted, unwise and unwilling
The DBM pointedly ignores the following realities:
- Fathers’ potential for growth, adaptation and maturation
- Fathers’ deepest motives, feelings, attitudes, hopes and dreams
- Fathers’ profound desire for personal transformation through the experience of parenthood
- Fathers’ unique definitions and expressions of competent, creative childcare
- Fathers’ willingness to work hard at being fathers
In my work with fathers of all ages and stages, whether individually, in groups, or with their co-parents, the process of examining, discussing, and ultimately contradicting and transcending the DBM is always a mobilizing experience, one that pays handsome dividends in the currency of more energetic and flexible parenthood.
So what must we, as clinicians, do to enhance the role that fatherhood plays in the lives of men, and the families that they care for? My belief, based on clinical and personal experience, as well as a careful examination of the current psychological research on fatherhood, is that it is social conventions, not biological imperatives, that underlie the traditional division of parental behaviors, emotions and responsibilities, and that, with the exception of lactation, there is no evidence that mothers are biologically predisposed to be more involved, competent, or nurturant parents than are fathers.
With this in mind, here are brief descriptions of some of the objectives that I try to address and achieve in my work with men and women at The Father Center:
- Building upon the male motivation to develop close relationships with their children, and reminding men that this is an inherent and important aspect of their identity
- Listening carefully to the unique stories, concerns, needs and strengths of fathers
- Distinguishing between fathers and mothers, and erasing the culture of maternalism that marginalizes men and relegates them to an auxiliary, peripheral role (To this effect, I attempt to differentiate between “Fathers” and “Men-that-Mother”, and ask fathers and mothers to question the assumption that “Mother Knows Best” , that “Mom’s the first-string parent, Dad’s the second-string parent”, that “Mom needs to educate Dad on how to be an effective parent” or that “Mom needs to monitor and evaluate Dad’s parenting behaviors”)
- Practicing active outreach to men and their families, such as through recruiting and training male childbirth educators
- Establishing better father-to-father bonds, both peer and inter-generational
- Honoring and exploring , rather than judging or dismissing, the fear, loss, grief, sorrow and ambivalence that inevitably accompany active fathering
- Identifying the comfort zones that tend to feel safe for fathers, such as around playing with and financially providing for their children, or maintaining emotional objectivity, while simultaneously urging them to expand from there into other, paternal “discomfort zones”, such as undertaking greater responsibilities for childcare and more intimate family communication patterns
- Focusing less on provoking men’s guilt and defensiveness to enact change and more on creating a sense of paternal vision, desire and accountability
- Recognizing and Appreciating the diversity and validity of family forms, cultures, religions and circumstances (dual earner, joint custody, incarcerated, adoptive, etc.)
- Removing workplace barriers so that men (and women) more easily integrate nurturing and breadwinning initiatives and responsibilities
- Consecrating fatherhood, and framing it more as a “summons” and a “calling” rather than as a role or a skill set
Finally, because men may approach fatherhood with the same drive, zeal, and intensity as they have been taught to successfully tackle other endeavors, I often find it necessary to bring some reality to bear, and to help them to understand that the close linkage between effort and payoff that they may have experienced in the world of, for example, athletics and work, is not necessarily going to translate well into the world of the family.
Even caring, committed and unmistakably loving parents are regularly stymied and thwarted by their children, and rendered, at various times, helpless, demoralized, bewildered, and enraged. It is impossible to raise children effectively while perpetually remaining calm, patient, and in control—parents who feel this way are either not involved enough with their offspring, or living in a psychological cocoon.
Working with men to conceptualize and define the idea of being a Good Enough Father, raising Good Enough Children, sometimes provides a blueprint for them as they navigate territory that is new, foreign, and psychologically unexplored.
Good Enough Fathers are enamored with their children not only in spite of, but because of, their flaws and imperfections. They understand that all of us, children and adults, are more likely to change for the better if we know we’ll be loved and accepted even if we stay the same.
Good Enough Fathers are strong but not overwhelming, loving but not seductive, supportive but not enabling or disabling, and caring while still encouraging autonomy. They are generously attentive, sponsoring and stimulating their children’s physical, emotional, spiritual and moral development, and ethically committing themselves to the mentorship and stewardship of the generations that follow.
Our understanding of fathers’ unique needs has evolved in many ways, but there remains much work to be done. Hopefully, the courageous changes that the current generation of fathers have already embarked upon will sow the seeds for an even greater appreciation for and investment in fathering among their sons and daughters, and help us all to more broadly define the dimensions of what healthy and loving paternity can encompass.