Reclaiming the best of fatherhood

A roundtable discussion with Mary Pipher, William Doherty, and Neil Chethik. Interview conducted by David Whitford.


What is a father's role today? It's not an easy question. Not after decades of feminist-inspired challenges to the traditional division of labor in the family. Not with the US Census Bureau reporting just the other day that for the first time since it began recording such information, both spouses work outside the home in the majority of married couples with children. And never again, perhaps, for Unitarian Universalists, as we seek to embrace the broadest possible definition of what constitutes a family.

In search of insights into fatherhood and how it has been changing over the last few generations, we assembled a panel of three UU parenting experts.

Mary Pipher, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Lincoln, Nebraska, is also the author of best-selling books on family relationships, including The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families.

William Doherty is professor of family social science and director of the marriage and family therapy program at the University of Minnesota. His books include Take Back Your Kids: Confident Parenting in Turbulent Times.

The first book by frequent UU World contributor Neil Chethik, FatherLoss: How Sons of All Ages Come to Terms with the Deaths of Their Dads, will be published this month.

Along with their professional expertise in parenting, the panelists are also parents themselves. We caught up with Pipher and Doherty last November in Minneapolis, where they were attending a professional conference. Chethik flew in from his home in Lexington, Kentucky, to join our roundtable. UU World writer David Whitford interviewed our panel during lunch, while an early winter snowstorm whirled around outside.

Alas, all three panelists refused to articulate a new paradigm for 21st century fatherhood (in fact, they all laughed when we asked them for one). So what emerged from their two hours of fascinating conversation, presented here in condensed form? At least this: a clear sense that a father's role is much broader than it used to be; that it's more rewarding, now that traditionally feminine nurturing is part of it, but also more confusing; and perhaps what's most intriguing, considering the source: that fathers today have much to learn from the fathers who raised them.

UU World: Bill, you've written that most fathers are operating at about one-third capacity. That sounds like a good place to begin our discussion.

Doherty: I'm always pleased when I still agree with something I've written. [Laughs.] We've inherited a minimal definition of what it means to be a good father, one that focuses on breadwinning. Now, I have no problem with breadwinning. It's just that I'd like to see a more expansive definition of fatherhood in our culture. You still hear of the father "helping" with children. Or "baby-sitting" children, being "mother's aide," her "backup," the "disciplinarian of last resort."

Fathers have traditionally parented in a triangle with the mother and the child, whereas mothers have traditionally seen their parenting as a one-to-one thing. Thus mothers develop autonomous skills: "This kid is fussy; I have to figure out what's going on." If the father is never alone with his children, then the buck doesn't stop with him. He tries the two things he knows to calm the baby down, and then he passes the baby to the mother. Both men and women who are raised in loving families have the capacity for intensive, caring, loving parenting. But we have not called men to those roles in the same way we have called women to them.

Chethik: I think there's confusion among men now. A lot of us were brought up in the 1950s by fathers who did have a fairly prescribed role. As we moved into the 1960s and 1970s, the feminist movement obliterated or at least challenged that role. I think many Unitarian Universalist men appreciated that, but then they were left wondering, "Is the old role still at all valid? Or are we supposed to do it some other way?" It's almost like we're straddling two generations. You can't quite get rid of those earliest feelings and memories and prescriptions. I know I feel it.

UU World: What do you think, Mary? Are men confused?

Pipher: Men are expected to have relationships with their children now, and that wasn't necessarily true when I was growing up. At the same time, they certainly have more complex requirements in their relationships with women. So I think men are busier. Meanwhile, I don't think they get very much training for these jobs. Also, it's harder to support a family now. It takes two people instead of one, or one person working very hard. Which means people have less time. That makes fathers' roles much harder, too.

Doherty: Actually, there's been a lot of ferment over the last hundred years about what makes a good father. At the turn of the last century, the stern, distant father was more the ideal. Then the word "dad" came into the language, in the early 20th century. It communicated the idea of father as more approachable, almost like a pal. Fathers weren't supposed to be stern, distant figures anymore. They were supposed to be kindly, and sex role models to their sons. I think the cultural ideal now is the father as a coequal nurturer.

UU World: Are fathers really as capable of good nurturing as mothers? Or are men, well, biologically handicapped?

Doherty: For me the real question is, Can men do a really fine job of nurturing children? The answer is yes. In fact, I would argue that many men now are better at nurturing than many mothers were in previous centuries.

Pipher: I totally agree. I have never claimed that women are superior nurturers. The one thing I would say is that women are expected to be nurturers, and they get a lot of training and encouragement. They aren't de-sexed by being nurturers.

Chethik: Some of it depends on your definition of nurturing. You can be nurturing in a way that doesn't primarily involve physical contact. I personally love the physical contact with my son. I crave it. But I also sense that just paying attention, just focusing on a child is a kind of nurturing. I hope we can expand the definition of nurturing to include whatever it takes to help a child feel valued.

Doherty: That's a crucial point. Because if we don't honor the ways that men nurture, then they will always be junior mothers. And that's not good for either mothers or fathers.

UU World: Even if we can agree that fathers, with training, can nurture just as well as mothers, is there still a distinct role for fathers to play? Or is there just a kind of universal parenting role that fathers and mothers can play equally?

Doherty: That's the question.

Chethik: I feel blessed to have come up into fatherhood at a time when the women's movement made it possible for me to have the relationship I have with my child. When I got into my 20s and suddenly realized I didn't have to be the one who makes all the money, I started to seek out women who I knew wanted careers and wanted to share the burden of child care with me. I think each set of parents can make their own rules in ways that take account of their strengths and weaknesses.

Pipher: You could have a model that's gender free. But who has time to negotiate that much? I mean, there's a certain comfort in having a few things clear.

The two critical things for me, when I think of fathers, are loving and responsible. My husband's father, Bernie—ever since I've known him, if you needed help from that guy, he would help you. There is just this deep, bedrock sense of that. And it is a tremendous gift. Now, there's no reason a woman can't fill that role. But at least for me there are shadings of difference in what women give their children versus men. And that business of saying, "I will really be there as an effective person to help you with your life," that feels like a father to me.

Doherty: What I'm struck with is how in our denomination we celebrate ethnic diversity, yet we're so threatened by the ethnicity we call gender. The diversity of gender has been problematic for us. There are shadings, there are textures or flavors, that are part of our heritage as men and women. Why not draw on this? If you ask children who have a mother and a father—and we all do, at least biologically—they will not say we're equivalent and equal. They will not say there is no difference in what they get.

Pipher: I think Unitarians are so concerned with not implying in any way that men or women are superior that we can end up saying there are no differences. Everybody knows there are differences.

Chethik: To me the question is, Do we start with the idea that men and women are different and then look for ways to cross over? Or do we start with the idea that we're the same, or similar, and look for our personal strengths and weaknesses and strivings, and each of us go in that direction?

Doherty: Well said. For me, it's very clear. We start with our common humanity, and this is where I think our Unitarian Universalist principles can help. But then we acknowledge difference as well.

UU World: One of the differences that we often hear about between a father's love and a mother's love is that a father's love is conditional and a mother's love is unconditional.

Doherty: Bullshit.

Pipher: How would you say that in the World? Think balderdash.

UU World: : OK. But does a child need both kinds of love?

Doherty: Yes. And gets both from both parents, if they're good parents.

UU World: But are there are some parenting roles that are mutually exclusive?

Doherty: No, no, no. I believe every good parent must unconditionally be committed and loving. Like "there is nothing this kid could ever do that would make me exit this child's life. Period. Even if you take an ax to me, we'll figure out what in the world went on," you know? Now there are many times when I have to say, "You've got to change what you're doing; I don't accept this behavior." But the commitment—the loving commitment—is always there.

Pipher: Right. I learned a long time ago that healthy families are families in which nobody gets locked into any one role over time. In my family I'm the butt of most of the jokes because I'm the person with the least developed sense of humor. But every now and then I'll get off a joke, and it's good that I do. Nobody should have to be the heavy all the time. Nobody should always get to be the loving, sweet parent, either. If the father's role is to always be the enforcer, it's not much fun to be a dad.

Chethik: That's one of the areas my wife and I negotiate. I'll say, "I feel like I'm the one who keeps having to draw the line here, and you're the one who keeps making excuses for him. I end up looking like the bad guy." When she comes home from work, the last thing she wants to do with those few hours a night she might have with all of us is to be a heavy. She wants to be with her son in a warm and nurturing and loving way.

Pipher: That's why there are a lot of very spoiled children in America now. Because both parents come home exhausted, and they want to just have fun with their kids. Nobody has the energy to be the heavy.

Doherty: A lot of mothers complain now that the father is the one who's saying, "Oh, let's not make a fuss." He wants to be a nice guy. So that the mother is the active nurturer and the disciplinarian as well, and he becomes a kindly spectator. This is really a big issue with nonresident fathers because often what they want is just a sweet time with their kids. That's not parenting. Parenting is the whole thing.

UU World: What about those fathers who for whatever reason are absent? With expectations for fathers much higher now than two or three generations ago, can they still give children what they need?

Doherty: From the child's point of view, we live in the best and worst of times. When you have a psychologically minded father of this new generation who is living with the child, married to the mother, in a good relationship, he is apt to be the best father in human history. But if that relationship has dissolved or it never worked and he's not in the house, that child now has a kind of father-hunger that is much greater than my generation would have had. We're talking about deep father-hunger at that point.

Pipher: Bill, you're absolutely right to bring that up. It's your job as a father to be there forever for your children.

UU World: : But what does that message convey to single-parent families?

Doherty: We've gotten to the trickiest part of the discussion. Ten years ago, I had a client who happened to be heterosexual but had very distant relationships with men. She had always wanted to be a mother, and so she got artificially inseminated and had a son. I didn't give myself permission to make any value judgments about that. I believed in women's autonomy. But looking back, I now give myself permission to have ethical qualms. This was a child who had no reasonable chance to have what I think children need (and the genders of the parents are secondary in what I'm going to say): two people I'll call parents—biological, adoptive, or whatever—who are irrevocably committed to that child's welfare for life, and to each other. That to me is unquestionably the optimal environment into which to bring a child into the world.

Now, there are all kinds of other environments, and we have to support wherever children are growing up and whatever families are. But I'm now willing to assert in a way that I was not before that I think the ethical burden is on someone who would intentionally bring a child into the world without that situation present.

UU World: So part of being a good father is loving your wife?

Doherty: Yes, loving the child's mother. Or if it is a gay family, loving your mate. Children see each parent in part through the eyes of the other parent. They see my wife through my loving eyes and vice versa. I'm now at a point in my career where I want to hold that up as an ideal. In our religious movement and in my profession, holding that ideal is seen as oppressive to people who don't have loving relationships with their mates. I'm saying that's too bad, even if it makes people squeamish. It makes me squeamish.

Pipher: You do risk offending single parents. And there are single mothers who are wonderful mothers whose children obviously turned out great. But you can still say the ideal is two parents.

Doherty: Right. To me the gender isn't the thing or even whether they are formally married. I think there are probably some advantages in marriage—that's why as Unitarian Universalists we're for gay and lesbian marriage, because then the community supports it—but I think the fault line in our denomination is between the individual autonomy of adults and the needs and welfare of children. I think what we've done in our denomination to liberate adults to make a wide range of lifestyle decisions is in many ways a very good thing. But children are not as flexible in terms of their needs as we might want to think they are.

UU World: Now, this is interesting. If there are elements of the traditional marriage ideal that we can tweak a little but still hold on to, even celebrate, are there elements of traditional fatherhood that we would like to recover as well?

Doherty: We need to retrieve and honor certain aspects of traditional fathering, just as we should retrieve and honor aspects of traditional mothering. This is why I'm against androgynous parenting, because what it will be is traditional mothering. There are so many men who are now being told that breadwinning, for example, is not part of nurturing and loving their children, and it is. Let's honor it.

Chethik: In the survey we did for my book, we asked men at different ages about their relationship with their fathers. And over their lifespan, fathers and sons become closer. They have better relationships. And I think that's because we do honor breadwinning eventually.

Doherty: When we understand it.

Chethik: But we don't honor it early. I went to my father in my mid-20s and said, "I've been doing some therapy, and I've been in a men's group, and I'm getting in touch with this anger that I have about your not being there at this early stage of my life." I expected him to be defensive. He wasn't. He explained to me that he had three children before the age of 25, that he was getting a graduate degree, that he was in the early stages of a relationship that he had started when he was 20. That's work. [Laughs.] And he was becoming a psychoanalyst, so he was on the couch for a couple of days per week. My first reaction was, "I don't want to hear this. I don't want to know about you. I want you tell me why you weren't there for me." But over the weeks and months that followed, I gradually let in what he said.

UU World: I'm curious if there are things girls need from their fathers that differ from what boys need.

Pipher: I don't think gender is the most important issue in terms of how you behave with kids. I think it's a matter of you, who you are, and then it's a matter of what kind of kid you get.

But one of the best things daughters can get from their fathers is seeing how much their fathers respect women. Women are so much of the time in our culture presented as sex objects, as fluffy creatures. And so one of the places that girls can learn something different is by seeing how their father reacts to women.

In all the years I've known my husband, Jim, I have never heard him say a woman is ugly. He has never said a woman is fat. He has never begun a conversation about a woman by saying something about her appearance. He would always key into other things, and consequently I think our daughter learned what the ideal could be in terms of how men value and respect women. That's a really important gift that fathers can give their daughters.

Chethik: And of course, what you're describing is exactly what a son needs, too.

Pipher: Exactly.

Doherty: I still remember a key moment when my son—he was a teenager then, and bigger and stronger than his mother—said something to her like, "Don't mess with me, woman!" and I was all over him! I was the alpha gorilla. I didn't touch him, I've never been violent, but I was this far from his face, saying, "You will never talk to your mother that way. Ever!" His eyes got real big. And that was it. It was all over. It was one time. And it was good to have me around at that moment.

Pipher: This is a really odd discussion for us UUs to get into, but I do think there is a point when you need a physically strong person in the household. A friend of ours has a son who turned out great, but he had this period in his early teens when he had way too many hormones and didn't know what to do with himself. He just periodically went nuts, throwing stuff and screaming and so on. And the parents figured out the one thing to do with him at that point was to have his dad sit on him until he got himself back under control. And after it was over, he'd give him a hug and a kiss, and the boy would be fine. But the mom couldn't have done that. She just wasn't physically strong enough.

Doherty: The other thing I wanted to add, just to wrap up, is the flip side of the coin. When mothers get an active, involved father in their lives, they can be ambivalent about it. I'm involved in a study now about first-time parents, and some of the fathers are in love with their babies. I mean, they are gaga over their babies. And you know, some of the mothers who are working are bothered by that.

Pipher: You make an excellent point. If fathers are equally involved in all aspects of parenting, that means a lot of power-sharing, and some mothers aren't used to that. A lot of women feel like "I, being a woman, will do a better job."

Chethik: This happened to me. I wanted to bottle-feed my son at an early age so I could have that bonding experience. At first my wife said, "Are you trying to get into my turf?" I can't deny that I wanted to get into her turf, but mostly what I wanted was that bond with my son. I didn't want him to think it was only his mother who could feed him. And she agreed. So he breast-fed for a year and a half, but I also fed him almost from his earliest days. I still remember the connection, and it's neat. And I know my wife would say it turned out to be a win-win because both of us were similarly or equally involved.

Pipher: It is a win-win. I think my last point—and maybe this would be a good place to end—is that having been lucky enough to have been married to a really involved dad, I know it's a wonderful thing for the kids. And it's wonderful for me, too. One of my real joys as an adult, for example, is watching Jim's relationship with our daughter, because it's very different from my relationship with her. They talk about different things. They have a very different emotional tone to their relationship. And yet, to me, as an outsider, I'm so glad my daughter has that in her life, and it gives me so much pleasure. And it makes me and my husband closer to each other—that we have such a complex and rich relationship with the same human being who is not us.

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