Parenting Roles: Is Father the New Mother?

Less than 10 percent of American families, with children under the age of 18, fit within the traditional family ideal.
Psychologist Louise B. Silverstein and sociologist David Popenoe come head to head over whether or not Fathers can “Mother.” There has been active debate about parenting roles and responsibilities for decades tackling all sorts of questions.

Such as: what does it mean to be a responsible parent? Is one sex naturally better at parenting than the other? Are there essential characteristics of fathering versus mothering? Is having parents of two sexes necessary for the well being of children? Should mothers work or engage in other activities outside the family? Should fathers move beyond the provider or breadwinner role and become more involved in the physical and emotional car of their children? Should fathers emulate mothers’ traditional nurturing activities” Or, should fathers uphold their role as masculine role models for their children?

In today’s society we have witnessed significant changes in the American family, including considerable change in the culture of fatherhood. Less than 10 percent of American families, with children under the age of 18, fit within the traditional family ideal, in which the father works and the mother cares for the children. More and more mothers are entering the workforce and this has forced fathers to spend more time with children, which in turn has heightened cultural interest in fatherhood. Many scholars, Silverstein among them, assert that good parenting is not sex-specific or sex-related. They cite nurturance as the cornerstone of good parenting, and claim that although nurturance has been traditionally associated with mothering, this connection is cultural, and that fathers can nurture just as effectively as mothers. Popenoe and others, however, argue that fathers are not mothers, and that they should and do play different roles in childrearing. They reject the idea of a gender-neutral model of parenting, arguing that mothers and fathers have specific roles that are complementary; both parents are essential to meet children’s needs. They maintain that fathers have unique abilities that are necessary for children’s successful development.

In support of the idea that fathering must be redefined as nurturing and draw fathers more actively into caring for their children, Silverstein, in “Fathering Is a Feminist Issue” asserts, “…redefining fathering as nurturing is central to freeing woman from the interlocking inequalities of their public and private roles…it is important to achieve a balanced view that neither overvalues the importance of fathers, nor defines them as peripheral to family life…” She cites research and studies that have been conducted by various individuals as proof that, “when fathers are thrust into the primary parenting role, they become capable of acquiring “mothering” skills.” Claiming that neither fathers nor mothers are “natural” caregivers, but rather, both parents learn “on the job.” Silverstein holds that “reinforcing men’s capacity to nurture would place intimacy and attachment at the center of masculine gender role socialization, in the same way that acknowledging and reinforcing women’s capacity to function in the public world of paid employment has begun to fin a place for instrumental thinking and active coping skills within the gender socialization of women.”

Popenoe, in his article “Parental Androgyny,” takes another view. He claims that the real “masculinity crisis” is not in the kind of father men are but that are just too few of them in general. Instead of focusing on re-creating the role of the father and trying tomake him more nurturing or “motherly,” there should be a focus on teaching fathers on how to be fathers—not mothers. He holds that, “unlike in the work place, family organization is based on very real, biological differences between men and women. Parental androgyny is not what children need. Neither is it a good basis for a stable, lasting marriage.” Pointing to various findings through multiple research activities and studies, Popenoe asserts that optimal child development is dependent on the biological differences that men and women have, and that not only is it not natural for a father to nurture; “fathers are unique and essential figures in their children’s lives (particularly for their sons).” He argues that men simply are not wired biologically to care for their children stating “motherhood is a biological necessity, while fatherhood is mainly a cultural invention.” However, he is quick to state that men can make a significant contribution to childrearing, especially with regard to their sons, and that the lack of a male presence poses a handicap for children.

After reading both articles I can see strong points presented by both sides, I can see were Silverstein is right in saying that men should take a more active role in the rearing of their children. However, at the same time I support Popenoe in his assessment that men simply are not wired biologically for care giving in the same way that women are. I also agree with Popenoe and Silverstein in recognizing the importance of a father figure in a child’s life.

The main thing in all of this as far as I’m concerned is that yes, men are capable of being nurturing, and yes, men/fathers can take on many of the roles that women/mothers have traditionally held. However, I feel that even if a man does assume the place of the mother in child rearing to the best of his ability, it will never be the same as if the child had a woman playing the role of a mother. There is a lot to be said about the biological differences and capabilities of the different sexes. I would hold with Popenoe in saying that each sex is fundamentally different and there are simply some things that men and women have different capabilities in, and one of those is child rearing. Both a father and mother are essential to the development of a child, and the role of a mother and the role of a father are fundamentally different, yet of equal importance in the life of the child.

Sources:

Silverstien, Louise. "Fathering is a Feminist Issue." Psychology of Women Quarterly (1996).

Popenoe, David. "Parental Androgeny." Society. (Spet-Oct 1993).

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Mark Cruz
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Posted on Mar 12, 2012