Research - Fatherhood - Deconstructing fathers
Neoconservative social scientists have claimed that fathers
are essential to positive child development, and that responsible
fathering is most likely to occur within the context of heterosexual
marriage. This perspective is generating a range of governmental
initiatives designed to provide social support preferences
to fathers over mothers; and to heterosexual married couples,
rather than to alternative family forms.
The current article proposes that the neoconservative position
is an incorrect or oversimplified interpretation of empirical
research. Using a wide range of cross-species, cross-cultural,
and social science research, the authors argue that neither
mothers nor fathers are essential to child development, and
that responsible fathering can occur within a variety of family
structures. The article concludes with alternative recommendations
for encouraging responsible fathering that do not discriminate
against mothers and diverse family forms.
In the past two decades there has been an explosion of research
on fathers (see Booth & Crouter, 1998; Lamb, 1997; and
Phares, 1996 for recent reviews). There is now a broad consensus
that fathers are important contributors to both normal and
abnormal child outcomes. Infants and toddlers can be as attached
to fathers as they are to mothers. In addition, even when
fathers are not physically present, they may play an important
role in their children's psychological lives. Other important
issues about fathers and families remain controversial. For
example, scholars continue to debate the extent to which paternal
involvement has increased over the past 20 years (Pleck, 1997).
Similarly, we are only beginning to study the ways that fathering
identities vary across subcultures (Auerbach, Silverstein,
& Zizi, 1997; Bowman & Forman, 1998; Roopnarine, Snell-White,
& Riegraf, 1993). Nor do we understand clearly the effects
of divorce on fathers and their children (Hetherington, Bridges,
& Insabella, 1998).
Overall, this explosion of research on fathering has increased
the complexity of scholarly thinking about parenting and child
development. However, one group of social scientists (e. g.
Biller & Kimpton, 1997; Blankenhorn, 1995; Popenoe, 1996)
has emerged that is offering a more simplistic view of the
role of fathers in families. These neoconservative social
scientists have replaced the earlier "essentializing"
of mothers (Bowlby, 1951) with a claim about the essential
importance of fathers. These authors have proposed that the
roots of a wide range of social problems (i. e. child poverty,
urban decay, societal violence, teenage pregnancy, and poor
school performance) can be traced to the absence of fathers
in the lives of their children. Biller & Kimpton (1997,
p. 147) have even used the term "paternal deprivation"
in a manner parallel to Bowlby's concept of maternal deprivation.
In our view, the essentialist framework represents a dramatic
oversimplification of the complex relations between father
presence and social problems.
We characterize this perspective as "essentialist"
because it assumes that the biologically different reproductive
functions of men and women automatically construct essential
differences in parenting behaviors. The essentialist perspective
defines mothering and fathering as distinct social roles that
are not interchangeable. Marriage is seen as the social institution
within which responsible fathering and positive child adjustment
are most likely to occur. Fathers are understood as having
a unique and essential role to play in child development,
especially for boys who need a male role model in order to
establish a masculine gender identity (See Table 1 for a definition
of the essentialist perspective).
1. Biological Sex Differences Construct Gender Differences
The biological experiences of pregnancy and lactation generate
a strong, instinctual drive in women to nurture. In the absence
of these experiences, men do not have an instinctual drive
to nurture infants and children.
2. The Civilizing Effects of Marriage.
1. Because a man's contribution to reproduction is limited
to the moment of conception, active and consistent parenting
on the part of men is universally difficult to achieve.
2. The best way to insure that men will consistently provide
for and nurture young children is to provide a social structure
in which men can be assured of the paternity, i.e. the traditional
nuclear family. Without the social institution of marriage,
men are likely to impregnate as many women as possible, without
behaving responsibly to their offspring.
3. The importance of a male role model.
If men can be induced to caretake young children, their unique,
masculine contribution significantly improves developmental
outcomes for children. This is especially true for boys who
need a male role model in order to achieve a psychologically
healthy masculine gender identity.
Our research experience has led us to conceptualize fathering
in a way that is very different from the neoconservative perspective.
Over the past six years, we have studied the fathering identities
of men who are actively involved with their children (Auerbach
et al., 1997; Auerbach & Silverstein, 1997; Silverstein,
1996; Silverstein & Phares, 1996; Silverstein & Quartironi,
1996; Silverstein, Auerbach, Grieco, Dunkel, in press). To
date, approximately 200 men from 10 different subcultures
within U. S. society have participated in this qualitative
research. Our research participants include: Haitian Christian
fathers; Promise Keeper fathers; gay fathers; Latino fathers;
White, non-gay divorced, fathers; Modern Orthodox Jewish fathers;
In contrast to the neoconservative perspective, our data on
gay fathering couples have convinced us that neither a mother
nor a father is essential. Similarly, our research with divorced,
never-married, and remarried fathers has taught us that a
wide variety of family structures can support positive child
outcomes. We have concluded that children need at least one
responsible, caretaking adult who has a positive emotional
connection to them, and with whom they have a consistent relationship.
Because of the emotional and practical stress involved in
childrearing, a family structure that includes more than one
such adult is more likely to contribute to positive child
outcomes. Neither the sex of the adult(s), nor the biological
relationship to the child has emerged as a significant variable
in predicting positive development. One, none, or both of
those adults could be a father [or mother]. We have found
that the stability of the emotional connection and the predictability
of the caretaking relationship are the significant variables
that predict positive child adjustment.
We agree with the neoconservative perspective that it is preferable
for responsible fathers [and mothers] to be actively involved
with their children. We share the concern that many men in
U. S. society do not have a feeling of emotional connection
or a sense of responsibility toward their children. However,
we do not believe that the data support the conclusion that
fathers are essential to child well-being, and that heterosexual
marriage is the only social context in which responsible fathering
is most likely to occur.
Many social scientists believe that it is possible to draw
a sharp distinction between scientific fact and political
values. From our perspective, science is always structured
by values, both in the research questions that are generated,
and in the interpretation of data. For example, if one considers
the heterosexual nuclear family to be the optimal family structure
for child development, then one is likely to design research
that looks for negative consequences associated with growing
up in a gay or lesbian parented family. If, in contrast, one
assumes that gay and lesbian parents can create a positive
family context, then one is likely to initiate research that
investigates the strengths of children raised in these families.
The essentialist theoretical framework has already generated
a series of social policy initiatives. For example, a 1998
Congressional seminar that recommended a series of revisions
to the tax code that would: reward couples who marry; and
end taxes altogether for married couples with three or more
children (Wetzstein, 1998). Other federal legislation has
emerged with a similar emphasis on the advantages of marriage.
The1996 welfare reform law begins by stating, "Marriage
is the foundation of a successful society" (Welfare Reform
Act, 1996, p.110). Similarly, a housing project in Hartford,
Connecticut now provides economic supports to married couples,
and special opportunities for job training to men (but not
to women) who live with their families (LaRossa, 1997). In
1997, Louisiana passed a Covenant Marriage Act (1997) that
declared marriage a lifelong relationship, and stipulated
more stringent requirements for separation and divorce.
The social policy emerging out of the neoconservative framework
is of grave concern to us because it discriminates against
cohabiting couples, single mothers, and gay and lesbian parents.
The purpose of the current article is to present a body of
empirical data that illustrates the inaccuracy of the neoconservative
argument. Throughout our discussion, we focus on the work
of Blankenhorn (1995) and Popenoe (1996) because they have
been most influential in structuring both public debate and
social policy (Haygood, 1997; Samuelson, 1996).
Specific aspects of the neoconservative paradigm have been
critiqued elsewhere. For example, McLoyd (1998) has pointed
out that families without fathers are likely to be poor; and
it is the negative effects of poverty, rather than the absence
of a father, that lead to negative developmental outcomes.
Similarly, Hetherington, et al. (1998) have made the point
that divorce does not always have negative consequences for
children. However, the neoconservative argument as a whole
has not been deconstructed. Thus, it tends to be absorbed
in a monolithic fashion, buttressed by unconscious gender
ideology and traditional cultural values. Therefore, we think
that a systematic counterargument is necessary. We will cite
research indicating that parenting roles are interchangeable;
that neither mothers nor fathers are unique or essential;
and that the significant variables in predicting father involvement
are economic, rather than marital. We will also offer an alternative
framework for encouraging responsible fathering.
We acknowledge that our reading of the scientific literature
supports our political agenda. Our goal is to generate public
policy initiatives that support men in their fathering role,
without discriminating against women and same-sex couples.
We are also interested in encouraging public policy that supports
the legitimacy of diverse family structures, rather than policy
that privileges the two-parent, heterosexual, married family.
We also realize that some of the research we cite to support
our perspective will turn out to be incorrect. Haraway (1989)
pointed out that, as research paradigms evolve to reflect
diverse gender, ethnic, class, and cultural perspectives,
much of the established body of "scientific fact"
has turned out to be science fiction. Fishhoff (1990) identified
two options for psychologists in the public arena: helping
the public define their best interests, or manipulating the
public to serve the interests of policymakers. Thus, despite
the fact that new data will inevitably prove some aspects
of our argument wrong, we hope that by stimulating scholarly
debate, we will contribute to the process by which the public
more accurately defines its best interests.
We begin by presenting cross-species and cross-cultural data
that contradict the claim that parenting behaviors are constructed
by biological differences. We will argue that parenting involves
a series of caregiving functions that have developed as adaptive
strategies to specific bioecological contexts. These caregiving
functions can be performed by parenting figures of either
sex, whether or not they are biologically related to the child.
We then review the research on marriage and divorce. This
body of data suggests that the poor psychological adjustment
observed in some children in divorcing families is caused
by the disruption of the child's entire life circumstances,
rather than simply the dissolution of the marriage or the
absence of a father. We present data illustrating that emotionally
connected, actively nurturing, and responsible fathering can
occur within a variety of family structures.
Finally, we examine why the neoconservative perspective has
been so widely accepted within popular culture. We speculate
that the appeal of neoconservative ideology is related to
two social trends: a genuine concern about children; and a
backlash against the gay rights and feminist movements. We
then offer social policy recommendations that support men
in their fathering role, without discriminating against women
and same-sex couples.
The Essentialist Position
Biological Sex Differences Construct Gender Differences in
One of the cornerstones of the essentialist position is that
biological differences in reproduction construct gender differences
in parenting behaviors. This theoretical framework proposes
that the biological experiences of pregnancy and lactation
generate a strong, instinctual drive in women to nurture.
This perspective assumes that men do not have an instinctual
drive to nurture infants and children.
The neoconservative perspective relies heavily on evolutionary
psychology to support this argument. Evolutionary psychologists
cite Trivers' (1972) sexual conflict of interest hypothesis
to explain sex differences in mating strategies. Trivers'
hypothesis states that, all other things being equal, male
mammals will maximize their evolutionary fitness by impregnating
as many females as possible, while investing very little in
the rearing of any individual offspring. Female mammals, in
contrast, invest a great deal of physiological energy in pregnancy
and lactation, and thus are motivated to invest a corresponding
amount of time and energy in parenting.
Trivers' hypothesis accurately predicts behavior in many mammalian
species. However, Smuts & Gubernick (1992) have shown
this hypothesis to be inaccurate in predicting male involvement
with infants among nonhuman primates. Unfortunately, Smuts'
and Gubernick's critique of the relevance of Trivers' hypothesis
for primate behavior has not been integrated into evolutionary
Evolutionary psychology has recently gained prominence within
psychology and other social sciences (e. g. Archer, 1996;
Buss, 1995). Because the formal academic training of most
social scientists does not include cross-species research
and evolutionary theory, many social scientists have accepted
the evolutionary psychologists' use of the Trivers hypothesis
in relation to primate behavior. However, many scholars within
the natural science community have been critical of evolutionary
psychology (see for example the 20 plus negative commentaries
on Thornhill & Thornhill, 1992; or Gould's, 1997 critique
of evolutionary psychology).
Blankenhorn (1995) and Popenoe (1996), like many social scientists,
have incorrectly assumed that Trivers' theory is true of all
primates, and universally applicable across many different
ecological contexts. However, all other things have generally
not been equal over the course of evolutionary history. As
bioecological contexts change, so do fathering behaviors,
especially among primate males.
Marmosets are an extreme example of primates who live in a
bioecological context that requires males to become primary
caretakers (Smuts & Gubernick, 1992). Because marmosets
always have twins, female marmosets must nurse two infants
simultaneously. This generates nutritional pressure for the
mother to spend all of her time and energy feeding herself.
Therefore the father most commonly performs all parenting
behaviors. Thus, these animals do not conform to Trivers'
hypothesis about the universality of non-nurturing primate
males. Marmoset males behave like "full-time mothers."
Marmosets illustrate how, within a particular bioecological
context, optimal child outcomes can be achieved with fathers
as primary caretakers and limited parenting involvement by
mothers. Human examples of this proposition include: single
fathers (Greif & DeMaris, 1990); a two-parent family in
which the father is the primary caretaker (Pruett, 1989);
or gay father-headed families (Patterson & Chan, 1997).
Another cornerstone of the essentialist position is that the
traditional division of labor characteristic of Western, industrialized
societies has been true throughout human evolutionary history.
Popenoe (1996. P. 167) stated that our hominid ancestors "had
a strong division of labor in which males did most of the
hunting and females did most of the gathering." Zihlman
(1997), in contrast, has pointed out that for most of our
evolutionary history, human societies were nomadic. This bioecological
context required both men and women to travel long distances,
hunt, gather food, and care for older children and other members
of their community. Similarly, in contemporary foraging and
horticultural societies, women perform the same range of tasks
as men do, and add infant care to their other responsibilities.
Cross-cultural research illustrates that women are capable
of traveling long distances, carrying heavy loads, and participating
in hunting. Thus, the assertion that a rigid sexual division
of labor existed over most of our evolutionary history is
not supported, either by what is known about human society
in prehistory, or by contemporary preagricultural cultures.
The neoconservative perspective has also assumed that providing
has been a universal male role. Yet Nsamenang (1992) pointed
out that in many West African rural cultures, tradition places
the sole responsibility for providing food on mothers. Similarly,
in hunting-gathering cultures, women typically provide 60%
of a family's nutritional requirements (Zihlman, 1997). Thus,
in most preindustrial cultures fathers have never been sole
providers, and in some cultures they do not participate at
all in the provider role.
The neoconservative perspective has also claimed that mothers
are more "natural" caregivers than fathers. Yet,
more than a decade ago, Lamb (1987) reported that research
on mothers and fathers during the newborn period yielded no
differences in parenting behaviors. Neither mothers nor fathers
were "natural" parents. Because mothers tended to
spend so much more time with their infants, they became much
more familiar with their biological rhythms, visual and behavioral
cues, etc. Therefore, when observations were repeated after
a year, mothers appeared as much more competent caregivers
than fathers. Many subsequent studies have shown that when
fathers assume the primary caretaking role, they are as competent
and as "sensitive" as mothers (Lamb, 1997).
In summary, the neoconservative position is simply wrong about
the biological basis of observed differences in parenting
behaviors. Cross-species and cross-cultural data indicate
that fathering can vary from a high level of involvement,
to a total lack of involvement. Given these wide variations
in paternal behaviors, it is more accurate to conclude that:
both men and women have the same biological potential for
nurturing; and that the sexual division of labor in any culture
is defined by the requirements of that culture's specific
The neoconservative perspective has argued that, without a
biological basis for nurturing in men, the best way to insure
that men will behave responsibly toward their offspring is
to provide a social structure in which men can be assured
of paternity, i. e. the traditional nuclear family.
This point of view is based on a corollary of Trivers' (1972)
sexual conflict of interest hypothesis, the paternity hypothesis.
Trivers reasoned that without paternity certainty, males would
not risk investing time and energy in another male's offspring,
thereby decreasing their own evolutionary fitness. However,
Smuts and Gubernick (1992) have demonstrated that Trivers'
paternity hypothesis is not generally predictive of fathering
behavior among nonhuman primates. If paternity certainty were
the most significant variable, then males should show greater
paternal involvement in species where several females live
with only one breeding male. In species where several males
and several females live together (and therefore multiple
mating opportunities make paternity uncertain), males should
have lower paternal involvement.
The paternity hypothesis does correctly predict male care
of infants in most monogamous species. In most monogamous
mating pairs, male care is high. However, the paternity hypothesis
does not accurately predict male care in other primate social
groupings. With the exception of mountain gorillas, males
in one-male groups (where paternity is certain) show less
paternal involvement than males in multimale groups (where
paternity is uncertain).
Smuts and Gubernick found that the amount of time and energy
males invest in nurturing and protecting infants varies depending
on the mutual benefits which males and females have to offer
each other within a particular bioecological context. These
authors offered an alternative hypothesis, the "reciprocity
hypothesis," to account for variations in male care of
infants. The reciprocity hypothesis predicts that male care
of infants will be low when either males or females have few
benefits to exchange. The probability of high male care of
infants increases when females have substantial benefits to
offer males (e. g. when females can offer to mate more frequently
with specific males; or provide males with political alliances
that enhance their status within the male dominance hierarchy).
Smuts and Gubernick found that male care of infants is lower
in one-male groups because this system of reciprocal benefits
does not exist. Each female has no alternative except to mate
with the single male, whether or not he cares for her infants.
Because she has no other mating possibilities, she cannot
offer preferential mating opportunities in exchange for infant
care. Similarly, in a one-male group, the breeding male does
not have to compete for a place within a male dominance hierarchy.
He is the only male in the group. Therefore, females cannot
offer political assistance to enhance his dominance ranking.
Because females lack benefits to offer males in exchange for
infant care, male involvement, in contrast to what would be
predicted by the paternity hypothesis, is low in one-male
Overall, a very large body of animal research points to the
importance of an array of variables, which we refer to as
bioecological context, in determining parenting behaviors.
Low levels of infant care do not characterize all primate
males. Nor is biological paternity the most significant variable
in increasing the probability of high male involvement. Other
feminist anthropologists and sociobiologists have similarly
deconstructed Trivers' theory (e. g. Gowaty, 1997; Hardy,
In contrast to Trivers' emphasis on universal sex differences
and the relative fixity of behaviors, these feminist researchers
have pointed to the overlap of behaviors between the sexes,
and the relative flexibility of complex human behaviors. Unfortunately,
this feminist scholarship has not been integrated into most
social science literature.
Smuts and Gubernick have made a strong case for the power
of the reciprocity hypothesis to predict male involvement
among nonhuman primates. However, does their hypothesis predict
human primate behavior? We will argue that the reciprocity
hypothesis does predict male involvement among human primates.
In cultures where women have significant resources to offer
men in exchange for childcare, paternal involvement should
be higher than in cultures where women have fewer resources.
In line with this prediction, paternal involvement in the
U. S., Sweden, and Australia is higher than in more traditional
cultures, such as Italy and Spain, where women's workforce
participation is less widespread (Blossfeld, 1995). Similarly,
Haas (1993) reported that a survey of more than 300 Swedish
families indicated that fathers participated more in child
care if their partner made as much or more money than they
Erikson and Gecas (1991) have provided examples of how paternal
involvement varies based on the benefits men have to exchange.
These authors pointed out that the least amount of father
involvement in U. S. society has been observed in two groups
of fathers: poor, unmarried teenage fathers; and upper-class
fathers in traditional nuclear families. Teen dads in U. S.
society are often undereducated and underemployed. Therefore,
they cannot make a meaningful contribution to the economic
security of their children. Poor teen fathers do not have
meaningful benefits to offer their child's mother. As the
reciprocity hypothesis would predict, these fathers are often
minimally involved in the lives of their children.
In upper-class families, in contrast, it is most often the
wives who have few benefits to exchange. The family's high
income is the result of the husband's earning capacity. The
wife's additional economic contribution is rarely meaningful
to the family's economic security. Most of the wives do not
participate in paid employment. Thus, the upper class wives
have few benefits to offer in exchange for direct paternal
involvement. Within this context, the fathers in these families
use their income to pay for other-than-mother childcare, but
do little active caregiving themselves. The fathers with the
highest level of active childcare involvement are in dual-shift,
working-class families. Pleck (1993) has estimated that fathers
in this family context are responsible for, on average, 30%
of childcare. Working class, dual shift families are the context
in which mothers and fathers are most evenly matched in terms
of the resources they have to exchange. Both parents' incomes
are significant to family stability. Because they work opposite
shifts, involvement in childcare by the at-home parent is
necessary for child well-being. From the perspective of the
reciprocity hypothesis, the parity of resources between husband
and wife within this family structure generated the high level
of paternal involvement.
Stier and Tienda (1993) have provided other data that support
the link between father involvement and economic benefits.
Using interviews from more than 800 resident and non-resident
fathers living in poor neighborhoods in Chicago, these authors
examined the relations between paternal support and several
background variables. The researchers found that the only
significant predictors of which fathers would pay child support
were those that reflected the father's economic status. Fathers
who were currently employed were three times more likely to
support their nonresident children compared to fathers who
were not working.
In summary, these data on human parenting behaviors conform
to the predictions of the reciprocity hypothesis. In social
contexts where either the father or mother has few benefits
to exchange, paternal involvement is low. When both fathers
and mothers have benefits that contribute to family wellbeing,
paternal involvement is relatively high.
Thus, improving employment opportunities for women, as well
as men, is crucial to increasing father involvement. These
findings suggest that in our current cultural context, it
is economics, not marriage, that "matters."
The essentialist position has also proposed that marriage
has a "civilizing'" effect on men. Popenoe, reflecting
this point of view, has stated that "...all successful
societies have imposed social sanctions on men...the most
important of these is the institution of marriage" (p.
164). Similarly, Blankenhorn (1995, p.223) declared that "marriage
constitutes an irreplaceable life support system for effective
Blankenhorn further asserted that marriage protects women
and children from domestic violence (1995, p. 34). He reported
that, as the percentage of men living within the confines
of marriage has declined over the past two decades, domestic
violence has increased. However, a recent report on intimate
violence published by the U. S. Department of Justice (1998)
indicated that, as marriage has declined over the past two
decades, so has intimate violence. This report stated that
murders of women by their intimate partners decreased 40%,
from 3,000 in 1976, to 1800 in 1996. Similarly, non-lethal
violence (sexual assault, robbery, aggravated and simple assault),
declined from 1.1 million reported incidents in 1993, to 840,000
in 1996 (U. S. Department of Justice, 1998).
Blankenhorn and Popenoe have also argued for the protective
effect of biological fatherhood within the context of marriage.
Citing a study by Daly & Wilson (1985), Blankenhorn claimed
that children are more frequently abused by stepfathers than
by biological fathers. However, Sternberg (1997) pointed out
that Daly and Wilson specified only that the more frequently
abused children lived in households with stepfathers. They
could not specify whether the perpetrator of the abuse was
the stepfather, the biological mother, or another adult in
the household. Malkin and Lamb (1994), in an attempt to correct
for this design flaw, included information about the perpetrator's
gender and relationship to the child. They found that biological
caretakers, in both stepfamilies and biological families,
were more likely to engage in serious physical abuse than
stepparents. Nonbiological caretakers, in contrast, committed
These findings are confirmed by the Third National Incidence
Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (Sedlak & Broadhurst,
1996). This study reported that the majority (78%) of children
who suffered maltreatment, both neglect and abuse, were maltreated
by a birth parent. Parent substitutes (foster, adoptive, step)
were responsible for the abuse in only 14% of reported cases.
In terms of sexual abuse, 46% of children were sexually abused
by a stranger. Birth parents were about as likely to be sexually
abusive (29%) as were parent-substitutes (25%). These statistics
do not support the neoconservative contention that stepfathers
or mother's boyfriends abuse children more frequently than
biological fathers (and mothers).
In a comprehensive article reviewing the nature, causes, and
consequences of abuse, Emery and Laumann-Billings (1998) have
identified multiple variables that lead to abuse. These include:
personality of the perpetrator, such as low self-esteem or
poor impulse control; characteristics of the immediate family
context, such as job loss; and qualities of the broader ecological
context, such as poverty or high levels of violence in the
community. Stepchildren, unplanned children, and children
in large families are all at greater risk for abuse. Thus,
high levels of child abuse are associated with a broad array
of biopsychosocial variables. In summary, we do not find any
empirical support that marriage enhances fathering, or that
marriage "civilizes" men and protects children.
The neoconservative perspective has proposed that, if men
can be induced to caretake young children, their unique, masculine
contribution significantly improves the developmental outcomes
for children. From the essentialist perspective, "fatherhood
privileges children...Conversely, the primary consequences
of fatherlessness are rising male violence and declining child
well-being and the underlying source of our most important
social problems..." (Blankenhorn, 1995, p. 25-26).
These claims represent an oversimplification of the data.
On average, children from divorced families have been shown
to be at greater risk for a range of problems than are children
from nondivorced families. However, it is also true that 75%
of children from divorced families exhibit no negative effects
(see Hetherington, et al., 1998 for a review). Furthermore,
the size of the negative effect of divorce is considerably
reduced when the adjustment of children preceding divorce
is controlled. For many of these children, the problems attributed
to divorce were actually present prior to the divorce. In
addition, divorce does not affect all children negatively.
Amato, Loomis, & Booth (1995) reported that, although
children from low-conflict marriages were stressed by divorce,
the adjustment of children in high-conflict marriages actually
improved after divorce. Overall, the research suggests that
divorce does not irretrievably harm the majority of children.
Hetherington, et al. (1998) have pointed out that divorce
is not a single event, but rather a cycle of negative events.
The cycle begins with marital conflict, followed by dissolution
of the current family structure, and culminates with the formation
of separate households. In the majority of families, at least
one parent remarries, forming a new, blended stepfamily. In
addition, divorce occurs more frequently in second marriages,
reinitiating the disruptive cycle of loss and conflict. This
cycle entails economic stress, disrupted attachments, and
often separation from the family home and neighborhood.
In his deconstruction of Bowlby's maternal deprivation hypothesis,
Rutter (1974) illustrated that the negative developmental
outcomes observed in institutionalized infants were caused
by the disruption of the child's entire life circumstances,
rather than simply separation from mother. Likewise, it seems
more probable that the link between marital transitions and
negative developmental outcomes is due to the disruption in
the entire life circumstances of children, rather than simply
to the absence of a father.
Blankenhorn's and Popenoe's reliance on the father-absence
research paradigm is surprising, since the limitations of
this approach have been documented by many researchers over
the past two decades (see Phares, 1996 for a review). Father
absence covaries with other relevant family characteristics,
i. e. the lack of a male income; the absence of a second adult;
and the lack of support from a second extended family system.
McLoyd (1998) has pointed out that, because single-mother
families are over-represented among poor families, it is difficult
to differentiate the effects of father absence from the effects
of low income.
Another major limitation to this paradigm is that father absence
is not a monolithic variable. Qualitative research has shown
that relationships between "absent" fathers and
their children can vary widely. Weil (1996) studied 22 divorced
fathers who were recruited from a self-help fathers' rights
group. These middle-class, suburban, mostly White fathers
used a variety of settings, e. g. school, day care, extended-family
events, to increase their interaction with their children
above the limited contact specified in their visitation arrangements.
In another study, Way and Stauber (1996) interviewed 45 urban
adolescent girls about their relationships with their fathers.
Of the 26 girls who did not live with their fathers, 7 reported
weekly contact with them; 10 reported occasional contact;
while only 9 reported almost no contact. Thus, father involvement
exists on a continuum, whether or not fathers live with their
children. Fathers can be "absent" even when they
reside with their children, and "present" despite
The essentialist position also fails to acknowledge the potential
costs of father presence. Engle & Breaux (1998) have shown
that some fathers' consumption of family resources in terms
of gambling, purchasing alcohol, cigarettes, or other nonessential
commodities, actually increased women's workload and stress
The importance of a male role model
Another aspect of the neoconservative perspective is the argument
that "key parental tasks belong essentially and primarily
to fathers" (Blankenhorn, 1995, p.67). Fathers are seen
as essential role models for boys, relationship models for
girls, and "protectors" of their families (Popenoe,
1996, p. 77). However, there is a considerable body of empirical
evidence that contradicts these claims.
The essentialist perspective assumes that boys need a heterosexual
male parent in order to establish a masculine gender identity.
Pleck (1995) has demonstrated that empirical research does
not support this assumption. Similarly, a significant amount
of research on the children of lesbian and gay parents has
shown that children raised by lesbian mothers (and gay fathers)
are as likely as children raised in a heterosexual, two-parent
family to achieve a heterosexual gender orientation (Patterson,
1995; Patterson and Chan, 1997). Other aspects of personal
development and social relationships were also found to be
within the normal range for children raised in lesbian and
However, persistent, although inconsistent, findings suggest
that the negative impact of divorce is more significant for
boys than girls. After reviewing the divorce and remarriage
research, Hetherington et al. (1998, p. 178) concluded that
"the presence of a father may have positive effects on
the well-being of boys." These authors also pointed out
that the research is not clear as to how father presence acts
as a protective factor for boys. Lytton and Romney (1991)
in a meta-analysis of 172 studies found very few significant
differences in the ways that mothers and fathers treated girls
and boys. Similarly, Lamb (1997) concluded that "very
little about the gender of the parent seems to be distinctly
important" (p. 10). Thus, the relation between father
presence and better developmental outcomes for boys remains
correlational, not causal.
We speculate that the larger cultural context of male dominance
and negative attitudes toward women may interfere with the
ability of many single mothers to establish an authoritative
parenting style with male children. Within patriarchal culture,
boys know that when they become adult men, they will be dominant
to every woman, including their mother. This cultural context,
unmediated by a male presence, may undermine a single mother's
authority with her sons. Qualitative research is needed to
explore the subjective experiences of boys in single mother,
single father, and two-parent nuclear families in order to
understand these persistent, but unclear findings.
Taken as a whole, the empirical research does not support
the idea that fathers make a unique and essential contribution
to child development. >From our perspective, it is not
the decline of marriage that is discouraging responsible fathering.
Rather, various social conditions inhibit involved parenting
by unmarried and divorced men. For example, unmarried teen
fathers typically have low levels of education and job training.
Thus, they lack the ability to contribute significantly to
the economic security of their offspring. Similarly, many
divorced fathers cannot sustain a positive emotional connection
to their children after the legal system redefines their role
from parenting to visitation.
Social policy is needed that removes the impediments to paternal
involvement for never-married and divorced fathers. Rather
than privileging the institution of heterosexual marriage
at the expense of other family structures, it is essential
to strengthen the father-child bond within all family contexts,
especially nonmarital contexts.
If the essentialist paradigm is not supported by empirical
data, why has it been so widely accepted it? We believe that
the appeal of the essentialist position reflects a reaction
against the rapid changes in family life that have taken place
in the past three decades. Since the 1960's, family formation
strategies have changed dramatically in Western, industrialized
cultures (Blossfeld, 1995). The cultural norm of early and
universal marriage has been reversed. Fertility rates have
declined overall, and age at the birth of a first child has
risen across all cohorts. More couples are choosing to live
together outside the context of marriage, and a first pregnancy
more frequently precedes, rather than follows marriage. Previously
rare family types, e. g. single-mothers-by-choice, dual career,
and gay/lesbian-parents are increasingly more common.
Industrialized cultures are in the process of changing from
a context in which child development could flourish with fathers
as the sole or primary provider, to a context in which two
providers are now necessary in the vast majority of families.
In a survey of 1,502 U. S. families, 48% of married women
reported that they provided half or more of the family income
(Families and Work Institute, 1995). Given this commitment
to breadwinning, women can no longer shoulder the sole responsibility
for raising children.
In this context of rapid change, the neoconservative position
reflects a widespread societal anxiety about "Who will
raise the children?" Mothers are no longer at home, and
society has not embraced "other-than-mother" care.
The U. S., in contrast to other western countries, has not
yet developed a social policy agenda designed to help women
and men integrate their work and family responsibilities.
Thus, many people believe that a return to the traditional
nuclear family structure with its gendered division of labor
would be preferable to large numbers of neglected and unsupervised
In addition to an authentic concern about the welfare of children,
we believe that the appeal of the "essential father"
also reflects a backlash against the gay rights and feminist
movements. In the past two decades, the employment of women
has dramatically increased, while the employment of men has
declined significantly (Engle & Breaux, 1998). Many more
women than in past historical periods can now choose to leave
unsatisfactory marriages or to have children on their own,
outside of the context of a traditional marriage. Two of three
divorces are now initiated by women (Rice, 1994).
Just as the feminist movement created new opportunities for
women, the gay rights movement has encouraged many more gay
men and lesbians to live an openly homosexual lifestyle. Many
gay men and women who would previously have entered into a
heterosexual marriage in order to have children, now see a
gay family structure as a viable alternative for raising children.
Parallel to these changes, is the tendency emerging among
heterosexual couples to live together and delay marriage until
after a first pregnancy (Blossfeld, 1995). Thus, the distinctions
between marital and cohabiting unions, and between marital
and non-marital childbearing are losing their normative force.
These social changes require heterosexual men to relinquish
certain aspects of power and privilege that they enjoyed in
the context of the traditional nuclear family. Most men no
longer have sole economic power over their families. Similarly,
most men must accept some degree of responsibility for childcare
and household tasks. The majority of heterosexual men no longer
have full-time wives to buffer the stress of balancing work
and family roles. Within this new context of power sharing
and role sharing, heterosexual men have been moved from the
center to the margins of many versions of family life. In
our view, the societal debate about gender differences in
parenting is, in part, a reaction to this loss of male power
and privilege. We see the argument that fathers are essential
as an attempt to reinstate male dominance by restoring the
dominance of the traditional nuclear family with its contrasting
masculine and feminine gender roles.
Family systems theory (Kerr & Bowen, 1988) has proposed
that natural systems (such as families and societies) fluctuate
between periods of homeostasis and periods of disequilibrium.
When change occurs, elements within the system react with
a pressure to change the system back to its prior state of
homeostasis. This cycle is called change and the change-back
reaction. The current social context of multiple and diverse
family structures, with their interchangeable parenting roles
and more egalitarian distribution of power, challenges the
dominant cultural ideology. From our perspective, the emphasis
on the essential importance of fathers and heterosexual marriage
represents a change-back reaction. It is an attempt to reassert
the cultural hegemony of traditional values such as: heterocentrism;
Judeo-Christian marriage; and male power and privilege.
We have argued that the neoconservative paradigm is based
on an oversimplification of empirical research. Thus we believe
that the social policy emanating from this perspective cannot
ultimately be successful in encouraging responsible fathering.
Pressuring men and women to enter into or maintain unsatisfactory
marriages is unlikely to enhance paternal involvement. We
will now present an alternative framework that we believe
more accurately fits the data. Our framework has three main
recommendations: reconstructing traditional masculinity ideology;
restructuring societal institutions; and providing a comprehensive
program of governmental subsidies to all families with children.
Because we believe that ideology defines both social policy
and individual behavior, our first recommendation speaks to
the necessity of reconstructing cultural ideology about gender
roles. The neoconservative perspective also wants to reconnect
fatherhood and masculinity. Blankenhorn (1995, p. 223) has
stated that "being a real man [must come to mean] being
a good father." However, within the essentialist framework,
responsible fathering is inextricably intertwined with marriage.
Our goal, in contrast, is to create an ideology that defines
the father-child bond as independent of the father-mother
If the father-child bond were accorded the same importance
as the mother-child bond, then young boys would be socialized
to assume equal responsibility for the care and nurturing
of their children. A father's relationship with his children
could then develop and remain independent of his relationship
with the child's mother. This ideological shift would encourage
the development of diverse models of responsible fatherhood.
Roopnarine, Snell-White, & Riegraf (1993) described a
group of African Caribbean fathers living in a variety of
relationship contexts, e. g. marital, common law, and "friending,"
who behaved responsibly to both biological and step-children.
These data indicate that responsible fathering need not be
dependent on a marital relationship.
We believe that this change in cultural gender ideology would
be effective in maintaining a high level of paternal involvement
for resident as well as nonresident fathers. Divorce and nonmarital
childbirth would then be less likely to be characterized by
father absence, since cultural norms would prescribe that
never-married and divorced fathers remain actively involved
with their children.
This ideological enhancement of the father-child bond is also
necessary for restructuring societal institutions so that
father involvement is encouraged, rather than inhibited. Maintaining
the sacred status of the mother-child dyad continues the myth
of separate, i. e. gendered, spheres of life. The cultural
assumption of separate spheres links public/work/masculine
and private/family/feminine. This cultural linking of family
and feminine is reflected in the assumption that women, but
not men, will decrease their involvement in paid work in order
to balance the competing demands of work and family life.
Pleck (1993) found that men are reluctant to take advantage
of family-supportive policies because they fear that they
will be perceived as uncommitted to their job, or unmasculine.
Until workplace norms acknowledge that men have equivalent
responsibility for childcare, it is unlikely that most men
will feel comfortable restructuring their commitment to work
in a manner that allows more family involvement.
In the context of poor, ethnic minority families, it is often
fathers, rather than mothers who have no resources to exchange.
More than a decade ago, Wilson (1987) pointed out that institutionalized
racism caused minority men to be marginalized, first from
the labor market, and then from the family. Governmental policy
must acknowledge the link between father absence and job absence.
Men who can contribute substantially to family finances are
more likely to get married and to assume financial responsibility
for their children.
Our final recommendation relates to an overall governmental
family policy. The U. S. cultural ideology of rugged individualism
continues to assume that individual families can and should
balance the stress of work and family without the benefits
of large-scale government supports. The U. S. remains one
of the few industrialized countries without a comprehensive
family policy that provides: paid parental leave, governmentally
financed day care, and economic subsidies for all families
with children. Without these benefits, the responsibility
for childcare continues to fall largely on women.
Because women continue to bear the bulk of the responsibility
for the welfare of children, the goal of economic equality
remains elusive. Providing families with governmental supports
would not only alleviate many of the stresses of working families,
it would also free women from the unequal burden of making
major accommodations in their involvement in paid work. This
shift would then decrease gender inequalities in the workplace,
provide women with more resources to exchange, and thus contribute
to higher paternal involvement.
How can these societal changes be achieved? Haas (1993) pointed
to the high participation by women in politics as one of the
social forces that has been significant in establishing progressive
family policy in Sweden. Since the early 1970s, women have
held one-third or more of the seats in parliament, compared
to 12% in the 1996 U. S. Congress (The World Almanac, 1998).
The example of Swedish politics suggests that until more women
become active in government, many of the governmental supports
needed to help families may not be forthcoming.
We have tried to illustrate how the essentialist position
does not accurately reflect relevant empirical research. We
have provided an alternative explanation of the research,
and generated recommendations for social policy supports to
mothers and fathers that we believe will more effectively
achieve the goal of reconnecting fathers and children. We
hope that this article will generate scholarly debate within
the psychological community, and encourage a critical analysis
of the essentialist paradigm.
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The authors want to thank Cheryl B. Travis for her support
as action editor for this article. Correspondence should be
sent to Louise B. Silverstein, Ph.D., 99 Clinton Street, Brooklyn,
NY 11201, email: LBSREMSEN@AOL.COM.