September 2013 Print

Fidelity to Fatherhood

by Randall C. Flanery, Ph.D.

Fidelity: Strict Observance of Duties and Obligations

Contemporary fatherhood is in a sorry state. Dad, as an active presence in family and the public life, has been disappearing since the birth of our country.1 Social scientists recognize the cultural costs of fatherlessness, identifying it as the most urgent social problem of our time.2 A striking number of social and psychological difficulties afflict children who are raised without their fathers.3 Girls raised without fathers are more likely to be promiscuous, have an eating disorder, and be depressed and suicidal. Boys without dads are more likely to be delinquent, spend time in prison, abuse substances, and themselves be absent or abusive fathers. It is not just a modest increase; it is seven times more likely.

The immediate reasons for absence are failure to marry the mother or divorce after marrying. Apparently the minimum requirements for fatherhood are beyond the scope of many young men. Two of the many reasons for this sorry state of affairs are the marginalization of fatherhood and societal seductions to neglect parental responsibilities.

While the marginalization of fatherhood undermines men directly, it indirectly heightens suspicion of men’s behavior by others, like wives, who are subject to the same derogatory cultural influences. Since the masculine manner is derided, those men who act against the prevailing pressures and make the commitment to be present in the home, may still be seen suspiciously by their wives resulting in further masculine retreat from full male participation in family life.

The Marginalization of Fatherhood

Today fatherhood has been marginalized in three ways: it has been minimized, devalued, and decultured.4

What is considered uniquely characteristic of fatherhood is ever diminishing, namely, providing for the family, asserting authority as the head of the family, and defending the family. Since women are achieving comparable economic power today, the necessity of male earnings to support the family is less, and increasing numbers of women are choosing to do it alone. Technology such as in vitro fertilization has advanced to the point that the dad need no longer be present at conception. With legalization of same-sex marriage, men are no longer needed to even have a marriage.

A second diminishment is that men’s unique contributions to society are not valued. Fathers were expected to defend home, family, and community, and protect the weak. Defending the weak entails a willingness to be aggressive in a good cause. Today, any hint of aggressiveness is viewed suspiciously and needs to be contained. With women in the military now fighting on the front lines, men are no longer the only warriors.

Third, fatherhood has been decultured. Fathers no longer have a distinctive and authoritative role to play in the larger social life of our civilization. A measure of a culture used to be how well the fathers did their job. Fatherhood used to convey distinction and status. The community would look to its fathers for leadership and sacrifice for the common good. Nowadays men are no longer expected to keep their commitments. A non-profit organization, Promise Keepers, has men publicly vow to keep their promises. Family court and government programs are dedicated to getting men to pay child support. The goals are admirable, but their existence implies a glaring failure by many men to do what they ought.

Societal Seductions to Neglect the Family

We live in a culture that defines the best in a man by what he accomplishes individually—personal achievement, impressive acquisitions, status, and recognition in the world. Every man has some urge to make his way in the world, to have an effect, to be noticed. These are not harmful desires in and of themselves. A man of any ambition would have these impulses. What is not part of the equation is what he does at home. It is judged to be largely irrelevant, if not an obstacle to workplace success. If what happens outside the home is of the essence and the extent of manhood, what happens within the home can be and perhaps should be neglected.

A man’s work commitment might be questioned if family obligations are given too much consideration. Professionals—lawyers, accountants, engineers, even psychologists—spend on average 55 hours a week at work. Responsible Catholic men with families take on second jobs ostensibly to provide better. Those hours at work are not spent fulfilling other duties, equally important in the supernatural scheme of things. Is that extra work necessary, or is it personal aggrandizement? Is it food on the table or a vacation on the calendar?

It is a matter of personal prudence to decide what the balance ought to be between work and home, but note that the scale is heavily weighted against the obligations of the home. If a man is defined, not by how well he models himself after St. Joseph, but by his standing in the world, it will be hard to resist material allurements of the world. The Catholic man will not only meet the minimum requirement to be present, he will be actively engaged—intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually—in the well-being of his family.

Marginalization Leads to Feminization

Many societal trends, including the diminishment of fatherhood, have resulted in the feminization of lay Catholicism. Religion, even in traditional practice, has been narrowed to be primarily the duty of the church and school, and of the mother, to see that children know their catechism, the fundamental principles of faith, their prayers, and all the daily acts that demonstrate a faith that operates 24/7, not just on Sunday morning. When men are absent from the lives of families, the living of Catholicism loses its masculinity and muscularity.

Catholic men take seriously the responsibility for the souls of children. Fathers will show up for Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation, a child’s marriage, but who leads the family rosary? Church processions? Pilgrimages? Yes, they are typically a full-day affair on a Saturday. What is the choice? Golf? Your alma mater’s football game? Or the salvation of souls, especially your own?

It does not take long to notice how the women often outnumber the men at daily Mass, at First Friday devotions, on pilgrimages. Let us be honest, gentlemen: they predominate on these occasions because they show up. It is not that men are being excluded; we are abdicating!

Fathers Are Not Male Mothers

Men and women are different, most certainly when it comes to relationships. Women cultivate relationships by tending, that is, focusing, on the other person’s needs and by expressing affection verbally. Men, in comparison, are action-oriented and build the relationship by aiding the person in some way and protecting them from malefactors. Same purpose, different means; but because the masculine mode is devalued, the distinctly masculine mode of relating will be discouraged in favor of the feminine example of achieving the same ends.

In parenting, fathers are active, assisting, and protective, sometimes to the consternation of their wives. Men will do something, e.g. play physical games, work together, “rough house” even with the girls. Any talking is in the context of the activity and not particularly expressive of feelings. Affection is likely to be conveyed by helping or protecting the loved one, purchasing a desired object, taking the family on vacation, or doing physical tasks.

Their spouses will do it differently. Should, in the course of roughhousing, a child get injured, dad will advise the child to tough it out and keep playing while mom will “feel their pain” and want to tend to the injury. Nearly all children experience some bullying in its milder forms, or for girls, shunning—exclusion from social interaction with peers; both forms are very unpleasant and harmful. Fathers might propose a solution that is physical and action-oriented or try to intervene in the child’s behalf. Mothers will lament the misery the child is experiencing and attempt to make it feel better.

Another difference applies to disciplining. Mothers will attempt to reason, negotiate, or withdraw emotionally to correct behavior. Fathers are physically demonstrative regarding correction, acting quickly and emphatically to deliver a negative consequence, and will be little swayed by emotional appeals. It is worth noting that fathers get better compliance with behavioral requests from children, although mothers might have a warmer relationship.

Mothers are understandably discomfitted by the father’s actions, seeing them as too harsh or neglectful of the feelings involved. Remember: fathers are not male mothers. Much of fathering and mothering overlaps. Mothers can help their spouses by appreciating the gender differences, and not insisting that both do it the same. Allow each to reflect their own natures in the partnership to turn ruthless barbarians (the children) into civilized human beings.

Traditional Catholic men have a good start at being good men because they do not doubt for a moment that being a man means being a father. Cultivating the proper mindset will make the man present in the lives of the family, but a faithful man is obliged to do more; he is to be fully engaged, not simply occupying space and basking in the love of spouse and children. It is a daily dedication to a higher purpose with little expectation of encouragement or appreciation, except rarely at home, and almost never outside the home.

Randall C. Flanery, Ph.D. obtained his doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Wisconsin in 1983. He is an adjunct associate professor in Family Medicine at St. Louis University School of Medicine and is Director of Webster Wellness Professionals, St. Louis, MO. Despite being an adult convert and a child psychologist, two of his ten children are currently pursuing religious vocations.

1 Joseph Pleck in his book, American Fathering in Historical Perspective (1987) documents the steady decline of the role of fathers in family life over the past 200 years

2 David Blankenthorn, Fatherless America (1995).

3 David Lykken, after an illustrious research career was recognized by the American Psychological Association in 2001 with an award for Distinguished Scientific Applications of Psychology. His acceptance speech is a half serious argument that prospective parents should at least meet the requirements for those wishing to adopt before being granted license to have children. This is in no way a Catholic argument but it does highlight the dreadful consequences for society and for the children themselves to be raised without the biological father in the household.

4 The original personal impetus for appreciating the unique contribution of fathers was Fr. Kenneth Novak’s (and former Angelus editor) preface to the collection of Integrity essays, Fatherhood and Family. Lest we think I have contributed something new, the articles address some of the issues discussed here and were originally published between 1947 and 1954.