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Watch Out for Myths About Fatherhood

The role of the father is increasingly problematic in the context of modern American culture. Fatherhood has been marginalized and the rule and authority of fathers have been depreciated, ridiculed, and continuously redefined. From the Berenstain Bears to The Simpsons, fathers are all too often the object of ridicule or the subject of the laugh line.

Of course, some fathers bring this marginalization upon themselves as they either neglect or forfeit their own fatherly responsibilities. In many sectors of our society, fathers are most noted by their absence. Indeed, millions of American children are growing up without any significant father figure, much less their biological father.

The marginalization of fatherhood can be traced to many developments, but one prime source of this marginalization is the intellectual class and its radical commitment to ideological feminism. Fatherhood is now an ideological category that is inescapably linked to everything from patriarchy (considered to be the original sin) to popular culture (where the intellectual elites exert a very significant, if indirect influence).

Fatherhood has been marginalized in the society at large, and even the biological contribution of a father can now be replaced by a mere “donor” from a sperm bank or a fertility clinic.

Given the marginalization of fatherhood and the confusion about the role of fathers, Father’s Day becomes more and more awkward. Nevertheless it still comes on the calendar and journalists, intellectuals, and cultural observers feel the need to say something about fatherhood in June.

W. Bradford Wilcox, professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, warns that much of what is said about fatherhood in connection with Father’s Day is nothing less than mythological — and many of these myths are downright dangerous.

Writing in National Review magazine, Wilcox identifies five myths about fatherhood that are likely to rear their heads in connection with Father’s Day. Anticipating a flow of news reports around Father’s Day, Wilcox warns: “Some will do a good job of capturing the changes and continuities associated with fatherhood in contemporary America. But other reporters and writers will generalize from their own unrepresentative networks of friends and family members, try to baptize the latest family trend, or assume that our society is heading ceaselessly in a progressive direction.” In other words, “Be on the lookout.”

Beyond this general warning, Wilcox offers some specific myths that are all too likely to appear. First, he warns about the “Mr. Mom surge” that has recently appeared in the media. While the current economic dislocation has had a disproportionate effect upon men, and thus upon fathers, stay-at-home dads “make up a minuscule share of American fathers.” According to the most recent U.S. Census data, stay-at-home dads represent less than 1% of the 22.5 million families in America. Stay-at-home moms, on the other hand, represent 24% of all families.

Brad Wilcox reminds us that most American families still know dad as the primary breadwinner. Indeed, the father is the primary earner in almost 3/4 of American families. Wilcox is right in suggesting that the media focus on the “exotic breed” of the stay-at-home dad obscures the fact that providership is essential to the role of most fathers in most families. This should be honored and respected, not lost in a fog of media attention that distracts from the fundamental reality.

The second myth Wilcox dispels is the claim that most women want a 50-50 distribution between work and family life for fathers. He concedes this might be true for “the average journalist or academic” but not for the average American mom. While moms do want dads to be more involved with the hands-on tasks of parenting and with housework, “most women who are married with children are happy to have their husbands take the lead when it comes to providing and do not wish to work full-time.”

Third, Wilcox cites ample research to dispel the myth that cohabitation is as good as marriage. Today, a significant minority of American children will spend some time with cohabiting parents. As Wilcox concedes, this leads many intellectuals to attempt to minimize the differences between married and cohabiting fathers. But, cohabiting fathers are much less likely to stay around and stay significant in the lives of their children. Marriage and fatherhood turn out to be “a package deal” for most men.

Fourth, Wilcox goes after the claim that divorce has not been harmful to children. Research indicates that girls whose parents divorce are far more likely to drop out of high school, to become pregnant as teenagers, and to suffer depression. “Girls whose parents divorce are also much more likely to divorce later in life.”

We should add that boys, often neglected in so many of these studies, experience the loss of father and suffer this loss, often in silence. The pathology often evident in the lives of young males can often be traced directly to this loss.

Last, Wilcox dispels the myth that “dads are dispensable.” The phenomenon of single mothers by choice receives a great deal of positive press. Nevertheless, as Wilcox asserts: “this myth fails to take into account the now-vast social scientific literature . . . showing that children typically do better in an intact, married family with their fathers than they do in families headed by single mothers.”

Brad Wilcox ends his essay with a call for more journalists “to confront hard truths about the roles that fathers and marriage play in advancing the welfare of our nation’s most vulnerable citizens, our children.”

Christians have a special stake in this argument, for we believe that fatherhood is not just a social construction but a matter of biblical importance. Though informed by sociological analysis and encouraged by academics like Bradford Wilcox, our confidence in the role of fathers is based in the fact that fatherhood is a role that is honored, dignified, and defined in Holy Scripture. The Christian father is answerable to a far higher calling, but the data surveyed in Brad Wilcox’s essay serve as a reminder that fatherhood is a gift to all creation and that the evidence of the Creator’s design for fatherhood defies all the ideological efforts of so many to subvert fathers and fatherhood.

Thanks goes to Brad Wilcox for dispelling these myths. As Father’s Day now approaches, let us all tell the truth about fatherhood and honor God as we honor faithful fathers.