Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem, by David Blankenhorn, New York: Basic Books, 328 pages, $23.00
When I became a parent about a year and a half ago, my own father shared some perplexing advice he had received back when he first had children in the late 1950s. He offered it to me in a conspiratorial manner, as if it were knowledge only to be whispered among cabalists sworn to secrecy. Curiously, his first bit of child-rearing counsel came not from his old-world parents but from a new-world medicine man. Paraphrasing Dr. Spock, that pediatrician had told my father it was very important to trust his instincts—otherwise his kids would grow up to be monsters.
My father mulled that one over for awhile, even going so far as to read Spock's Baby and Child Care. There he learned that, among other things, "What good mothers and fathers instinctively feel like doing for their babies is usually best." That seemed sensible enough, but left him wondering how he could tell if he qualified as a "good" parent in the first place. In the end, he and my mother opted for a less-bookish path, choosing indeed to follow their instincts—and the examples set by friends, neighbors, and relatives they deemed worthy of emulation.
These then were the paternal axioms my father offered me, with the proviso that they were banal, obvious, and not terribly helpful in any given situation (and no less meaningful or heartfelt for all those limitations): The family comes first, and do the best you can.
A similar vision of pragmatic fatherhood infuses David Blankenhorn's provocative and disturbing book, Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem. While there is plenty of room to wonder whether paternity per se is "our most urgent social problem," there is no question that the across-the-board increase in illegitimate births and the growing number of households in which no father is present are trends very worthy of study and analysis. Evidence abounds that fatherlessness correlates very highly with poverty, criminal behavior, and myriad other social dysfunctions.
Blankenhorn succinctly lays out the dimensions of the problem: "The United States is becoming an increasingly fatherless society. A generation ago, an American child could reasonably expect to grow up with his or her father. Today, an American child can reasonably expect not to….Tonight, about 40 percent of American children will go to sleep in homes in which their fathers do not live. Before they reach the age of eighteen, more than half of our nation's children are likely to spend at least a significant portion of their childhoods living apart from their fathers. Never before in this country have so many children been voluntarily abandoned by their fathers….Fatherlessness is…the leading cause of declining child well-being in our society. It is also the engine driving our most urgent social problems, from crime to adolescent pregnancy to child sexual abuse to domestic violence against women."
In one sense, Blankenhorn is simply balancing the debate over illegitimacy and its corresponding problems, the solutions to which are almost always discussed in terms of stopping women from having babies. Fatherless America properly reminds us that, barring the odd virgin birth, every illegitimate child has a biological father somewhere out there who has fallen down on the job.
In another, more interesting way, however, Blankenhorn sees literal and figurative fatherlessness as an emergent and pervasive social trend throughout all social strata: "As a cultural idea, our inherited understanding of fatherhood is under siege. Men in general, and fathers in particular, are increasingly viewed as superfluous to family life….We face a cultural loss affecting every home. For this reason, the most important absence our society must confront is not the absence of fathers but the absence of our belief in fathers."
In place of the traditional father—typically caricatured as a dictatorial, domineering workaholic with little spare time for the wife and kids—we now embrace a dizzying array of inadequate paternal "scripts," argues Blankenhorn, who makes use of current scholarship, popular culture, and focus-group interviews with parents to flesh out his case. These roles include "The New Father," "The Deadbeat Dad," "The Visiting Father," "The Sperm Father," "The Stepfather," and "The Nearby Guy." Although they vary in their particulars—The New Father is a sensitive, androgynous spouse willing to change diapers while The Sperm Father "completes his fatherhood prior to the birth of his child"—the new roles share two common underpinnings: 1) They hold parental rights above those of children and 2) They assume that any specifically masculine role in child-rearing is dispensable, if not inherently destructive.
Blankenhorn marshals an impressive array of anecdotal and scholarly evidence to suggest that such notions are gravely mistaken. Reviewing the anthropological literature, he notes that fatherhood in human communities always constitutes "a necessary problem. It is necessary because, in all societies, child well-being and societal success hinge largely upon a high level of paternal investment: the willingness of adult males to devote energy and resources to the care of their offspring. It is a problem because adult males are frequently—indeed, increasingly—unwilling or unable to make that vital investment….Margaret Mead and others have observed that the supreme test of any civilization is whether it can socialize men by teaching them to be fathers—creating a culture in which men acknowledge their paternity and willingly nurture their offspring."
Sounding more than a little like George Gilder in Sexual Suicide (which is not mentioned in Fatherless America), Blankenhorn compellingly argues that while gender roles are flexible, they are certainly not infinitely manipulable. "The sexual division of labor is not, at bottom, the result of social conditioning or cultural values," he writes. "Historically, the…father protects his family, provides for its material needs, devotes himself to the education of his children, and represents his family's interests in the larger world. This work is necessarily rooted in a repertoire of inherited male values….These values are not limited to toughness, competition, instrumentalism, and aggression—but they certainly include them. These 'hard' male values have changed and will continue to change. But they will not disappear or turn into their opposites."
Indeed, the real question is not whether society can eradicate such traits but whether it can harness them for productive purposes. Blankenhorn quotes sociologist and linguist Walter J. Ong to the effect that, across cultures, the adult male "counters his tendency to violent domination by placing any violence in him" primarily in the service of biological relations. Such sublimation, however, suggests Blankenhorn, is particularly difficult for a fatherless boy because he lacks a consistently present male role model who shows him on "good authority that he can be 'man enough.'"
In place of the current voguish, "progressive" notions of what fathers should be like, Blankenhorn develops an anti-ideal that he calls "The Good Family Man." The Good Family Man is a practitioner of what Blankenhorn terms "good-enough fatherhood," a phrase which calls to mind the similarly down-to-earth "good-enough mother" that developmental psychologist D.W. Winnicott conceptualized in the '40s and '50s. The bases of good-enough fatherhood are modest enough, if increasingly rare: "co-residency with children and a parental alliance with the mother."
"As a father," writes Blankenhorn, "the Good Family Man is not perfect, but he is good enough to be irreplaceable. He is married. He stays around. He is a father on the premises….He puts his family first." Such a conception, Blankenhorn admits, "sounds antiquated, almost embarrassing." But far from being a '90s version of Ward Cleaver, the Good Family Man is highly adaptive: "Flexibility, understood as sharing the domestic workload and establishing a more egalitarian marriage, constitutes an important characteristic of the Good Family Man in modern society."
Blankenhorn's tempered and reasonable analysis regarding fatherhood is a welcome addition to an ongoing dialogue over what it means to raise children in contemporary America. At times, however, Fatherless America so heavily equates masculine identity with paternity that Blankenhorn seems incapable of imagining a well-adjusted (by his standards) male who chooses not to have children—or who is not heterosexual. When a male child successfully individuates from his mother, Blankenhorn writes, "the boy becomes more than the son of his mother, or even the son of his parents. He becomes the son of his father. Later, when the boy becomes a man, he will reunite with the world of women, the world of his mother, through his spouse and children."
But such blanket statements go begging for support—and are untenable on their face. There is no social problem, urgent or otherwise, associated with childless men. Fatherless America points out quite clearly that the problems are with men who choose to have children and then opt out of the attendant responsibilities.
On a more structural level, even though it makes some reference to 19th- and early 20th-century sources, Fatherless America disappoints because it doesn't link recent theoretical attacks on the value of specifically male parenting to a longstanding siege on the family and parental authority in general. Blankenhorn, not without cause, notes that much of the scorn heaped on traditional paternal roles originates in academic scholarship of the past two decades.
Academics and other members of the cultural "elite," he says, vilify the '50s as a particularly repressive time, laying much of the blame at the feet of dear old dad: "In much of our current cultural discourse…the 1950s are portrayed as a paternal wasteland: workaholic commuter Dads in gray flannel suits; violence-prone tyrants who lorded it over women and children; materialists who thought fatherhood meant paying the bills; and cold, emotionally remote Old Fathers who wounded their children through distance."
Blankenhorn, who in no way calls for some simple-minded return to a nostalgic '50s America, counters by noting that most fathers during the "quiet decade" actually spent more time with their children than their own fathers had with them—and more than their sons, "living in a divorce culture, would later spend with their children."
True enough, but such a cultural etiology is too limited, and readers may want to turn to books such as Christopher Lasch's Haven in a Heartless World and E. Fuller Torrey's Freudian Fraud for a fuller diagnosis of how "elites" have systematically attacked and undermined the family for most of this century. It's worth remembering that during the late '40s and '50s themselves, much anxiety over parenting focused on "momism," a perceived inordinate increase in the mother's authority and a corresponding decrease in—and feminization of—the father's role. "Megaloid momworship has got completely out of hand," wrote Philip Wylie in the best-selling screed Generation of Vipers. "Our land, subjectively mapped, would have more silver cords and apron strings crisscrossing it than railroads and telephone wires. Mom is everywhere and everything and damned near everybody, and from her depends all the rest of the U.S."
The critics of momism employed a kind of vulgar Freudianism that placed the blame for juvenile delinquency, maladapted children, and all manner of social pathologies on shrewish, powerful, overprotective mothers (momism is the lurking motive for James Dean's behavior in Rebel Without a Cause). For the most part, however, they did this not to rehabilitate the father's familial role but to undermine parental authority in general. For instance, Margaret Mead, quoted approvingly by Blankenhorn at various points, was a leading critic of momism not because she felt an affinity for patriarchy but because, as she had put it years earlier in Coming of Age in Samoa, she wanted to mitigate "the strong role which parents play in children's lives."
On an even greater scale, if the 20th century has been marked by a consistent encroachment of the state into areas previously outside its dominion, much of the territorial gain has come at the expense of the family. Most of this century's most powerful political and intellectual movements—such as communism, Fabianism, fascism, Nazism, progressivism—identified the family as a source of oppression or a potential site of resistance. Hence, a shared goal was the eradication of the biological family, or at least its subjugation to particular ideological goals and aims. Although all those movements have been defeated, either on the battlefield or in the marketplace of ideas, Fatherless America details the degree to which the family has been seriously wounded.