|Pruett, Kyle D. (2001). “Mothers and fatherneed,” in Fatherneed: Why father care is as essential as mother care for your child. New York: Broadway Books, 145-164 (Chapter Seven).
Common sentiment of the day: Parenting is women’s turf — and it is very difficult to yield or to share it.
In contrast, Gloria Steinem, editor and founder of Ms. magazine said: “It’s clear that most American children suffer from too much mother and too little father.”
This chapter is about the role of mothers — the women they are and the role they play in shaping the fatherneed in their children, their partner, and themselves.
* how women’s feelings and attitudes toward fathering are shaped by their experiences with their own fathers (“the father in the mother”)
* how women shape the access their men have to the children (gatekeeping)
* how their past experiences and feelings about marriage, work, feminism, and men in general prepare them to share their children (or not)
Perhaps the most pressing question may be, How does a single mother address the fatherneed in her son or daughter without feeling unfinished or incomplete as a nurturing being herself?
Just as generational changes have muddied the waters of what it means to father, so, too, is there confusion over what mothering means.
Women are struggling for clarity in understanding what to expect of their mate in terms of sharing and shaping the shared nurturing domain for their children. The window through which parents used to see what to do is fogged by the heat of expectations on one side and the chill of disappointment on the other.
Healthy fatherneed paradigms do not happen at the expense of women or their relationships with their children. A major force for sustaining and gratifying the fatherneed in its healthiest state comes from women.
Today 76 percent of all women have a job, and most of them share children with men. For men and women to share the responsibilities and gratifications of the nurturing domain, we need readily available (subsidized?) quality child care and ongoing flexibility in the workplace.
This is the only way shared parenting will continue, or even start to work, for most families (except the well-heeled, of course, who pay for their own solutions). Otherwise, fatherneed will languish and be pushed back to the margins of family life for yet another era. The problem is one of balance.
Sorting out the proper proportions with the help of recent science in a way that will serve kids is still hard going. Prior to the discovery of the father, the study of child development (or trouble therein) was pretty straightforward (and misleading). Mothers were given credit or blame for it all, unless the child was born with the problem.
Now the problem stretches out across the laps of us all. Today’s working mothers need a lot of help, and they need fathers to do more. Many fathers, meanwhile, are struggling over whether it’s safe, or even desirable, to renegotiate the original contract that said that providing was the royal road to parental gratification and self-righteousness.
Making matters worse, our own opinions about roles have changed dramatically. In 1977, 66 percent of all adults agreed that it was better for everyone in the family if the man achieved outside the home and the woman’s achievements were primarily domestic. In less than twenty years, that number had dropped to 38 percent. Of the working mothers with preschoolers in that same 1977 survey, 42 percent felt their kids were likely to suffer as a result of their working. In 1996 that number had dropped to 23 percent.
Meanwhile, the goalposts are also moving: today, as compared to the 1950s, men and women marry four years later, are older when they become parents, have fewer children (but seven times as many are born outside of marriage), and work a significantly greater number of hours.
And as life expectancy lengthens, parenting takes up a smaller chink of the life span than it used to, while evolving into more of a social role than a high calling.
Despite these dizzying changes, two presumptions emerge: (1) as much as societal change has affected mothering, it is reshaping fathering even more and (2) mothers’ attitudes shape fathering competence and incompetence much more than the reverse.
The androgynous male who was a guaranteed joke in the 1950s has been a valued partner in the 1990s. Nurturing men are less suspect than in many previous eras. Mothers happy in their marriage are shown in many studies to be more supportive and facilitative of paternal involvement, to the benefit of their children. These changes promote marital cohesion, but what encourages a mother in the first place to even want to consider facilitating paternal involvement in child care? For one thing, her own fathering.
In 1994 nearly 150 Midwestern families completed questionnaires regarding mothers as influential agents in the father-child relationship. The strongest predictor of a father’s involvement was related to nonmaternal factors: the child’s age (the younger the child, the more involved the father).
But the mother’s own growing up experiences strongly predict her husband’s involvement. That is, the greater the level of emotional rejection and distance a woman felt from her own father, the more involved she and her husband report him to be in childrearing.
Women who felt emotionally rejected by their father so appreciate their husband’s involvement with their children because of its stark contrast to their own childhood experience of fatherneed.
This is strikingly similar to the reparative model that Snarey reported being used by men whose fathers had been so negative in their development. These men want to repair that wound in the fathering of their own children.
Mothers who felt rejected by their father want to heal their father-wound by encouraging the fathering of their own children; they seem to have come to some intuitive understanding that what children need is not that Dad become another sort of mother and simply do more of the same kind of parenting but that he instead instill the differentness of his masculinity into his share of the nurturing.
Repair models can’t be completely understood, however, without understanding the vital and active role played by the child. Not simply a passive recipient of mothering or fathering alone, an infant actively mediates the world between parents.
Infants can either knit parents together through the delicious and sensuous intimacies of their early social appetites or stress and drive apart more vulnerable parental coalitions through their neediness and periodic exquisitely painful distress.
Parents can hang together during the bad moments, or they can hang separately. When it goes even reasonably well, it’s the infant who teaches the parents how to parent together in a kind of shared transformation. Infants are “pre-wired” for attachment to both men and women, and a child’s early experiences with both parents become integral to the kind of person that child becomes.
Pruett thinks that there is always a father palpably present in the mother’s psyche, in addition to his formidable presence in her genetic complement. From pregnancy onward, this father-in-the-mother affects the way the mother promotes or discourages her partner’s relationship with her/their child.
Without ever consciously discussing the matter, she can convey positive feeling and expectation about their connection to one another through the tone and pitch of her voice and the softness of her body and face. Conversely, she can convey negative feeling through a chilly edge in her voice and an anxious hardness in her facial expressions and body language, thus discouraging, devaluing, or ridiculing the father’s approach to her child.
How a woman imparts to her partner the meaning and significance to her of the father-child transaction — fatherneed itself — is of huge consequence to their children and to the access they will have to their father.
The mother’s enthusiasm for promoting father-child connectedness is also shaped by the kind of marriage she finds herself in. Compared to the mother-child relationship, the relationship between father and child, whether within or outside marriage, is more strongly correlated with the quality of the co-parental connection.
Men often withdraw from their child when not doing well with the mother, whereas mothers may draw even closer to the child when they are not doing well with the father.
Is this good for the child? A very large “it depends” is the answer. If the mother moves to amputate the fatherneed, the child will suffer; if she moves to separate her needs from her child’s in such unhappiness, the child can manage better. Marital satisfaction itself, however, is clearly both a source and consequence of paternal involvement.
Pruett’s hunch: The reason fathering is so sensitive to marital fortunes is that expectations for fatherhood wax and wane with economics, politics, religion, the weather, and so on, leaving men, women, and children casting about for the fatherstick or some ideal by which to measure any particular father’s performance.
It is the very dearth of clear expectations that is so disorienting, even toxic, for the men and women doing their best to find the way to keep fathers and children close.
Yet when mother and father can figure out their own version of how to satisfy fatherneed and stick to it over time, the benefits to their children are significant. This holds true even if there is no marriage.
In Furstenberg’s study of teenage mothers and their kids, he found that father presence by itself has relatively little impact on outcomes for adolescent children. However, a strong father-child bond, especially if the father lives with the family, is associated with a variety of positive outcomes for the child. And this happens most often when there is good co-parental relationship. Even the level of attachment to the mother was found to have little impact on the well-being of the children as they entered adulthood unless associated with a good co-parental relationship.
The study concluded that a poor father-son relationship was worse than no relationship at all because they interfered with the child’s capacity to develop other, healthier, connections, and they typically rendered the mother less capable. Matrimony for the sake of matrimony does not protect from the toxicity of an unstable, conflict-laden relationship between parents.
When mothers respect their partner’s fathering, kids thrive. Preschoolers whose mothers were proud of the fathering they received did in fact receive measurably more praise and support from those fathers. In interactions with their older children, mother-supported fathers were more responsive, encouraging, and communicative with both sons and daughters.
We can imagine how this works. Mothers who feel supported by marital closeness have more patience and resilience in facing the challenges of rearing children.
A woman’s lifetime of socialization and, typically, her biological predisposition toward connecting to a child prescribe certain parental behaviors more powerfully in her than a man’s socialization and biological predisposition do in him; that is, a man’s parental behavior is relatively free of biological and ancient social imperatives.
A woman’s competence in turn encourages her to be more flexible with her child, enabling her to entrust her partner with child care responsibilities more frequently. This gives her respite and lets the child job-train the father (just as he or she has been job-training the mother).
The reverse: an unhappy or unsupported mother has more fatigue and stress, leading to less flexibility and creativity in her mothering; she induces less social interaction between father and child, and the subsequent fathering is more shallow and less engaging for the child and the father, since little positive or hopeful encouragement has been imparted to it.
A father’s involvement with his children, especially his young children, when it matters most, is powerfully contingent on the mother’s attitude toward, and expectations of, support from him. The National Survey of Families and Households found that mothers’ characteristics outweighed fathers’ characteristics with regard to predicting father involvement with their children! Responsible mothering, by definition, means support of the father-child bond.
Much current research supports the conclusion that the majority of men want to be more involved in child care and domestic activities. Meanwhile, Pleck found that only 42 percent of working mothers wanted more help with child care from their husbands.
When it comes to managing the nurturing domain, women cling to control to the point of micromanaging, especially when they are working, to reassure themselves and reaffirm their competence and essential goodness as mothers.
They often overtly discourage paternal involvement in child and domestic care because of their time-honored belief that men will screw it up. When they do permit access through the gateway, it is done on their terms, thoroughly managing their husband’s behavior with the children.
Many mothers essentially tell their husband to do it her way or not bother. He’s basically working for her while she’s out with her sister, and he has no prayer of doing the caretaking his way to get to know his son. Instead, all he can do is hold on till she gets back. It is, of course, hard for most mothers to behave in any other way, until they become more aware of what they’re doing.
They have been socialized all their life to judge their worth by their nurturing competence. As teenagers they were hired to practice on other people’s children, and they were praised for their skills and chastened for their errors.
They typically arrive in the delivery room with some parenting skills on board — holding, feeding, burping, dressing, possibly bathing (this is all highly variable) — and weighed down by social expectations that their parenting expertise is sufficiently intact.
But little of her past experience prepares a new mom to raise this particular child, with a particular temperament, at this particular time in her life in this context.
If she’s lucky, she’ll feel sufficiently supported in the early months so that her on-the-job training gets under way quickly and she doesn’t fall off the learning curve. As a new mother, she’s granted a little slack to not know everything, so advice comes unsolicited from everywhere. Typically, her confidence grows, she falls in love with her babe, a relationship for a lifetime begins, and she settles down to nurture her child’s nature in ways that gratify them both.
The experience for the new father couldn’t be more different. Not only has he not been prepared, but he has usually been pretty actively discouraged from developing his nurturing competencies. Men’s baby-sitting experience has been practically nil, unless they come from a large or very enlightened family.
Furthermore, an interest in one’s nurturing competence still raises suspicions about one’s gender identity in many corners of male society. Pregnancy itself finds a man drifting backstage while his partner, or at least her growing body, takes center stage. No one asks him about his thoughts or feelings, or even acknowledges his presence.
It is all too easy to see how fathers come to see themselves as inadequate at worst and marginal at best, especially when they compare themselves to their partner, now ensconced on the throne of societal expectations, a state of affairs unfair to both.
The rewards for the mother’s doing this parenting thing right, however, include new status in her family, community, even her workplace or school. Affirmation comes thick and fast, so much so that she begins to wonder, “What was the matter with, me before I became a mother?” At any rate, she often feels that she now has power, or meaning, or purpose — or whatever. And it is hard to ever give up, let alone share, that with anyone else.
The mother-child unit is a powerful, delicious duet between two souls that seems so complete in and of itself so much of the time that a new dad often thinks, “Why on earth muck this up by adding a third wheel?” To him (and many others), it seems that the inclusion of a third person will transform the mother-child entity utterly.
The idea that anyone else, but particularly the father, might have a vital role in this whole process, in welcoming and supporting a new life, excites resistance.
That is why it is called gatekeeping, this vigilant control of the father’s access to his baby, and gatekeeping comes in myriad forms. When things are going nicely at home, gatekeeping is a minor league activity and gate openings are frequent and flexible; when they are not, gate opening can seem optional at best and unwise at worst.
Typically, gatekeeping addresses the mother’s needs, not her children’s. She is likely to know that it is potentially destructive of her child’s relationship with their father, and she knows what she should be doing about it to make it better. Studies have found that 20 to 40 percent of mothers acknowledge that they have actively interfered with their ex’s visitation rights. Even in the best of circumstances, opening the gate feels counterintuitive to countless women.
Milder forms of gatekeeping occur both within and outside of marriage. Snarey found that inside marriage a wife’s increased breadwinning responsibility predicted increased childrearing by her husband. At all ages, he found kids spending more time alone with their father when their mother worked outside the home. This is especially true when the wife works only part-time, because couples are more able to use a shift-work system.
Gatekeeping isn’t an exclusively feminine province. The Houston Oilers professional football team withheld game pay and threatened to fine one of their starters $125,000 for missing a game simply because he was with his wife during childbirth.
Some child care experts, such as William Sears, M.D., are curiously devoted to vigilant gatekeeping. He depicts fathers as queasy and incompetent at changing babies and concludes that moms, therefore, should nurse as long as possible. The fathers he knows are inept with diaper pins.
Ultimately, he arrives at the judgment that “many mothers are justified in their unwillingness to let fathers care for the baby because these fathers have not demonstrated that they are capable of comforting the baby.” This is the old gatekeeping double bind: you were never taught how, because you were a boy, not a girl. You’ll never get any good at it, so you shouldn’t be allowed near the child until much later, by which point your skills will never catch up.
Pruett assumes that fathers, like mothers, become nurturing through the daily care of their child, which permits a familiar, competent, arid sustained emotional presence in the child’s life. Neither mothers nor fathers are natural caregivers. It’s incredibly hard work, full of worry and trial and error.
Remember, the older the child is, the less involved the father. Therefore, the gate, if there’s going to be one, must be opened early and often. Infancy matters, too.
It seems that many fathers themselves are less enthusiastic about their competence, even once inside the gate, than we might have expected. In one study, while both parents rated the mother as the better caretaker, the mothers rated the fathers’ caretaking competence higher than the fathers rated themselves. Mothers’ ratings of their husbands’ sensitivity to the baby’s cues, his responsiveness, and his ability to meet the needs of the infant surpassed the fathers’ self-ratings.
Pruett considers the recognition by the fathers of their “lack of experience” and consequent “lack of confidence” as second generation gatekeeping effects. It is hard even for men to take their potential as competent and devoted caregivers to their kids seriously.
SAMPLE EXAM ITEMS
ONE. According to Pruett, which of the following statements are accurate of the late 1990s in comparison with the 1950s?
1. women marry four years later on average
2. men and women are older when they become parents
3. parents have fewer children
4. seven times more kids are born outside of marriage
5. women and men work a significant greater number of hours
6. parenting takes up a smaller chink of the life span
a. 1, 2, 3, and 5
b. 2, 3, and 5
c. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6
d. 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6
e. 1, 3, 4, and 6
f. 2, 4, and 6
TWO. According to Pruett, which of the following statements are reasons given by Furstenberg to explain why his finding that a poor father-son relationship was worse than no relationship at all.
1. affected the level of attachment to the other
2. typically rendered the mother less capable
3. interfered with the mother-child bond
4. provided the child with a model of low involvement by the father for when he raises his future children
5. interfered with the child’s capacity to develop other healthy relationships
a. 1, 3, and 5
b. 2 and 5
c. 1, 3, and 4
d. 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5
e. 1 and 3
f. 3 and 4