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Paternal Not Paternalism

paternalismSome months ago, the N.Y. Times had a story focused on Tina Fey as reflecting a cultural mood making pregnancy a fertile field for romantic comedy. According to the story, an inviolate rule of Hollywood comedy is that once a woman in her 30’s gets her man, or can’t find him, then she has to want a baby – or cope with a baby she didn’t plan on. From “Murphy Brown” to “Knocked Up” to Ms. Fey’s latest, “Admission”, the path from romance to “momance” is clear.

But where are the fathers in this cultural evolution? What has become of the father who knew best? The image reflected these days seems to be a choice between the immature jerk disconnected from the realities of parenthood, or the sperm chosen from the sperm bank. How did we go from “Kramer vs Kramer” to “Knocked Up?” There is something fundamentally off key in this picture. How and why did fathers get eliminated from this new investment in motherhood?

The odd thing about this supposed cultural reflection is that in reality, parallel to an investment in motherhood has been a growing investment in fatherhood. Not only are fathers generally, more involved with their children, more fathers than ever before have become primary caregivers while mothers work at jobs outside the home. What is striking, however, is the splitting of “parents” into either mother or father. It’s either women’s focus on becoming mothers, or men’s focus on becoming fathers as part of a role reversal in which mothers are out of the home.

What is the explanation for this cultural splitting of mothers and fathers? Part of it, no doubt, is the actual splitting of parents through divorce, although the numbers there seem to be diminishing. The huge focus on women becoming, and wanting to become mothers, is clearly related to the ticking biological clock sounding its alarm. The later age of marriage, the emphasis on career goals first, the greater acceptance of single motherhood along with the advanced technologies making that possible, have all played their part.

The cultural picture may also be drawn in part from an increased acceptance of gay couples, not only in marriage equality, but as parents either through adoption, surrogates, or in-vitro pregnancies. While reflecting the positive side of the struggle against sex discrimination, the effect has been to deemphasize the significance of male/female differences in mothering and fathering as they effect children’s development.

A major factor in shaping the cultural picture, however, has been a shift in the view of paternalism in child-rearing. A reflection both of women’s liberation struggle, and points of view derived from child development research, “father knows best” went out the window long ago. Unfortunately, the emphasis on equality and democracy in the family at times seems to have resulted in “children know best.” But equally unfortunate, has been the maternalization of child-rearing. While self-assertion and ability to take charge are lauded in the workplace, needed nurturing for children has been identified largely with feminine TLC.

It will be a real loss if the advent of unisex everything – from restrooms, to clothes, to haircuts – results in unisex parenting. Despite all efforts to prove otherwise, there are real differences between men and women that are reflected in the way they relate to children. Even infants respond differently to mothers’ and fathers’ voices. Fathers play differently with children, and often are more able to allow for their greater independence.

There has been too much of an attempt to define good fathering in terms of mothering. Interacting with children can be humanizing, which many men are discovering and appreciating as they play a larger role in child-rearing. If this leads to a greater capacity for empathy, and the ability to hear the needs of others, that is certainly all to the good. But in rejecting paternalism let’s make sure to keep the values of paternal.

Dr. Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D, is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice in New York City, and a Senior Lecturer of Education in Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. To learn more about the extensive work of Dr. Heffner, please visit her site Good Enough Mothering.

Read Dr. Elaine Heffner’s latest book:

goodenoughmother_bookGoodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog discusses the issues parents have raised with Dr. Elaine Heffner during her many years of professional work as a parent educator. A selection of posts from a two year period of her blog, goodenoughmothering.com, the book reflects the feelings and concerns of parents while addressing many of the criticisms leveled at them that serve to undermine their confidence. The book’s message to parents is that there is no “perfect”. Good enough is good enough.

  • Carol Cain

    Great read! I agree. My husband and I can be great parents, but we are certainly different in our approach, even when it comes to how we approach discipline. The truth is, that in my need for his involvement (and his wanting of the same), I had to “let go” and accept that he will do things in a way that maybe I wouldn’t have, and even in a way that might be better. I have my go at it too and the children get to experience father and mother as being two different beings with a common goal: their overall well-being and happiness. I resent the imagery of the dunce father, because my husband is not. Nor is he the babysitter. Nor is he clueless. We are not the same, that’s for sure, but that’s why it’s so perfect.

  • Chris Bernholdt

    Stay at home dads like myself everywhere, are rejoicing. We hate the fact that there is this battle between motherhood and fatherhood as if one is more important than the other. What I have learned as the primary caregiver in our family is that whether you are a mom or dad, it is all just parenting. While there may be differences in how we approach a challenge, we are all still trying to do what is best for our children. We should be learning from each other instead of wondering which side is right.

  • Men and Women are DIFFERENT – pure and simple. Not better or worse, though each sex has its better habits and traits. That is why learning from one another makes the best parenting. I don’t think the evolution of gay couples has much of an impact on this discussion since the real percentages are still quite small. It’s irrelevant to the discussion, though I will assert – with NO homophobic beliefs whatsoever – that two same-sex parents are not as “ideal” as two opposite sex parents. Note the word “ideal” please before you call me names. Same sex couples can raise great kids and heterosexual couples can raise lousy kids. Some of it – frankly – is luck and genes.

    • cutemonster

      As per Dr. Elaine Heffner: I agree that the issue of same sex parents is not the main point. What I am thinking about is not the couples themselves, but the impact on the researchers trying to demonstrate that children are not missing anything in their development. As in the use of other kinds of developmental research, normal and different get mixed up. Differences in child-rearing create differences in personality, which is not the same as whether development is normal or not normal. This is the same issue that troubles me regarding the day care impact research.

  • Tracie

    Great read. I love the fact that moms and dads can have incredibly special and different relationships with their kids. It’s good for the parents and good for the kids!

  • Holly Rosen Fink

    My husband and I certainly have our differences, but when it comes to parenting, he is every much as engaged as I am.

  • markglaser

    Really good story. I’ve been frustrated as a father because I don’t have the same role models that mothers often do. My father didn’t do much, never changed a diaper, never took care of us on his own, etc. So I had to figure it out as I went along. I have my own style, as do other dads and other moms. We need to respect those differences without judging all the time, and learn from each other more.