From the beginning of the identity politics era, which is when women and men began to see each other as rivals, there’s been a lot of one-upsmanship over parenting, and who is the more important parent. In the public sphere, women won hands-down, but this has turned out to be a disaster for the millions of children who, as a consequence, grew up in broken, fatherless homes.
Concerned men have responded to this by saying that they are every bit as good at parenting as women. Many have embraced the concept of equality, suggesting that women are no more capable of raising children than men. In a sense they are correct, as children raised by fathers seem to do better than those raised by single mothers, but they are also wrong in some regards.
Mothers and fathers are both important, but they are complementary; each has a role to play. The tragedy of the modern family is that the father’s role has been overlooked, replaced by the idea that children need only mothering and material provision to be properly raised. This attitude has become so thoroughly entrenched in our culture that even men who defend fatherhood have internalized it, and often their responding argument seems to suggest that men are just as good at mothering as women.
The truth is that men, in general, make inferior mothers. Men can care for infants and small children in a pinch, but they aren’t very well suited to it. Mothering comes to a man about as well as fixing cars does to most women, which is to say it’s a forced task. When an infant comes into a man’s family, he will feel a great deal of tenderness for the child, he will be protective of it, and he will go to work ensuring its safety. However, he doesn’t understand the baby’s vocalizations as well as women, the nonverbal communication eludes him, he cannot nurse, and he is usually clumsier with the details of cleaning, dressing and feeding the child. With infants and small children, emotional communication is standard, so women’s tendency to think with their feelings is an advantage in dealing with them.
However, just because men don’t make very good mothers does not mean that they have no role to play. In fact, it is because they are not mothers that fathers are important to children. Childhood is temporary; along with physical growth it is a time to prepare for adulthood. As children grow, they must learn to think rationally, communicate directly and navigate the physical world. Humans, as cultural beings, need to learn to do these things. Nobody has to teach a baby to cry or suckle, or even walk, but as children grow the number of things they need to learn increases exponentially, and it is up to parents to teach them.
Although encouragement and emotional support may be helpful, rational, deliberate teaching is a very different process from caring for a baby. And the best teaching is both rational and deliberate. Teaching a child to ride a bicycle, for example, involves some encouragement, but instruction is far more important. When it comes time to learn to drive, it is crucial. As adults, we take many of these tasks for granted, but for children they are significant challenges. For most of us it was our fathers, or other men in our lives, who taught us to do many of these things.
Another important role fathers play is setting a behavioral example for their children. There is little more pathetic than a young man who resorts to emotion whenever he faces a problem. Temper tantrums and physical aggression may be the norm for toddlers, but the adolescent who engages in this behavior is on the path to prison. Young men who grew up without a rational, calm male presence in their lives are handicapped in that they have not had the benefit of a good example to follow. It is therefore no surprise at all that our penal institutions are generally filled with men who grew up without father figures in their lives.
Because infants and small children relate to their mothers on an emotional level, it sets a pattern for life. This emotional bond is crucial to the well-being of infants, and to becoming an emotionally functional human being, but if it is not balanced with another kind of relationship, it can hinder maturity. This is where fathers step in, providing a refuge from the emotionally demanding and taxing relationship between mother and child. As the child approaches maturity and begins to take steps toward independence, it is indispensable. Arguably, this is good for mothers as well; without a father to step in and provide an emotional time-out, mothers will often exhaust themselves in a fruitless effort to manage their adolescent children with the same techniques they used when they were smaller.
Because of the psychological power of the mother-child bond, people tend to think of the mother as the default parent, and this has influenced public policy. Sentimentality tends to have a great deal of influence in democratic decision making, so we’ve enshrined the mother with child as a sort of holy, inviolate icon. This is nothing new, and examples of this thinking can be found throughout the world. Catholics venerate Mary mother of Jesus, Buddhists Kuan Yin, and the Chinese character for “good” (hao) is an ideogram of a mother with a child (left part of character woman, right part child):
So, we can see that it would be futile to try to undermine or replace the mother figure in the common mind, because it appears to be innately associated with our most basic concept of parenthood and all that is good in the world. However, this is more of a rebuke to feminist concepts than it is to the idea that fatherhood is important. The idea of the hard-driving woman who takes on a masculine role and eschews motherhood is repugnant to our deepest sense of propriety; fatherhood is not.
The question this leaves us with is what can we do to restore respect for and recognition of the importance of fatherhood? We cannot achieve this by claiming that there is no qualitative difference between mothers and fathers, because that would be a false, deceptive argument, just like the feminist claim that men and women are innately the same except for “social conditioning.” Although it may be counterintuitive given contemporary politics, the best way to restore a respect for fatherhood would be to emphasize the difference between mothers and fathers. We have to reject the idea that men can and should be motherly, and instead emphasize how important it is to children that fathers be men, and provide them with those things that mothers cannot. Rather than argue that the role mothers play is overrated and easily substituted for by a man, we should concede that motherhood is unique and essential, and then point out that it precludes women from adequately taking on the father’s role.
Fathers may not be able to suckle their children, and they may not be very good nannies or nurses, but women are not as good at teaching their children practical skills and to be independent adults. Perhaps a good way to put it is this:
Mothers are essential for healthy, well cared for children; fathers are essential for healthy, functional adults.
As men, we do not need to pretend that we can be mothers, nor should we want to. Our role as fathers is perfectly respectable, and our parenting is just as important over the many years of human childhood.