Fatherhood — Breadwinners and Losers

June 26, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here is my favorite PSA of all time.

If there were an award for best performance in a 30-second public service ad, this actor should have won. He shows not a flicker of irony – no wink, no smile, no deliberate misstep – nothing to show the “role distance” that you might expect of a father chanting cheers with his daughter.

The ad also epitomizes the change in the role of father to include more social-emotional involvement with children. Through the first part of the 20th century, being a “good father” required little more than providing for the family.  Compare the PSA with this “ad” for a different style of father, written by a man who grew up in the 1920s and 30s.

My father never did any of the things that, according to the “parenting” wisdom of today, are supposed to be so important. I don’t recall him ever hugging me, or kissing me, or telling me that he loved me. . . I don’t recall ever having an extended conversation with him. . .  He was, and remains in memory, a version of the good father. [from “Life Without Father” by Irving Kristol, (Wall Street Journal, 1994)]

Things began to change after World War II. Although breadwinner remained central to the role of father, post-War America saw a cultural shift that added a new element  – greater involvement with children. Family sitcoms of 1950 and 60s – shows like “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It to Beaver” – served as both instruction and justification for this version of fatherhood.

Like many cultural changes, the new fatherhood spread downward through the class system. As more wives at all levels entered the paid labor force, fathers had to share more of the household duties, including parenting,

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)
The chart from Pew shows a big change from 1965 to 2015. The average number of hours that moms spent at work nearly tripled, and the hours they spent on housework were cut in half. But also nearly tripling was the time dads spent in child care.

We even got a new word to denote this gender-neutral focus on the child’s emotional and social development – parenting.

(Google nGrams showing the frequency of the word “parenting” in American books.)

But what about father-child relations among the poor. In a recent post (here), I cited Tally’s Corner, Elliot Liebow’s study of Black streetcorner men in 1963-64.  The jobs these men could get were sporadic and did not pay enough to allow a man to support a family. This failure not only led men to leave their marriages, it also freighted the father-child relationship with ambivalence. “To soften this failure, and to lessen the damage to his public and self-esteem, he pushes the children away from him.”

That was then. Today’s counterparts of these men, also left behind by a changing labor market, have seized on the social component of the father role. As Kathryn Edin and Timothy Jon Nelson say in their 2013 study Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City, “the new-father role emerged just in the nick of time to offer an alternative way to engage with their progeny.”

Time spent with children, whether skillfully fashioning a daughter’s hair or teaching one’s son to pee in the bushes, is viewed as priceless and a treasure any man would naturally want to claim. The opportunity to express love and have rich conversations with children is a gift — not just to the children but for the fathers as well. These are the moments, fathers say, that truly make life worth living. . .
It is almost as if engaging in the softer “relational aspects” of the role is a must-have for men trying to forge meaning and identity in an economic age that has left the unskilled worker behind. Relating to children — not hanging on the corner with peers — is the vital ingredient that adds zest to life.  And even in these challenging neighborhood environments, visiting family is what fathers often want to do with their free time.
The troubling part of the Edin-Nelson account is that for the men in their study, the relational aspect of fatherhood is not just a complement to being the breadwinner. It has become a replacement.

a seismic shift has occurred in lower-skilled men’s ability and willingness to shoulder the traditional breadwinning responsibilities of the family. According to our story, at the bottom end of the skills distribution we see not just a withdrawal but a headlong retreat — it is nearly a dead run — from the breadwinner role.

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