Limiting the Idea of Fatherhood
Involved fathers had a much fuller, more elaborate notion of what a father was than uninvolved fathers did. Involved fathers talked about fathering much as mothers talked about mothering. Uninvolved fathers held to a far more restricted mission—to discipline the child or to teach him about sports. For example, when asked what he thought was important about being a father, one black businessman and father of two said:
Discipline. I don’t put up with whining. It bothers me. I’m shorter tempered and my wife is longer tempered. I do a significant amount of paddling. I grew up with being paddled. When I got paddled I knew damn good and well that I deserved it. Г don’t whip them. One good pop on their bottom and I send them down to their room. I’ve scared them. I’ve never punched them. And I’ll spank them in front of people as well as not in front of them.
To him, being a disciplinarian was being a father. As a result, his children gravitated to their mother. She had worked for an insurance company but, under the pressure of home and work, finally quit her job. In a strangely matter-of-fact way, she remarked that she didn’t “feel comfortable” leaving the children with her husband for long periods. “If I go out to the hairdresser’s on Saturday, I might come back and find he didn’t fix them lunch; I don’t leave them with him too much.” If it wasn’t a matter of discipline, he didn’t think caring for the children was his job.
Other fathers limited their notion of fathering mainly to teaching their children about events in the newspaper, baseball, soccer. When I asked uninvolved fathers to define a “good mother” and “good father,” they gave elaborate and detailed answers for “good mother,” and short, hazy answers for “good father,” sometimes with a specific mission attached to it, like “teach him about cars.” I asked one man, “What’s a good mother?” and he answered: “A good mother is patient. That’s the first thing. Someone who is warm, caring, who can see what the child needs, physically, who stimulates the child intellectually, and helps the child meet his emotional challenges.”
“What is a good father?” I asked. “A good father is a man who
spends time with his children.” Another man said, “A good father is a man who is around.”
It is not that men have an elaborate idea of fatherhood and then don’t live up to it. Their idea of fatherhood is embryonic to begin with. They often limit that idea by comparing themselves only to their own fathers, and not, as more involved men did, to their mothers, sisters, or other fathers. As a Salvadoran delivery man put it, “I give my children everything my father gave me.” But Michael Sherman gave his twins what his mother gave him.