Boy, do fathers make a difference
By Sharon Loh
WHILE women have been making great strides in the feminist cause in the past 25 years, another quiet revolution has been taking place in the concept of fatherhood. It was bound to happen. One movement impacts the other. Women could not advance without the agreement and complicity of men. Fathers today are not the same as fathers 25 years ago. Men today are less inclined to believe house and children are a woman's domain, especially if she holds down a day job just as he does.
In the United States, a national study of the workforce last year showed both men and women spend more time with their children today than 25 years ago, despite also working longer hours. They do this by sacrificing their personal time. In fact, men do 42 minutes more housework each work day now than they did in 1977. Women do correspondingly less, though most of it still falls on them, of course. It would be interesting to see what results a similar study in Singapore would produce. I suspect things would have moved a little more slowly here. Two stories about mothers going to jail recently got me thinking about fathers, and how important they are.
One woman was jailed eight months for hitting her teenage daughter in the face twice. Another faces jail for harboring an illegal immigrant. She is pleading to serve out her sentence at home so she can care for her severely disabled child. Every now and then, the media reports about women who go over the edge. One pushed her daughter down a rubbish chute. There are those who take out their frustrations on their maids. On the face of it, these women seem like monsters who should rightly be punished. But read between the lines, and there are clues to a domestic crisis which has imploded. The woman who punched her child is a waitress with four daughters, said to be 'estranged' from her husband.
The same word was used to describe the other woman's relationship with her spouse. In many cases, the common denominator is a missing husband and father: missing because of divorce, or jail, or because he is simply unavailable. Who knows, with an active and involved partner to share the burden of juggling home and work, these women might never have committed their crimes. Of course, it could easily be the opposite. An absent mother would create the same shearing stresses for the remaining parent.
The point is, even in divorce, parenting responsibilities cannot be abdicated. Are fathers dispensable? By no means.
Some studies in the US and Canada in the 1990s suggest the absence of a father is a key predictor of juvenile delinquency. One study of 6,400 boys tracked over a 20-year period showed that 'boys raised outside of intact marriages are, on average, more than twice as likely as other boys to end up jailed, even after controlling for other demographic factors'.
Fathers, more than mothers, appear to be the key. Boys from single-father homes did not exhibit increased risk. Another study, done in Canada of 23,000 schoolchildren, showed that children from rich single-mother homes were more likely to have emotional and learning problems at school than children from poor homes with two parents. This does not mean women are failures without men, or bad marriages should be maintained at all cost. Rather, the studies suggest the critical, and critically different, role of fathers - perhaps more crucially for sons - no matter what their relationship with their spouse. It is heartening that fathers are changing with the times, or have change forced upon them, as a parenting counsellor here notes. But it will take more than a few good men to spread the word.
Can companies accept that their male workers, from the rank-and-file up to the chief executive officer, are also fathers with obligations to their families? How many men themselves would be able to put their families before their careers if push came to shove?
Even wearing the badge of fatherhood can be challenging in the workplace. One man told the counsellor how he emptied the staff lounge when he began asking advice on how to deal with his teenage daughter. Anthropologist Margaret Mead said that 'motherhood is a biological necessity, but fatherhood is a social invention'. In the rest of the animal world, the male species rarely has a nurturing function. Its obligations are over once it has planted its seed. In human society, it is culture which dictates the involvement fathers have with their offspring.
If Dr Mead was correct, then it is society's imperative to cultivate the institution of fatherhood. How? Our counsellor suggests educating boys about family life in school. Perhaps the easiest place to start is with ourselves and our children. Boys become the fathers they know.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org