Psychology Yesterday

Stories from the behavioral past

A Very Brief History of Fatherhood

American dads have come a long way, baby.

Fatherhood in America has changed considerably over the past two centuries, as has the very definition of manhood. It was in the early 19th century that “a new ‘domestic’ family type that altered the cultural meaning of being a father” emerged, Shawn Johansen wrote in his "Family Men: Middle-Class Fatherhood in Industrializing America" (Routledge, 2001), the beginnings of what has been commonly viewed as the decline of the American patriarch. This shift in power in middle-class families continued through the Victorian era, according to Johansen, with fathers of the late 19th century significantly more involved with their children than popularly believed.

Through much of the 20th century, much pressure was put on fathers to commit to the responsibilities of parenting, something not the case with mothers. It was assumed women would naturally take to their role as mothers, in other words, simply part of their nurturing instincts. Dads were consistently urged to spend time and get to know their children (particularly their sons), with parenting presented as a rewarding complement to careers and personal time. Fathers were thus faced with a tricky balancing act, real or imaginary, in which they were expected to devote considerable amounts of time and energy to child raising without abandoning their principal role as family breadwinner. The tensions associated with walking this fine line could be detected in various ways, as men struggled with the different hats they were being counted on to wear. American dads are now in a good place in this respect, I believe (when they are present, of course), embracing both the joys and demands of fatherhood on their own terms.

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Hand in hand with their shifting roles, fathers have also had to negotiate the choppy waters of gender identity. Many of the core values of motherhood, such as sensitivity, tenderness, and nurturing, encroached upon the universe of fatherhood over the decades, pushing men to adapt in some way. Asked to embrace feminine characteristics while retaining their masculinity was not an easy thing to do; this process too bubbled up in various degrees of volatility. (Considerable chatter revolved around things like “expectant” fathers and there being a “clock ticking” for want-to-be dads.) Again, fathers have today realized a nice middle ground between softness and strength, I hold, a happy ending to what has sometimes been a not very pretty story.

Lawrence R. Samuel, Ph.D., is an American cultural historian who holds a Ph.D. in American Studies and was a Smithsonian Institution Fellow.


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