The Evolving Father

How fatherhood differs across cultures and through time

Fathering for the Beltway

A scholarly sketch of American fatherhood.

A previous take on D.C.-area fatherhood

Originating as part of a fall 2013 panel discussion on “The Effects of Children on Fathers” held at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a new paper sketches some of the key patterns in U.S. fatherhood. Nan Astone and Elizabeth Peters, of the D.C.-based Urban Institute, provide key insights into American fathers. These findings draw upon the NIH-funded Transition to Fatherhood Project as well as other recent publications on U.S. fatherhood. The patterns Astone and Peters point to may be of interest to beltway-based policy folks as well as the dads you saw at a school event, park, or some other paternal place.

Fewer American fathers are married. In 1970, 11% of U.S. children were born outside of wedlock, and that figure has risen to 41% in 2012. More fathers are also not living with their children. In the past, nonresidential fathers had typically divorced and separated, whereas today a higher fraction of nonresidential fathers has not married their child’s mother.

Fathers are living in more complex families. With separations and childrearing with multiple partners, a father may have varied relationships with his children and children’s mothers. Since after separation children more often live with their mother, a father may find himself in a current partnership as a stepfigure while having other children with whom he does not live. This is not new, but it’s more common in fragile families.

The patterns in partnerships and paternal care have a socioeconomic gradient. “Men who become fathers outside marriage are younger and more likely to be ethnic minorities, to have mothers with lower levels of education, and to have lived in a non-traditional family type when growing up” (p. 163). Is stable male family life a socioeconomic luxury?

Astone and Peters call for more research on the motivations to become a father. While ultimate evolutionary concerns, they note, may shape male propensities to maximize genetic fitness, more is needed on the proximate emotional and cognitive processes that can drive some fathers to new caregiving heights and others to new lows.

Fatherhood has consequences for a man’s work life and wages. Some U.S. data suggest an uptick in work hours among young unmarried fathers, while older fathers may see a wage premium. Men are not massively backing away from paid labors as they become fathers, indicating the continued importance placed upon breadwinning. This view finds further support ethnographically, and in other ways: “[T]he limited ability of some men to get and hold a job that pays well enough to at least partially support children constitutes a barrier to those men fully enjoying whatever rewards in here in the status of father, including contact with their children” (p. 166).

Yet fathers are also investing in more direct childcare too in recent decades. More men are changing the diapers and reading books with their kids. Part of this may stem from—in an ever-evolving sexual division of labor—more of fathers’ direct care sought for being “substitutable” rather than “complementary” to a mother’s direct child care (as the mother works more hours in paid labor and in ways inviting greater paternal direct care). Still, men’s direct childcare is patterned in other ways. While most unmarried fathers are involved in their young children’s lives, by the time those same children are five years of age, nearly a third of fathers see them once a month or less.

Near the conclusion of their paper, Astone and Peters explicitly connect some dots between fatherhood and the D.C. beltway: “New directions in public policy, that place emphasis on the rights of non-custodial parents and their children to have contact with each other, are an encouraging sign. These new directions suggest that society is creating new institutions to reflect the idea that children need more from their fathers than money and that fathers want to provide their children with time” (p. 169)

Fathering continues to evolve, in the U.S., as the subject of research, and in policy circles.

Reference:

Astone, N. M., & Peters, H. E. (2014). Longitudinal influences on men’s lives: Research from the transitions to fatherhood project and beyond. Fathering, 12, 161-173.

Peter B. Gray, Ph.D., is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is the coauthor of Fatherhood.

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