Why Don’t We Prepare Men for Fatherhood?
It was that time again when I had to revisit my monthly budget and reassess if, as a soon-to-be-27 year-old, I was making all of the wise, responsible decisions that I need to make. Enough for rent — check. Student loans — check. Saving enough in my 401(k) — I need to work on that. It was then that I seriously started to ponder about something that I have rarely considered until more and more recently: should I start saving for kids? I mean, I guess I want a family someday. I just haven’t really put that much thought into it.Fatherhood is an experience that many young men elusively see in their future, but they aren’t necessarily looking forward to it. Not that we’re dreading it (well, maybe not entirely), but society doesn’t program us to “expect” fatherhood as a woman is to plan for motherhood. We aren’t geared towards the expectation that a major priority of ours should be having children.
Society has taken an entirely different approach in preparing men for fatherhood than in preparing women for motherhood. In addition to being sexist, these current approaches deny young men the excitement and joy around planning on becoming a father.
From very young ages children are steered towards what their “proper” interests should be. Traditional childhood toys are just one example, in which juvenile entertainment of the male gendered includes toy trucks, building blocks, and science kits, while girls get baby dolls, kitchen sets, and dollhouses.
Men are not taught how to be a father in the same way that women are taught how to be a mother. Sure, we may certainly be someone’s father in the sense that we will provide the gamete that helps to produce a biological zygote, but society sends us the message that fatherhood is merely a stage in a man’s life in which he has the responsibility of taking care of another human being. In our capitalistic society, taking care of another human being for a man boils down to being able to provide for them. Provider. Bread winner. All titles traditionally associated with the male, father figure, as opposed to caregiver and nurturer, more associated with the female, maternal figure.
We are programmed to put devotion and energy into things that will make us able to take care of our offspring, as opposed to actually taking care of our offspring.
This view of current fatherhood positions men as having no real meaning within the unit of the family outside of bringing home a paycheck. What the conditioning of our toy trucks, building blocks, and science kits has done is encouraged us to pursue skills, tasks, and interests that will render us as able to provide for a family during our phase of fatherhood. This wires our thinking around the role of a father as being one who can simply provide. It is what a man can produce and secure that brings him his value, as opposed to his actual self and the care and concern that he gives (as is the case with the mother.) We are programmed to put devotion and energy into things that will make us able to take care of our offspring, as opposed to actually taking care of our offspring.
Across species, you have a variety of father/offspring relationships. With lions, the father’s sole purpose to his pride is to procreate and protect it from male enemy invaders. He plays no role in the rearing of the cubs, and is not even introduced to the cubs until a few weeks after birth. He may often leave for long periods of time and rarely interacts with the cubs. The cubs thus develop strong relationships with the lionesses through hunting and play. In contrast to this, the animal kingdom also has male sea horses that carry and deliver their young, a species of male putterfish that builds nests as a device to attract a mate in which she may potentially lay her eggs, and male Artic penguins incubating their chicks. There is, obviously, a capacity for a father to bond and connect with his children, as other species show, but is not so popularized with humans.
Homo sapiens are an interesting species due to our highly evolved cognitive skills that help us make decisions based on rational thought. However, when deciding on how a man and woman should raise a child, we have failed at this. While there has been a national focus on gender equality in the workplace, gender equality in the home is something that is spoken of rarely. While women have made great strides in taking on higher paying positions and larger roles, they will still do disproportionately more than their male partners when it comes to taking care of the house and children (even when the husband and wife work the same amount of hours.)
Because society has set the home under the woman’s domain, she is the default owner of any responsibilities that go along with that, including taking care of the children. She is likely to be more involved with her children because society “teaches” a woman to take care of children from her first baby doll. This is consistently then reinforced through baby food and diaper commercials featuring female actors in the majority of their commercials and most house cleaning products being marketed towards women. As a result, an unfair proportion of parental responsibilities fall on the woman.
All the while, men are allowed the privilege (especially during young adulthood) to be able to focus on themselves, rather than having to focus on having a family (once again, the responsibility of worrying about starting a family in young adulthood falls on the woman, but more so out of biological necessity here.) While there is definitely male anxiety around starting a family, it more likely centers on the professional and financial. ‘Maybe I should go after that promotion with the raise.’ ‘Should I start investing?’ ‘What should my ceiling be for interest rates on mortgages?’ All of our uncertainties as men around preparing for a family are a definite cause of worry, but it is around what we do for a living, our productivity, and what things we can make or organize of value.
A man’s preparation for fatherhood, starting with the toys he plays with, the games he joins in, and what he chooses to study in college, never includes interacting with a child or seeing himself as the one who provides help. Men are sent the message that what we should focus on are the activities and pursuits that will make us better men, and in turn, better providers for our families. It gives men a self-perspective with the luxury of being able to place ourselves at the center of our view of the world, as opposed to women who are taught the perspective to be in service to someone – either their husband or children. Our unequal and sexist gendered construction of parenthood tells men that the best thing that they can do for their family is to put forth their mental capacities into what will fulfill them, while telling women that the best thing they can do is devote all of their interests and energies exclusively to that of their families.
The beginning steps of how we can make parenting more equitable amongst the genders don’t start when a child is born, but before. It beings with how the genders prepare for becoming a parent, and that means changing how we approach it. Yes, it obviously is the role of the father, as well as the mother, to be able to give a child the things that s/he needs to prosper, but outside of the material and physical, a child’s development encompasses the mental, emotional, and spiritual as well. These areas of development show also fall to both the father and the mother. I’m still sticking to my savings plans for my 401(k), but also making plans about how and what I choose to teach my children around compassion, mental health, sexuality, hope, vulnerability, and so much more. It’s time for us men to start planning to be fathers, instead of just planning for fatherhood.