The Future of Fatherhood
Modern fatherhood is in a bit of a mess. Despite the outward trappings of involvement and participation, it rests on very uncertain foundations. So much so that it has become possible to ask whether we need fathers at all. Yet despite all the criticism, I still believe in fatherhood, and I am sure that, whatever the problems, we will be able to find a style of fathering which will be right for the society in which we live, and also right for our children. This book is merely an attempt to look at the strengths and weaknesses of modern fatherhood, and to seek some ways out of the quicksands in which many fathers find themselves. There is much more to be said about fatherhood, but in this last chapter I can do no more than raise a few final issues and tentatively suggest a few directions which need further exploration.
The first point I want to make is that fatherhood is important. It means much more to men than many people suppose. To see why this is so, it is necessary to look again at motherhood. Men are jealous of motherhood; it represents a form of creativity which is always beyond us. If human life is the thing we prize most, then the creation of that life is the most important thing we can do. The tyrant may tell his victims that he has the power of life and death over them—but he lies. He has the power of death, and that is all. The power of life is far beyond him and deep down he knows it.
I sometimes think that all of male achievement is based on this simple fact: since men cannot create human life, they build cultures in an attempt to compensate. And then they tear them down again because the achievement is hollow. It may be too simplistic to claim that all male endeavour is due to this sense of impotence in the face of female creativity, but its power should never be underestimated.
Together with the jealousy, goes a sense of inferiority and inadequacy. This expresses itself in many ways, from myths which tell how men usurped women’s rightful creative role, to much of the sexism and put-downs which women have to endure from men, to men’s attempts to take over the act of giving birth.
Many myths, such as those of the Australian Aborigines, state quite explicitly that it was women who were the original creators of much of the natural landscape, as well as cultural inventions such as fire. But then, say the stories, men stole the women’s secrets from them and now they rule instead. It has been suggested that much Aboriginal ritual and belief is based on male desire to usurp the power of women. Aboriginal boys are separated from their mothers at puberty and are circumcised. The blood of circumcision is often explicitly associated with menstrual blood or the blood of birth. In fact, some aboriginal tribes go further, and subincise their boys as well: they cut open the underside of the penis and the urethra. This operation is considered to be equivalent to turning the penis into a kind of vagina in order to try to receive the power of women. For instance, until the wound has healed, urination has to be performed in a squatting position, as women do.
Traditional Aboriginal societies were very patriarchal, and women were strictly controlled. Women often had to give birth alone, while men underwent elaborate couvade rituals and were fussed over. Bruno Bettelheim has suggested that couvade and male initiation rituals can all be explained as an acting out of male vagina envy—something which he observed in his mentally disturbed child patients. It is a tempting idea and contains more than a grain of truth, even though it can’t account for all the facts.
Male envy and fear is also expressed in much male violence towards women. Pornography, as the women’s movement has shown, is not primarily erotic in content, but rather attempts to subjugate the subject—usually a woman. The same impulse is expressed in rape—not always, but in the majority of cases. One of the principal themes of feminist writing is the destructiveness of men’s nature and, in particular, men’s hatred of women:
Do men hate women? Are they really waging war against the female of the species? Not consciously perhaps, but the evidence presented by the feminists is impressive and persuasive. And the reason? It is because men are jealous and afraid of female power; a power which men cannot exercise or control. More importantly, many men do not understand the nature of women’s creative power and so think that it is dangerous, like the power of death. Because they do not understand, they want to destroy or at least contain it, and the only way to do that is to destroy or control women themselves. Thus men treat women as objects; to be traded, used, defiled, reviled and degraded. The irony is that this strategy is self-defeating. Men need the creative power of women—otherwise the species itself is doomed.
But this points the way to another possible approach. Suppose men were able to exercise creative power instead of women. Suppose that it was really men who made babies, and not women at all. Not surprisingly, this idea has cropped up time and again in different parts of the world. There are societies which claim that the mother’s only part in making babies is to provide a container in which the baby can grow. All the rest is done by the father. This belief was also quite widespread in the ancient world and a classical reference may help to show its essence. In Aeschylus’ The Eumenides Apollo defends Orestes against a charge of killing his mother by putting forward the following argument:
This too I answer; mark a soothfast word
Not the true parent is the woman’s womb
That bears the child; she doth but nurse the seed
New-sown: the male is parent; she for him,
As stranger for a stranger, hoards the germ
Of life, unless the god its promise blight.
And proof hereof before you I will set.
Birth may from fathers, without mothers, be:
See at your side a witness of the same,
Athena, daughter of the Olympian Zeus,
Never within the darkness of the womb
Fostered or fashioned, but a bud more bright
Than any goddess in her breast might bear. (From Oates & O’Neill 1938:294)
Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war, was the patron of Athens. According to mythology she was born directly from the head of Zeus, wearing her full armour!
With our modern knowledge about conception and pregnancy we cannot continue to assert that the female has no part to play in the creation of a child. But there are other ways in which men can try to take over reproductive power. I have already remarked that male involvement in birth is higher in the West than in most societies throughout the world. Many writers have suggested that this is part of a male attempt to control childbirth. It is certainly possible to hear male obstetricians talking about the sense of fulfilment they feel when they deliver a baby—almost as if it were their own. This may just be the healthy identification with the patient felt by many doctors, however professionally detached they may try to be. But it may also be a sign of attempted ownership. Ever since the invention of the forceps—a surgical instrument, and therefore the prerogative of men—men and technology have gradually become more involved in Western childbirth.
There are other, more direct, ways in which men may try to appropriate the role of women. One possibility is cloning. In the book In His Image David Rorvik tells the story of ‘Max’. Rorvik, a science journalist, claims that in September 1973 he received a phone call from a wealthy industrialist who was prepared to spend millions of dollars in order to have a son by cloning. Rorvik’s task would be to find a doctor who could solve the hundreds of intricate problems associated with such a notion. The technique is simple in theory. The nucleus would be removed from a human female egg cell and replaced with the nucleus from one of Max’s cells. The egg would them be placed in a woman’s womb and allowed to develop normally. Because the nucleus of the egg would only contain only Max’s genes, rather than a mixture of genes from two parents as is normal, the resulting baby would be an almost exact copy of Max.
Cloning had been performed in animals, but never before in humans. The technical problems were formidable, and the ethical questions unanswered (indeed, they had hardly been asked). Nevertheless, Rorvik claims that he found a man, referred to as ‘Darwin’, who was prepared to undertake the task. They set up a clinic somewhere in the Third World and, with a plentiful supply of eggs from the unwitting local women—who went to the clinic for gynaecological treatment—the experiments went ahead. According to ‘Darwin’, “in most cases” the women knew that he was “after their eggs”.
Eventually, says Rorvik, after almost one hundred implantations in four different potential host mothers they were successful, and the egg with Max’s nucleus in it was carried to term by the host mother known as ‘Sparrow’. She was flown to America and the baby boy was born in a small hospital in California in 1976.
When Rorvik’s book appeared it caused the proverbial storm of controversy. There was even a subcommittee hearing on the subject in the House of Representatives in May 1978. The general medical consensus was that the book was a hoax, and that medical science was not yet sufficiently ‘developed’ to be able to clone a human. The chairman, Paul Rogers summed up by saying:
We have learned from the scientific panel that cloning from an adult is not possible at this time. Therefore, perhaps, we are premature in thinking of ethical questions that may arise. (Quoted in Arditti et al p.82)
It seems curious to suggest that we should only discuss the ethics of an act after it has been performed. Surely the right time is before any damage has been done. Whether or not Rorvik was recounting a true story is not important. There seems little doubt that cloning a human is theoretically possible, and that sooner or later it will be done. There is, of course, no theoretical reason why a woman should not be cloned, but one cannot help suspecting that it will be men who will be most keen to grasp the reproductive possibilities offered by the new medical techniques.
Although cloning abolishes genetic motherhood, the procedure outlined by Rorvik still requires women to bear the children. Recently, however, an even more radical possibility has been suggested. Why should men not actually become pregnant and bear children themselves? There are practical difficulties of course, but some claim that they are not necessarily insurmountable.
The most important indicator that male pregnancy might possible actually occurred in 1979, when a woman in New Zealand gave birth to a baby daughter. Nothing unusual in that, perhaps—except that the woman had had her womb removed before the start of the pregnancy! Having three daughters already, a hysterectomy was suggested as a cure for serious period problems. It appears that there must have been a fertilized egg already in her fallopian tube when the womb was removed. When the egg emerged from the tube it had no place to go. So it floated around in the abdominal cavity for a while and then implanted on the side of her intestine.
When she flew to England for a television programme, I was able to meet her. In the weeks after her hysterectomy she had actually wondered if she was pregnant, because she experienced morning sickness and a tightening in her breasts, as well as severe abdominal pain, but she just assumed that this must be an after-
effect of the operation. But the symptoms persisted and she kept returning to the hospital. Not surprisingly she said nothing about her suspicion that she might be pregnant—after all, she ‘knew’ that it was impossible! Despite that fact that her abdomen was now quite swollen, it was not until the sixth month that one doctor was brave enough to suggest the unthinkable. An ultrasound scan soon confirmed the pregnancy, and the baby was eventually delivered by caesarean section at eight months.
The placenta was left attached to her intestine, and was gradually reabsorbed by her body. The little daughter was perfectly healthy, and when I met her she seemed to be a charming and normal seven year old. Although there have been thirty-seven other cases of pregnancy after hysterectomy, this is the only known example which has had a successful conclusion—possibly because the fetus implanted on the most advantageous site.
Although it is still unique, this case shows clearly that a womb is not absolutely essential for the growth of a baby. Those who claim that male pregnancy is possible say that a man could be prepared by giving him female hormones, and then a fertilized egg could be implanted in a suitable site in his abdomen. The fetus would grow a placenta, just as it does in the womb and, in theory, the pregnancy could then develop normally. Delivery would have to be by caesarean section, of course, but this is now a common procedure. It is important not to underestimate the difficulties or dangers, they say, but many doctors are now confident that sometime in the 1990s some men will indeed bear children.
Other authorities are not convinced. They point out that the New Zealand woman has not felt well during the seven years since her strange pregnancy, and that she has a lot of unusual antibodies in her blood which might indicate that she was trying to reject the placenta. They also claim that the risks to both father and fetus have been seriously underestimated. The hormonal consequences, too, may be more wide-ranging than anticipated. During pregnancy, a woman produces large quantities of the female hormones, progesterone and oestrogen. If a pregnant man needed to have similar quantities in his body he would become very feminized; his facial hair would stop growing, he would develop breasts, his voice might become higher in pitch, and so on. Finally, it may be necessary to stop a pregnant man producing the male hormone, testosterone—especially if he was carrying a girl baby, because the testosterone might make the fetus become masculinized. They point out that easiest way to stop a man producing testosterone is to castrate him!
But even if the dangers and side effects could be overcome, would any man want to go through all this? The answer appears to be yes. One survey in Britain in 1986 found 60% of men against the idea of male pregnancy, 12% undecided, and 28% in favour. When the television programme I mentioned earlier placed an ad in the personal column of The Guardian newspaper asking for comments on the notion of male pregnancy, they got an enormous response. There were many men who either wanted, or were prepared, to become pregnant. Some were transsexuals, born with male genitals but with female personality traits. Some were male homosexuals who wanted children, but were unwilling or unable to find a woman to bear a child for them. To such men, the possibility of male pregnancy seems as liberating as self-insemination does to some lesbians.
Other men were prepared to consider it because of infertility. If this was the only way for the couple to have a child then, as a last resort, the man would be prepared to carry the child instead of his wife. Finally, there were some men who simply liked the idea of being pregnant and giving birth to a child. One man I spoke to was very matter-of-fact about this. Since he has been a child he had wanted to have a baby, and at last there was the possibility of turning his fantasy into fact. He is married with two children, and not at all fanatical in his desire. I doubt very much if he would actually take steps to become pregnant, even if the opportunity were offered to him.
There are two aspects to the possibilities opened up by modern medical science. In practical terms they do offer the chance for men to take even more control over reproduction, and further dominate women. There is an urgent need for a widespread public debate about all of the issues raised by fertility control, genetic counselling, testing for fetal ‘abnormalities’, and so on. The possibility of the extension of oppressive patriarchy must also be considered in this debate.
But the new technologies also offer us new ways of thinking. They help to broaden the debate about fatherhood even further. I have already remarked that today many couples discuss what their working arrangements will be after the birth of the baby. Most of them still end up doing the traditional thing, but the very fact that the discussion has taken place is indicative of a new attitude towards parental roles. Similarly it will become theoretically possible for a couple to say, ‘Right, we agree that we want to have a baby. Now, which one of us is going to get pregnant?’ Of course, in practice, women will continue to have babies because it is safer, cheaper, and more natural for them to do so. But the fact that the question could have been asked has broadened the agenda of parenthood, and may be instrumental in changing male attitudes towards pregnancy and birth.
I hope that this will help to heal some of the wounds which have opened up between the sexes. Certainly, at the moment childbirth is a very sensitive issue for many women. The responses of the women who were asked about male pregnancy were nearly all expressed in political terms. Those who were against it said that men shouldn’t bear children because they don’t even take a proper share in their upbringing when they’re born. Those who were in favour said that it would be a good thing for men to get pregnant, because it would serve them right and show them just what women have to put up with! There is a need for reconciliation between mothers and fathers, and this cannot come about unless both will recognise the importance of the other’s role.
The desire to father is deep, complex, and flawed. It is also very powerful. It should now be clear that the chance of abolishing fatherhood, as the radical feminists would like, is very small indeed. For better or worse, men will continue to insist on playing a part in the making and bringing up of children. Furthermore, I believe that it is naive to assume that getting rid of the father will really benefit the mother or child.
The radical feminist critique of male oppression is telling and accurate. But the conclusions they reach are incomplete, and ultimately misleading. The problem with radical feminism is that it often becomes a closed system. As a brief example, consider the question of violence. Male violence against wives and children is a key part of the feminist evidence. Yet there are women who injure their children, and wives who batter their husbands. If one were to be true to the radical feminist analysis, one would have to agree that woman’s nature, too, is corrupt. But it has become an article of faith for some women that all evil springs from the male of the species, and so female violence is attributed to the corrupting influence of patriarchy rather than any dark side of femininity. It is the same with every other objection. It is impossible to refute the radical feminist picture of the world because it is based on female fear and jealousy of men—the mirror image of the male jealousy and fear which it has so dramatically exposed.
There is, furthermore, a vast quantity of evidence which suggests that fathers do have a positive part to play in the nurture and upbringing of children—although a note of caution is necessary because much of the research relies on comparing fatherless families with those where the father is present. Such comparisons are not always valid, because the fatherless families tend to be poorer, to have worse social conditions such as housing or education, and may well suffer more family strain and disruption. Any differences between the two types of family may be due to these social factors, rather than to any direct influence from the presence or absence of a father.
Nevertheless the sheer volume of evidence seems enough to indicate that some very positive benefits flow when children are able to enjoy a close, stable and loving relationship with a father. Researchers have found a relationship between father-absence and many personality problems including juvenile delinquency, poor academic achievement, inability to adjust to stress, inadequate development of conscience (for boys only, girls seem unaffected), and difficulty in adjusting to appropriate sex roles.
The effect of the father in the development of sex role behaviour in both boys and girls has been studied in some detail, mainly by American researchers. It appears that both boys and girls are more secure in their relationships with the opposite sex and with their own peers if there was a good relationship with the father. Homosexual men and women are more likely to have had a poor relationship with the father than heterosexuals. Both men and women with stable marriages are likely to describe their relationship with the father as satisfactory. One study (Fisher) went so far as to suggest that women with a poor father relationship have fewer orgasms than women with a good father relationship!
One example of the sort of work that has been done is the study carried out by E.M. Hetherington, who compared three matched groups of lower middle-class girls (13-17 yrs) who regularly attended a community recreation centre. There were girls whose fathers were absent because of divorce, and had had no contact since; girls whose fathers had died; and girls with both parents living. None of the girls had a brother, all were first children and none had adult males living in house (except the third group, of course). Both groups of father-absent girls had great difficulty in interacting comfortably with men and males of their own age, although all the girls were comfortable with other girls and with adult women. Daughters of widows tended to be very shy and sat as far away from male interviewers as possible. They exhibited avoidance behaviour; often sitting stiffly upright, leaning backwards, keeping legs together and avoiding eye contact. Girls whose father had left because of divorce tended to sit as close as possible to the interviewers (girls from two-parent families sat at an intermediate range) and to sprawl in their chairs, have open leg posture, lean slightly forward and exhibit much eye contact and smiling. Other studies have also suggested that father-absent girls are sexually more knowledgeable and precocious.
It has also been claimed that boys exhibit ‘low masculinity’ if fathers are also not very masculine—especially if the mother dominates at home. If dad has a high level of decision making in the family, the son will tend to be more masculine. The child’s perception of his father’s dominance at home seems to be more important than the amount of dominance behaviour that the father actually displays. But there are limits to this effect. If a dominant father consistently puts down his son, then the boy will not be able to develop his masculinity so easily. In fact, masculine development seems to be best served when the father is both masculine and also has a warm and loving relationship with his child.
There also appears to be a link between the ‘dominance’ of the father in family life and the way boys adjust to adolescence and adulthood. This tends to be easier if the father was the ‘dominant’ parent. Even when fathers are present in the families of delinquent boys, they tend to be weak, and to defer to the mother in the majority of decisions. Some studies report the same findings for girls, while others suggest that girls develop best when each parent is positively involved in family decision making. Both boys and girls from ‘mother-dominated’ families appear to find it harder to make stable relationships.
Many of these studies are open to question. Their assumptions about ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are not always clear, for instance. What they do suggest most strongly though, is that there is a need for fathers. Although bad fathers may do great harm to their children, good fathers can be most helpful. On balance, the evidence seems to suggest that it better for the emotional and mental health of a child to be brought up by a father as well as a mother, because he has something different and vital to offer his offspring. But there is a need for caution. Just as some biologists may overestimate the influence of genes and hormones on a child’s personality, so some psychologists overestimate the effect of upbringing. Fathers are important, but they do not determine absolutely their children’s development. Between the twin limitations of nature and nurture there is still room for free will and personal choice. I recently came across a most charming expression of this in a seventeenth century commentary on the genealogy of Jesus:
Another conclusion seems to come from all this research: not only does a child need a father as well as a mother, but each has a different role to play. This goes against both radical feminist and prevailing liberal middle class ideas, as we saw in the last chapter. I am not in favour of the extreme, almost caricatured, stereotypes of mother and father which have sometimes been peddled, but I am now convinced that unisex parenthood is not a good idea. The modern tendency to deny gender differences is based partly on a desire to escape the oppression of constricting and controlling role models, but also because it means that we do not have to make evaluations which might have moral dimension attached. Not only is it a cop-out, it doesn’t work.
If there is to be a difference between mothers and fathers, where shall we seek its proper manifestation? The key is perhaps to be found in the relative detachment of the father. No matter how involved the father is in the birth of his children, there is always a sense in which he is more distant from the baby than the mother. This sense of separation may be profoundly distressing to the new father, and he may strive to get as close as possible to his newborn—even going to the extent of trying to take over the processes of birth and feeding and nurturing. Yet there is value, both for the child and for the family as a whole, in the father’s detachment. For if the mother is very close to the child, so is the child close to the mother. But this is a situation which must not last if the child is to grow and mature into an independent adult. The committed father has a very important part to play in this process of separation and maturing. “From the moment of birth the child grows towards the father” as Margaret Mead put it.
The father represents separation and individuality, just as the mother represents incorporation and communality. Both are important in life, and the child which experiences both as positive and loving experiences is well set on the road to maturity. It would be a tragedy if mothers and fathers were never to reverse these roles—for the father to enfold, and the mother to draw out—but in most families this will represent the basic pattern for the majority of the time.
But it must be recognised that for many committed fathers this seems to be a hard and unrewarding role to play. It appears to imply harshness, lack of feeling, and an emphasis on the outside world which conflicts with loyalty to the family. In times past this has often been the case. A sense of alienation from the family is part of men’s general malaise at being unable to create in the way that women can. Yet we cannot escape from it, even with the possibility of male pregnancy, and it has to be accepted.
What we need is a new definition of fatherhood: one that will build on the strengths of our present freedom and fluidity, but which will be both realistic and inspirational in the model it presents to fathers. It will not be easy, and it will take time. Mostly it will come about through hard, and sometimes bitter, experience. It will draw on new insights about the differences between men and women, and in particular, explorations of the limits of variability. We know that there are cultures in which men are expected to be nurturing and gentle, and other cultures where they are expected to be aggressive and distant from their children. We cannot divorce our ideas of fatherhood from our ideas about the kind of society we want. Nevertheless, there is not an infinite scope for flexibility. There are innate differences between men and women, and that means also between mothers and fathers.
It is obvious that we need to continue to press for changes in the practical arrangement of society if committed fatherhood is to become a reality. But even more importantly we need to rethink some of our prejudices and presuppositions, and in the space left to me I just want to look at two areas where I think there needs to be a major shift in attitude from both men and women if we are to construct a new model of fatherhood which can draw on some of the gains we have made recently, while also eliminating some of the weaknesses of our present position.
It is possible to get the measure of an age by looking at the prevailing attitudes towards pairs of linked concepts. Two of these are freedom and equality, and rights and duties. Such terms tend to be used as slogans, especially by those who are comfortable in entrenched political positions. The Right is fond of talking about ‘freedom’, while the Left prefers to seek ‘equality’. Similarly, ‘duties’ are espoused by the Right, while ‘rights’ are found on the Left! A full exploration of these concepts offers a very fruitful way of exploring political and moral theories. For instance, is it possible to have both freedom and equality, or is it always necessary to come to some sort of compromise? Are rights and duties just opposite sides of the same coin, or do they express fundamentally different ethical positions?
Yet most of us use these concepts, and think in terms of the oppositions they provide, without ever really analysing them. Rather, they act like symbols for us, containing a package of half-formed ideas, opinions and feelings. Most of the time this causes no problem, but instead helps us to make quick judgements without having to start from first principles each time. But occasionally, they get in the way of a clearer view of the world, and then it is time to look at them more critically.
The notion of duty is one such concept, which needs to be looked at again in the context of fatherhood. There is now a widespread, though implicit, assumption that fathers have no real duties towards their children. In fact, I would argue that much of modern feminist thinking is based on this assumption, and that it needs to be challenged. I think that as men begin to get more involved as fathers they will start to recognise again that it entails responsibilities which are more far-reaching than almost any other human endeavour, and that as this happens they will also view their rights and duties in a radically new way.
The active father wants equality with his partner. He will share care and share work if appropriate; he will look after the children full time if appropriate; he will work full time if appropriate. But however much time he manages to spend with his children—and it will be a lot—he will want to share responsibility. He will not leave all the decisions to his partner because he is too lazy or too insecure to make them himself. Nor will he be happy if she wants to make all the domestic decisions herself, because she feels threatened by him, or because she sees it as part of her role as a mother.
Increasingly, the father will view his relationship with the children as a thing in its own right, separate from, though complementary to, his partner’s. The very fact of his paternity—however defined—will be sufficient for him to feel that he has certain rights and duties with respect to the child. One particularly complex and controversial area where this may find expression concerns abortion politics. The committed father may come to feel increasingly unhappy about the notion of ‘a woman’s right to choose’ an abortion. He will argue that a child is a joint responsibility and a joint charge. Whatever his views on the morality of abortion itself, he will argue that it should not be allowed unless both parents are happy for it to be performed. The fact that a woman carries the greater burden through her nine months of pregnancy is an accident of nature, not of will. It is not sufficient to give her greater rights over the unborn child than those of the father. Of course, if she did not want the child but he did, then it would be incumbent upon him to provide for the child and bring it up after it is born.
Many people argue that men’s indifference to paternity is the justification for women having the final say in abortion choice. A man can always run away from the child, a woman cannot. Therefore the woman must make the choice. Of course, a woman can also run away from her child after it has been born, but the double standard applies: a man who deserts his children is considered less of a sinner than the woman who does the same. The active father despises the double standard. He does not consider the man less guilty—in fact he is likely to judge him more harshly. Giving women the final say in abortion, though, only reinforces the double standard—it allows the man to walk out without having to worry about the consequences of his actions.
Abortion is an emotive and difficult area. It affects all of us directly or indirectly, and our attitudes to it are constantly subject to change. For some years it has been seen as a way of liberating women; of allowing them to be as free from the restrictions of biology as men are. We may come to revise that position. The active father would certainly say that men’s freedom from biology is illusory, and that a lack of commitment is not freedom but loss. For him, the birth of a child is not the end of life, but the beginning; not the end of a care-free existence, but the start of caring; not the end of freedom, but the start of liberation.
The abortion debate has nearly always been framed in terms of the concept of rights. Although it is inevitable that this should be so, there are some dangerous side effects—side effects which might also come from a greater paternal involvement in childcare. The risk is that we get a greater emphasis on the possession or ownership of children. Both men and women are liable to fall into this trap—Adrienne Rich’s caustic definition of fatherhood in the previous chapter spoke of the father as a male who has possession of a female and her offspring. Although she would probably deny that she meant that a child belongs to its mother as a slave belongs to its master, it is hard to be completely free from such notions as long as we continue to use the language of possession. Shulamith Firestone, one of the most radical of feminists, claims that only artificial reproduction can free women from feelings of ownership. The phrase, used by many women, ‘just think what I went through to have you’ is a recipe for thinking that the child ‘belongs’ to the mother, she says.
Kahlil Gibran makes the same point more beautifully in The Prophet:
If we start to think of the duties which fathers (and mothers) have towards their children we will be less likely to treat children as possessions. The notion of duty is unpopular today, and service is almost a dirty word. It is considered demeaning to the freedom of the individual to suggest that one person should serve another. Yet parenthood requires selflessness, and the questions of duty and service will come up again, in an acute form, when considering the question of authority in the family.
Indeed, I think that the notion of authority may be the single most important challenge facing fatherhood today—and perhaps even society at large. Of all the values associated with the traditional father it is his authority which has been challenged most strongly and discredited most thoroughly. Yet I have now come to believe that it is vital to re-examine the idea, and see whether it is possible to redefine it so that the role of the father may have a positive contribution to make to the dynamics of the family.
I am not referring to the kind of vulgar right-wing sloganizing which exhorts us to “Put Dad back at the head of the table” as a spokesman for the ‘Conservative Family Campaign’ recently put it. This kind of call has been going on for years; in the 1950s a book on fatherhood informed us that,
This seems closer to authoritarianism than the kind of authority that I am looking for. The urgent need in the family is to find a way of expressing authority without domination, power-seeking, or oppression. I suspect that the only way such authority can be found or exercised is by adopting the way of the servant. If a man or woman wishes to have authority in the household then they must serve the other members; not because they are coerced or manoeuvred into it, but freely and with dignity. Authority, conceived in these terms, is not a relationship to a subordinate carried out by force of arms or influence of hormones. Rather it is a quality of personhood which is exercised by giving to others, just as Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, rather than they his. Looked at in these terms, any attempt to dominate others will automatically result in a loss of authority rather than an increase.
Such ideas need a lot of working through, but they seem to me to offer the possibility of a positive answer to the problem of the uncertain father. If men are to discover a new sense of purpose in their parenthood then we must either return to the patriarchal family structure of the Victorians or else try to create new relationships with a different basis.
I wrote this book because I wanted to try to understand some of the paradoxes of modern fatherhood. It has been a fascinating journey, and some of the conclusions and discoveries have surprised me. In the course of the book I have become ever more aware of the dilemma of the modern father: his reasons for wanting to be a father, his uncertainty about his paternity, the pressures that force him towards power sharing and involvement; the rituals which help him to find confidence in his new status and role; the social conditions which ultimately betray him and prevent the achievement of his ideal; and the questioners who wonder whether it would be better if we abolished fathers altogether. Indeed, there were times when I felt like calling it, The Tragedy of the Modern Father. But it has thrown up many fruitful ideas for me, and my own exploration will continue, with a closer look at some of the ideas presented in this last chapter.
I have not lost my faith in fatherhood, nor am I despondent about the future. Families need fathers and men need fatherhood. There may be sorrows, but they are outweighed by the joys; there may be uncertainty, but it is overwhelmed by the satisfactions; there may be a lack of physical creativity, but helping to raise children remains the most creative work most of us will ever attempt; there may be pain at the recognition of men’s will to power, but there is opportunity for self-discovery and redemption. The relationships we make with our children are amongst the most intense and precious that we will ever know. The present state of fatherhood may be uncertain, but its future is assured. [Next]