- The empirical reality acknowledged by progressive, conservative, and moderate scholars alike is that the odds are heavily stacked against fathers when the romantic partnership with his child’s mother goes south. Tweet This
- A large proportion of men and women across race and class still aspire to this “retro” arrangement of life-long partnership, both for its personal gains and the benefits it affords their children. Tweet This
- The old model of fatherhood still serves many well and is evolving for many into a more egalitarian system. Tweet This
Last Fall, Brookings Institution senior fellow Richard Reeves gave an intriguing guest lecture at my institution (Brigham Young University) based on his new book, Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do About It. I wanted to dive deeper, as it hit home on some nebulous ideas that had been rattling around in my head for many years about the prospects of young adult men in our rapidly changing society. So I asked my wife to wrap a copy of the book and put it under the Christmas tree for me. Shortly after New Year’s, I started inhaling Reeve’s in-depth analysis of the struggling modern male. It was a page-turner for me.
The first 11 chapters cleared out much of the fuzziness in my head about the changing fate of boys and men in our modern society. And I fist-pumped as Reeves insisted throughout the book that we are smart enough as a society to hold two ideas in our head at the same time: that is, we can support the full development of girls and women while still acknowledging that boys are now falling behind women in preparation for adult responsibilities, and that too many men are floundering in adulthood. He writes:
What is required here is a simple change in mindset, recognizing that gender inequalities can go in both directions. I said simple, not easy. The fight for gender equality has historically been synonymous with the fight for and by girls and women, and for good reason. But we have reached a point where gender inequalities affecting boys and men have to be treated seriously.
So far so good. Then I got to the last chapter, the title of which immediately troubled me, “NEW DADS: Fatherhood as an Independent Social Institution” (bolding mine), in which he addresses what he calls the “biggest challenge of all … to reconstruct the role of men in the family.” Reeves writes,
The old model of fatherhood, narrowly based on economic provision, is unfit for a world of gender equality. It has to be replaced with a much more expansive role for fathers, one that includes a much bigger caring element and is on equal footing with that of mothers.
Agreed, although I think Reeves’ characterization of the “old model” of fatherhood is a little thin and could be updated somewhat.1 But unfortunately, on the next page, he introduces a set of policy blueprints to facilitate this reconstruction of fatherhood, noting: “These policies are intended to support the development of a new model of fatherhood, suited to a world where mothers don’t need men, but children still need their dads.”
I could object at length to this boldly overstated point that modern mothers are doing just fine without male partners and that contemporary couples are rejecting the value of marriage. But I’ll let that pass and focus in another direction. Here, Reeves throttles back on his book-long theme that we can hold two ideas in our heads at the same time. He argues that we need to ditch the old (and imperfect) model where fathers and mothers lived together to raise their children in a triadic system of relationships with a new model that emphasizes direct, dyadic connection between fathers and children, independent of the parental relationship. "There is no residency requirement for good fatherhood. The relationship is what matters," Reeves states. "Fatherhood matters just as much as ever in a world of women’s economic independence, but necessarily in a reinvented form."
Reeves asserts that it is the quality of the father-child relationship that matters, correctly citing some empirical work from leading researchers that finds that quality outperforms quantity (raw time) in head-to-head matchups. But he punctuates that assertion with a period rather than a semi-colon, as virtually all well-informed fathering scholars now do. The missing second part of his statement is a clear acknowledgement that quality and quantity are highly correlated, that the quality of the parental relationship is strongly associated with positive father involvement, and that co-residence supports quality father engagement, while not living with the child and the child’s mother inhibits it, even among fathers who have a strong desire to be good dads. Yes, non-residential fathers can be good fathers—and we should applaud those dads and support them with effective policy—but the empirical reality acknowledged by progressive, conservative, and moderate scholars alike is that the odds are heavily stacked against fathers when the romantic partnership with his child’s mother goes south.2 To use Reeves’ own words, we can and must hold these two ideas in our heads at the same time to match the complex variety and reality of contemporary family life.
Speaking of policy support, I agree with Reeves that we should explore policy initiatives that might help men be better and more present fathers—such as paid paternity leave, father-friendly jobs, and especially child support reform. Still, I suspect these policies, even if we could get them passed and implemented in a broken political system, would only push the margins, not really move the needle. Social policy is not well known for large effects. Cultural forces often dwarf policy initiatives.
So, do we really need to discard the old familial system that supported involved fatherhood in favor of Reeves’ recommendation that we reengineer fatherhood as an independent social institution? The old model of fatherhood still serves many well and is evolving for many into a more egalitarian system. And a large proportion of men and women across race and class still aspire to this “retro” arrangement of life-long partnership, both for its personal gains and the benefits it affords their children.
We can hold on to the old-but-changing modelof fatherhood and still make progress in supporting a second, needed model that recognizes the reality that children still benefit from strong father-child connections when the romantic bonds between their parents fray. Reinventing core social institutions is a big job and usually beyond the scope of social policy tweaks. Steady policy work to support a new framework of non-co-resident fathering in conjunction with honoring the time-tested, evolving model of paternal co-residence in a family system is a more workable approach. Binary, “either/or” thinking isn’t useful here.
Alan J. Hawkins is a professor of family life at Brigham Young University.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.
1. For richer and more complex stories of how old models of fatherhood are evolving to meet modern circumstances, see Edin, K., & Nelson, T. Doing the Best I Can. (University of California, 2013); Florsheim, P., & Moore, D. (2020). Lost and Found: Young fathers in the age of unwed parenthood; Coltrane, S. Family Man: Fatherhood, housework, and gender equity. (Oxford University Press, 1996); Wilcox, W. B. Soft Patriarchs, New Men. (University of Chicago, 2004).
2. These—and many more fathering scholar—document that, while father-child relationship quality matters a lot, it is significantly restrained by lack of warm relationships with the mother and lack of co-residence with the child: Edin, K., & Nelson, T. Doing the Best I Can. (University of California, 2013); Florsheim, P., & Moore, D. Lost and Found: Young fathers in the age of unwed parenthood (Oxford University Press, 2020); Schoppe-Sullivan, S. J., & Fagan, J. "The Evolution of Fathering Research in the 21st century: Persistent challenges, new directions." Journal of Marriage and Family 82 (2020): 175-197.