Just in time for Father’s Day
Pamela Paul has a rather Slate-ish post up at The Atlantic, asking the controversial question: Are Fathers Necessary?
Unsurprisingly, her conclusion is no. Not really. “The bad news for Dad is that despite common perception, there’s nothing objectively essential about his contribution,” she writes. “The good news is, we’ve gotten used to him.”
There’s plenty more to chew on in the piece, of course. Essentially, she riffs off recent revelations that the most successful parents are lesbian couples. I’m not particularly surprised by this, if only because I think men have been traditionally less involved in child-rearing than women. Of course, that’s changing rapidly as gender roles shift and men take a more hands-on approach to parenting. The implications of Pamela’s piece toward gay men raising children are not mentioned at all, though to be sure, in order for gay men to raise children, fathers certainly are quite necessary.
As a father, I admit to bristling a little reading this. Then again, I find this sort of approach to studying what works in parenting mostly silly, as are the wild concoctions they create – self-help parenting books and contrarian essays, etc. etc.
I picture a bunch of childless researchers pouring over these test results, running over their findings and crunching the numbers all without any context or necessary bias which actual life experience creates. Numbers don’t lie, sure, but everyone has an agenda.
The fact of the matter is that it’s much easier to quantify pleasure on a moment-by-moment basis, or document the swing of cortisol levels in saliva, that it is to quantify something as intangible as "unconditional love". Changing a diaper isn’t enjoyable, and teenagers can be such a pain in the ass, but having kids can also provide a profound source of meaning. (I like the amateur marathoner metaphor: survey a marathoner in the midst of the race and they’ll complain about their legs and that nipple rash and the endless route. But when the running is over they are always incredibly proud of their accomplishment. Having kids, then, is like a marathon that lasts 18 years.) The larger point, though, is that just because we can’t measure something doesn’t mean it isn’t important, or that we should always privilege the quantifiable (pleasure, stress) over the intangible (meaning, purpose). Real life is complex stuff.
Yes it is. And so is being a father, or measuring the value of having a father (or a mother, or grandparents, or friends…) The fact of the matter is, we don’t really know. Every father and every child is different. Relationships vary from one family to the next.
I’m all for non-traditional families, so long as they’re built on love and commitment. Traditional families are great too. I’m pro-family and pro-monogamy and pro-commitment. I think kids with two dads or kids with two moms will do just fine. But as a father, I do feel like my contribution to my kids’ is important. If you’re a father, you should feel that way, too. It may be that the immeasurable things are some of the most valuable, and that the studies which try to measure them little better than wild shots in the dark.