President Obama extended Father’s Day one day this year to hold a conference on the importance of responsible fatherhood and mentoring. Yet the overwhelming message a lot of fathers seem to hear is, “Be quiet.” This is especially true for dads for whom parenthood may have come as a surprise.
As a woman, I never before noticed that men weren’t even grammatically in the picture. But this spring, when my brother announced that he’s unexpectedly going to be a dad, I read the information on unplanned pregnancy with new eyes.
I wanted to understand what he could expect, how other men responded, and where he might find a community or classes for new, unmarried fathers. I never found out.
Even the most neutral wording adopted the mother’s perspective. It was like a dad’s point of view didn’t exist. “Society doesn’t give men a lot of help, and it doesn’t give them a lot of permission to be involved,” said Brad Imler, at the American Pregnancy Association. While Dr. Imler lamented this state of affairs, he acknowledged that his organization mainly encouraged fathers to support the mothers.
To be fair, expecting fathers aren’t exactly burning up the phone lines to talk about their thoughts and feelings. The American Pregnancy Association estimates that fewer than 10 percent of its calls come from men. And even these are mostly guys calling on behalf of women, relaying a question about a pregnancy test or symptoms.
Adam Sonfield, a senior public policy associate at the Guttmacher Institute for reproductive health, pointed out that men’s reproductive needs just aren’t on the radar. While young women are routinely pulled into the health-care system for gynecological exams or birth control prescriptions, healthy young men have very little reason to discuss reproduction with any professional care provider. And they’re certainly not asking for relationship or caretaking advice.
“The concept of counseling and skills building doesn’t exist,” Mr. Sonfield told me. “Learning how to negotiate well with a partner, how to say no, how to effectively communicate what you need and want aren’t things most men think about training themselves in.”
So where do new fathers seeking guidance go?
“Honestly?” replied Imler of the American Pregnancy Association when I asked him. “Men might easily opt to go straight to an attorney.”
Sure enough, the website for Father’s Rights, a well-known grass-roots organization for single fathers seeking to share parenting, includes the words “family court” three times on the front page. They appear – shortly below the words “confused,” “frustrated,” and “angry.”
While the impulse toward litigation is understandable, it’s also sad. Everyone knows a dad is more than someone who executes his legal responsibilities.
However, with little preparatory support and plenty of punitive consequences, a father may find his usual position is a defensive crouch.
As a woman, I’m grateful for the laws that protect mothers and children, and I’m exquisitely aware that the reality of pregnancy means that I carry the heavier parental burden, especially at the beginning of a child’s life. But I can’t help but wonder if all the legal and social apparatuses designed to help moms unintentionally hurt them. Most mothers and children are better off if fathers are equal partners and invested parents. But little in our public communication and services invites men to see themselves that way.
To break out of this chicken-and-egg problem (so to speak) men and society need to work simultaneously.
We can all take a page from the feminist movement. Fifty years ago, women had to fight for a bigger, more substantive role in the public sphere, just as men will have to insist on a bigger part in the private one. Fathers might consider activating social networks or grass-roots organizations to clamor for better education, more mentors, a robust community of colleagues, and more varied and accurate job descriptions. In response, we as a society can dedicate legislation, budgets, and counseling resources.
And perhaps, in the vein of "take your daughter to work day," lets create a "keep your son at home day" to teach boys what goes into taking care of a family. This would help ensure that the next generation is prepared for responsible, engaged parenthood.
President Obama’s words today in Washington are a helpful reminder of how much dads matter. But all of us need to change our language around fatherhood.
After all, feminists drilled right down to the pronouns. They made sure a person wasn’t a generic “he,” just as a parent isn’t a generic “she.” By insisting on a syntax that honors both moms and dads, we can make sure every parent knows he or she is being spoken to, and he or she is being heard.
Kelly Nuxoll is a freelance writer living in Washington.
[ Editor's note: The original version of this essay misspelled the name of Adam Sonfield, a senior public policy associate at the Guttmacher Institute.]