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Raising boys without fathers

A piece provocatively titled "Do boys need fathers? This woman says no" was published in The Observer over the weekend, a profile of the work of American psychologist Peggy Drexler on fatherless families. Drexler has engaged in a longitudinal study of about 60 fatherless families over the last 10 years, and she intends to follow the boys into adolescence and adulthood.

Some excerpts:

There's a common assumption that the one thing more difficult than being a single mum is being the son of one. [...] The prevailing wisdom is that a boy must be raised with a man in the house; otherwise he is likely to fail his exams, drop out of school, career off the rails."

Drexler found that many fatherless families have mothers who make more of an effort than their partnered peers to find a range of male role models to be part of their sons' (and daughters') lives - grandfathers, uncles, community group leaders, sports coaches etc. When research shows that many fathers only interact with their children directly for minutes per day, having the wider range of adult males as part of their lives actually gives fatherless boys a broader range of masculinity models to emulate.

'Men are very important to boys: boys need relationships with men to understand how to sustain relationships in the world,' she explains. 'But it does not have to be the one man in the mother's bedroom.'

The single mothers in Drexler's study are professionals and reasonably affluent, at least easily able to afford childcare. She points to this as a strength of the study rather than a weakness, emphasising that poor results in fatherless families are more likely to be due to problems caused by lack of money rather than a lack of a father.

"Her findings contradict many judges, social scientists, religious groups and pundits. But what she discovered was that a boy's morality and masculinity can be cultivated without a live-in father.

Indeed, she goes even further. In her view, traditional families have much to learn from these households: that boys from fatherless homes can fare better than boys raised in nuclear families.

'We have a vocal group who want to keep things the same and to deify the ideal family. But coming from a traditional family is not in and of itself going to make a boy into a moral, law-abiding, decent person or a good husband or a good father.' In short, parenting is either good or deficient, not male or female."

There are questions about why the boys she studies are doing so well, contrary to the stereotype:

"But could these boys be doing well in spite of having one parent, not because of it? 'It's easier with two,' she acknowledges. 'But only if you are getting along and there is a synergy between you. In fact women who are single say there are benefits to not having to worry about another person's point of view. Two-parent families are great when they're working but that's not a lot of people's experience, judging by the divorce rate.' "

When her work was first published in the USA, Drexler predictably generated a huge response from people accusing her of being an anti-male feminazi who ought to "move [her] dyke ass to Europe" , as apparently they were unwilling to accept that a woman who's been marred for 36 years to the father of her two children can yet recommend to other woman that they can be effective parents without having to have a man around the house.

"At one point she received so much hate mail she consulted a security company about protection.

Yet she was recently invited to talk to the widows from September 11. For every negative email there is a positive one. Each morning she receives messages of support from lesbian mothers and single mothers. 'You articulate what I have been trying to say for many years,' they tell her. Even the mother of Lance Armstrong, the world-record breaking cyclist, has been in touch. 'When people ask me who was his role model it drives me mad. I was his role model!' Armstrong's mother said.

Lance Armstrong is one of several famous fatherless sons - two British MPs, Bill Clinton, Quentin Tarantino, Tom Cruise - who end the article by thanking their single mothers for their strength as parents.

(Crossposted at Larvatus Prodeo)


elsewhere said...

Yes, I've always felt a bit skeptical about the fatherless sons moral panic stuff. (Isn't it just a throwback to Christopher Lasch's stuff on narcissism and the 'haven in the heartless world'?) Years ago, I think Lynne Segal wrote something about it not mattering so much about having a specific father as a range of good male models around, and that made a lot of sense to me at the time.

Don Quixote said...

It's the quality of the parenting that counts; not some mythical gender arithmetic.

It’s like the Beatles sang – all you need is love.

elsewhere said...

You get two, er three, comments on this post over here and 160 at LP? That's wild.

tigtog said...

It is rather a contrast, isn't it? Just goes to show what having high exposure does to one's response count, and why I jumped at Mark's offer to contribute to LP with utterly indecent haste (it's nice having lots of people noodle over what you write). Having a critical mass of regular readers/commentors means the discussion builds its own momentum too.

I wonder on blogs like this little one with a low visitor rate about the art of responding to commentors. Is it overwhelming/overeager to respond to every comment when you only get a handful (or fewer) of comments to a post? Or is it rude if you don't?

elsewhere said...

I don't know. I think it often depends on how much time one has.

Helen said...

I worry about that too. By my observation, you don't always need to respond. that was a great post BTW.

tigtog said...

Thanks for the kind remarks. I knew it would get a strong response from some regulars at LP, but I was pleasantly surprised how mostly civil the thread remained and how it went in some interesting directions. Parenting is something most of us worry about one way or the other.

DV said...

Steve Biddulph made similair comments in his book 'Raising Boys' Quite a lot of emphasis put on haveing male role models being very very important. From atching the BBC series "A child's World", it kind of makes sense. At a certain age children figure out that they are what gender they are is a defining part of who they are. they the look around for examples of what being male or female is. So, if a boy sees a man or men) that he likes actinga certain way, then he learns that that is how men act. There's nothing to suggets that this male has to be the father.
The show also answered my question on why girls become so very very girly for a while. Apparently, once you firgure out that you're a girl, you don't want to do boy stuff because that doesn't fir in with your identity therefore you wouldn't be you. Okay, they put it a lot better.

tigtog said...

That BBC series sounds quite excellent, DV. That explanation is appealing, if the evidence stacks up with it.

Biddulph's first book was quite good, but he seems to have become weirdly anti-mother in the time since (except for perfect women like his wife/mother etc, of course). His opinions on daycare at the moment are very extreme. It's a shame when good guys go mad.

kate said...

I find it interesting how much research goes into whether or not women are competent to parent solo (or with a female partner), when almost all children have a woman as their primary carer. Further, there have always been widows, deserted women, and sailors wives (in the pre-email & telephone era when they functioned a lot of the time like single mothers)

The real interest (for me) should be in what it will take for men to get involved in the day to day tasks of parenting (not just the play). There are men who do, but they're the minority. It's something that needs to happen while parents are a couple, not just after they've broken up. Obviously work issues, and needing to provide, are a big factor, but there are other cultural shifts that have to happen too.

I've been reading (or flicking in shops, being appalled, and not buying) a few parenting books lately. It really really bugs me how they are (even most of the ones that say they aren't) aimed at women, rather than parents. And they refer to men as 'helping' or 'babysitting'.

I'm also listening more intently and irritatedly to women who gatekeep the domestic & childrearing tasks, while simultaeneously complaining their husbands don't do enough. We've finally got to a point in our culture where we recognise that women don't innately know how to parent (hence the books) and we all learned how to clean the house (or we didn't) so why the expectation that men will automatically know how to do things?

It all contributes to the idea that men can't parent the way women do (and with obvious biological exceptions of birth & breastfeeding, that's stupid) and can't (and I'm making a clear definition here between 'can't' and 'don't') clean the house.

If we accept the idea that men are domestically incompetent, then we've got no right to be surprised when they don't do their share. And we're accepting that women should stay home like a 50s archetype.

I'm not suggesting here that it's feminism's fault (quite the contrary) I'm just curious about how women can support men in making that cultural shift.

tigtog said...

I wonder how much of the maternal gatekeeping is a habit formed in the early weeks after childbirth. The mother, having left her workplace to care for her infant, is displacing that workplace competency expectation onto her mothering, so she wants to do everything just to prove she's not loafing at home. And the maternal bond with the infant is one of infatuation, and there's an element of jealousy is being the baby's one and only which is an utterly irrational response to the intensity of the birth experience, and one which many mothers don't realise just how irrational they are being.

It doesn't take too long of doing that while the father still goes to work to build a habit that's very hard to break for both parents. Perhaps if more parents were prepared for how that impulse appears and how to let it wash over and share more of the babycare, the imbalance simply won't grow to the huge gulf it often later becomes.

kate said...

Lordy I just realised how long my last comment was (more of an essay!)

I was thinking about the typical Dad working full-time, Mum goes back to work part-time or stays home thing and your point certainly fits there. But I've noticed (relatives, people I babysat for regularly etc) that it still happens in cool new-fangled families where blokes work part-time and women work (outside the home) a similar or greater amount of time. Even in families where dads are really involved and change nappies and know where their kids go to school (my lovely Dad needed directions) and who their teacher is, they still don't do all of the remembering and planning. They are still not the one who keeps track of the babysitter bookings, remembers the kid's appointments, or buys their clothes.

Even my mother-out-law (having dilligently raised a bunch of feminists) gave my partner a plate of food to bring home saying 'so Kate can have a night off cooking'. Having cooked every night that week, he wasn't very impressed. He does a lot of the cooking, but he still sucks at the planning. Because 'cooking dinner' isn't just cooking, it's shopping, and planning, and remembering to get something out of the freezer, and knowing where we're gonna be that night so it's ready at the right time. There are blokes who do all of those things, but most don't, because they either never learn or they unlearn when they shack up with a woman.

As an aside, I think this happens in queer relationships too, one person does the remembering and planning for two. It's just less obvious who that's going to be, and seems to shift more easily as work/study/life routines change.