Dads Against the Divorce Industry

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The Evolved Matriarchal American Family & Fatherhood

Gerald L. Rowles, Ph.D.
January 28, 2001


This message looks at the American family and the role of fatherhood on a historical continuum of 200 American years. The comments include information that has been retrieved from earlier reports by David Blankenhorn (Fatherless America, 1995) and Dr. David Popenoe (Life Without Father, 1996), both of whom have written compellingly on behalf of fatherhood.

In the centuries preceding the arrival of what was to be the American family on these shores, the European form of the family was somewhat different. Sociologist David Popenoe points out that the Northwest European family typically "consisted of three generations, often including collateral relatives (- all living in the same home)." In the pre-industrial family of the New World, the nuclear family was a father, a mother and their children. It was the father's role to provide for his wife and children, but he was also responsible for securing the formal education of and inculcating moral character in his children. In extension, he was also responsible for his family's safety. The mother's role was that of homemaker and nurturer. From the income provided by the father, she prepared and maintained the household; provided affection for the children ("her 'maternal indulgence' always had to be counterbalanced by strong paternal governance" - a period reference in Popenoe); and nourishment for the family.

When the original settlers landed, this was the family form that was original to America (and predecessor to the post-industrial "traditional nuclear family" of the Ozzie and Harriet variety). Largely because we were an agrarian nation, the form of the family was well suited to the demands of the agrarian lifestyle. And the sphere in which the family evolved was a concentrated nucleus or cell that was but a part of the larger body of society. Sometimes, in remote wilderness America, it was the only social unit. The extended body of early American society mirrored the nuclear family in its hierarchical form. And as a matter of degree, this remained true right up to the twentieth century's mid-point.

Popenoe talks of the necessity of the patriarchal family arrangement having arisen "from the need to secure the family's existence by concentrating tasks and duties in the family, which in turn required a strongly hierarchical organization." Male dominance was a function of economic production. "The family was a work unit, and even today the efficiency of most work units requires a hierarchical organization with a clearly recognized leader at the top."

In mid-twentieth century "gender-spin", this historic family nucleus was recast as a domineering male and his chattel. But the truth is that in a general sense, the prevailing father role was at worst, that of benevolent dictator. He was the model for sons that would ultimately emerge into a world of comparatively primitive conditions. Life was physically harsh, short and lacking in the comforts of the modern age and required significant levels of discipline and determination for mere survival in largely rural America. From the female perspective, childbirth presented its own hazards. As a counterpoint to the propagandized enslaver of women and children, David Blankenhorn noted that "throughout the eighteenth century, child-rearing manuals were generally addressed to fathers, not mothers." And the larger society of the eighteenth and well into the nineteenth century held its fathers responsible for the formation of moral character, stable marriage and general success of his offspring - and made him the primary recipient of praise or blame for those outcomes.

What has happened since - The first socio-revolution:

With the advent of nineteenth century industrialization, and its related economy, home and work became more separate and distant, and consequently, so did father. He could no longer shepherd the family in the same way that he had when close at hand, and more responsibility for the day-to-day aspects of family life fell to the mother, who remained in the home while fathers increasingly became employed by others, working for wages. Blankenhorn sums it up this way: "the major change in family life in the nineteenth century was the steady feminization of the domestic sphere. Accompanying this radical change were a host of new ideas about gender identity and family life - some focusing on childhood as a special and separate "tender years" stage of life, others on what were believed to be the special capacities of women to care for children and to create, in contrast to the outside world dominated by men, a secure moral ethos for family life.

Consequently, the "authority" of the father was seriously attenuated. Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the 1830s, opined that the increasingly democratized family had an effect wherein "paternal authority, if not destroyed, is at least impaired."

"As one measure of the father's loss of control over his children, the number of brides who were pregnant when they got married increased enormously, from an estimated 10 percent in the early Puritan years (1600s) to 40 percent by the middle of the eighteenth century. (Popenoe)"

At this point, the family hierarchy was now positioned at the shared-parenting center, if not slightly skewed toward the mother end. We were moving toward the enlarged sphere of the matriarchy. Perhaps the most dramatic shift, and the one which is most resonant in today's America, was the formal transfer of child management to mother. In previous times, fathers were seen as "the primary and irreplaceable caregivers" and "throughout the eighteenth century … and into the nineteenth century … in almost all cases of divorce, it was established practice to award the custody of children to fathers. (Blankenhorn)"

Juster and Vinovskis, writing in the Annual Review of Sociology (1987), summarize the shrinking father role: "The transition from the father to the mother as the primary socializer and educator of young children was completed by the nineteenth century. The mother was now regarded as the "natural" caretaker of the child, and the father's role was limited in practice to that of a supervisor or the ultimate dispenser of discipline in the home, - and breadwinner."

The family unit was no longer the nucleus that achieved "an intimate, protective environment for the nurture and care of its members" … it became more geared to "mere economic survival. (Popenoe)"

"Just wait till your father gets home", was the clich้d enhancement to mother's authority into the 1950's (and I suspect, beyond). "As early as the 1830's, child rearing manuals, now more often addressed to mothers, began to deplore the father's absence from the home." In 1842, (in Parents Magazine) a New England pastor warned against "paternal neglect" … as causing the ruin of many families.

What has happened since - The second socio-revolution:

I have written elsewhere (Rosie the Riveter and the Gender Warriors) of the cataclysmic changes, which were brought about by World War II.

In an extreme analogy to the Industrial Revolution, wherein fathers became one step removed from the family through their away from home employment, the massive exodus of young married- and marriage-age men to distant war shores placed them one continent removed from their families. And throughout the war years, the family back home did not remain static. In the second great dramatic shift of the war effort, mothers were now taken out of the home and moved to the workplace. The absence of men who were away at war left a massive vacuum in the industrial force, which was now gearing up for war production. But unlike the first great shift when fathers were removed from the home gradually by the industrialization of employment and breadwinning, the second great shift was almost cataclysmic in its suddenness. And within a relatively short span, women and mothers who had been briefly "emancipated" to the work place, as a patriotic duty, were also requested to return to their homemaker duties at war's end as a matter of demonstrating further patriotism.

But the men who returned from war were altered to various degrees by the carnage and militaristic zeitgeist of a global war. And while they eagerly returned to family and work, something had changed in the American psyche. In part, these men were even less involved with family, and more involved with making up for lost time in securing a financial future for themselves and their families. And while mothers and girlfriends returned to more domestic roles, to various degrees they too had seen a part of life that left them with new questions, new perspectives, and sometimes, new resentments about their previously accepted gender roles. This questioning and resentment was most likely the predecessor of the "woman's movement of the 60s.

Evidence of the Impact of two socio-revolutions:

Further evidence of the impact of these two major societal revolutions on the family, marriage and fatherhood comes from the records of divorce rates in America in the 130-year span between 1870 and 1998. In the late nineteenth century (1870), the divorce rate was 3% - in other words, virtually non-existent. As the Industrial Revolution took hold, by 1930 the divorce rate had steadily escalated to a peak of 17% - a nearly 600% increase. At the end of the second socio-revolutionary event, World War II, the divorce rate spiked to 30% and then leveled off to an average of 25% between 1950 and 1965, just long enough for the Baby boomers to become young adults and late teens. It was at this point - between 1965 and 1975 that the divorce rate doubled, and has remained fairly constant at about 50% up until the end of the twentieth century.

As I have suggested elsewhere (See "Rosie" above), in the latter socio-revolution it seems clear that the impact of WWII has been overlooked. Its introduction of women into a previously male-dominated work culture; the subsequent psychic antagonism between the returning soldier and returning homemaker, resulted in a weakening of the marriage bond that has had a tremendous impact on their offspring as well.

"The war revealed one of the inherent dangers of fatherlessness, although it was not clearly recognized at the time. Wartime economic conditions provided teenagers new opportunities for financial and social independence, and teenagers became recognized as a major new consumer group through the publication of the teen magazine Seventeen, launched in 1944. Teenage peer cultures boomed, but with them came an increase in serious juvenile delinquency and crime. (Popenoe)" Ignored were the myriad of social science studies that addressed the subject of "Father Absence".

I would be remiss in failing to comment on America's cultural minority phenomenon and their longer experience with imposed matriarchy. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated the New Deal, it was the precursor to the "Great Society" programs of the 60's, brought about through the efforts of President Lyndon Johnson. The centerpiece of this latter day program was an expansion of welfare benefits, as long as recipients obeyed the "no man in the house" rule. Consequently, the black family that had been stronger up to that point than the white family, began to be destroyed. Bill Johnson, recently writing in the Detroit News, recently had this to say: "(There has been a) dramatic increase in the number of children living in father-absent families. According to federal government figures, driven by the growing number of unmarried women of childbearing age (15-44 years), the number of births to unmarried women rose to 1,293,567 in 1998, continuing an upward surge. The National Center for Health Statistics pegged out-of-wedlock births among blacks in 1997 at 69.2 percent, up from 23 percent in 1960."

As fathers have become more peripheral to family life in the wider culture, the attributes of fatherhood have become less associated with the internal, emotional development of his children. Instead, the highest praise afforded him became that he was a "good provider" for his family. Although fathers still maintain the titular role of head of the family and breadwinner, previous qualities of character and handiness around the house have all but fallen off the list of desirable qualities.

A longitudinal survey by the National Opinion Research Center, demonstrated that between the 1960s and 1970s, even the "good provider" role had shrunk from occupying the number one position (86%) to the number 3 position (67%). Blankenhorn suggests three material ways in which the fatherhood role has diminished; first - there are fewer things that are defined as distinctly father's work. Second, those contemporary "authorities" that have held sway in the larger society have simply declared that fathers are not very important. Third, "paternity has become decultured - denuded of any authoritative social content or definition. … A decultured paternity is a minimalist paternity. … Consider the example of the sperm bank. No definition of father could be smaller."

At the end of a two hundred-year progression, that began with a father-centered nucleus, we have reached the opposite end of the continuum which measures "family." That constellation previously known as the traditional nuclear family is now defined in every conceivable way, except, father knows best.

What we have lost:

1. Masculine identity has been lost. The social role of husband and father, let alone masculinity, is lying about somewhere between sycophantic sensitivity and comic book hypermasculinity. We have seen the often-tragic results of a male culture seeking a masculine identity. Where fathers are virtually absent in the inner city culture, young males model themselves after gang lords and media archetypes of the action hero/warrior, wrecking havoc on their peers. And as the divorced and matriarchal single-parent culture finds its way into the suburbs, these models follow.
2. Family identity has been lost. Any single adult (and many teenagers) or combination of teens/adults that are housing a child is now considered "family." That loss encompasses the characteristics which were once central to the traditional role of family: a cultural seed bed for the growth of character; "a moral code based on three related principles - the permanency of marriage, the sacredness of the home, and the dependence of civilized life upon the family. Once this moral code evaporated - in the twentieth century - the fragility of love as the sole basis for marriage became all too apparent."
3. Humility and genuine empathy have been lost. In their place is a rampant narcissism - a self-centeredness unlike any other previous generation has exhibited (except perhaps in the last days of Rome). Without character, in an economy-driven America, what is left is materialism. An example came to my attention the other day. A fourteen year-old is having a birthday party, and insists that his less-than-affluent parents rent a hall so that dozens of teenage high school guests might be invited. The objective? In line with the everybody-is-doing-it rationale, the latest fad is to hold such a party so that the invitees will bestow the giftee with wads of cash. Self-esteem, it seems, now has a cash value in the teen world.
4. A sense of permanence has been lost. In a materially disposable society, relationships too have become expendable, and marriage has become a trial run rather than a life-long commitment.
5. A sense of the value of individual life has been lost. Unwanted pregnancies and burdensome old folks who have lost their productivity are viewed as tedious to a society that sees only expendable commodities.

What we have gained:

Surely no one wants to return to the Victorian era. In traveling through this epoch sea change, we have seen points at which the culture was magnificent in its resilience and heroic character. In the midst of the Great Depression and World War II, the character of the American culture and its individual components have provided as grand a spectacle as did Rome or Greece at the height of their development.

1. We have learned what works, and what does not. The intact traditional, nuclear family remains the greatest source of cultural strength and rewards for its members, and the larger culture.
2. Ozzie and Harriet as well as Ward and June Cleaver provided a brief Fifties moment when "fatherhood once again became an identity for many men." And at the end of the Fifties, "more children were living with their natural parents than at any other time in world history." We can look back at this era and find the resources to revitalize and restore our cultural strengths. As David Popenoe writes, "… what an extraordinary achievement this new family form really was, especially for children.
3. We have gained a new appreciation of the powerful influence of shared parenting, particularly in the economies of time and money it provides traditional parents. And we also have found that when there is either benign or passive moral and emotional neglect, terrible tragedies like Columbine arise. I think we will find that this obscene tragedy was a turning point for parenthood and family.
4. We have learned that stepfamilies, or "blended" families, are often more tedious than a biologically related family. At their worst, they are the breeding grounds for overt child abuse.
5. We have learned that the Divorce Industry has become the enemy of family, and that it has little genuine regard for the emotional well being of its clientele. Any enterprise that so encourages the distancing of a parent from a child or children, even to the point of encouraging the use of devious financial manipulation and falsified allegations, is no friend to either of the parties it pretends to represent and provide counsel.
6. We have learned that man and woman really are different, both biologically and emotionally. And we now know that each brings a unique constellation of gifts to a relationship and to their children. With commitment, we know that each person within that family nucleus grows, and prospers both in health and in happiness.
7. Importantly, we have learned that romantic love alone is a poor foundation for relationships. The choice of a marital partner is not a whim, but a reasoned evaluation of the likelihood of attaining future goals and success, in all senses, not just the genital ones.
8. But above all, we have learned that if we possess the character that has shone in the darkest days of our brief history (war and depression), we will recognize that nothing is as precious as a long and happy life - a life that is especially precious in its infancy.

Though much has been lost, much has been gained. Now it's a matter of getting back to the future.

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