Conventional wisdom suggests that it is young men, more than young women, who are opting out of traditional responsibilities, that is, fulfilling their roles as fathers and breadwinners. The statistics on father absence are striking. Statistical data such as the report of The Maryland-based National Fatherhood Initiative which states that 1 in 3 American children live without their biological father in the home supports this conclusion. (Desert News, 10/16/2016) That absence puts those children at greater risk for behavioral problems, poverty, drug use and other challenges as they mature.
Authors Phillip Zimbardo and Nikita Coulombe address these concerns in their recent book “Man Interrupted: Why Young Men Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It.” Coulombe sites a Congressional Budget Office report which found that 1 in 6 American men between 18 and 34 are either jobless or incarcerated. She suggests that because young men have fewer role models in the home, they are less certain about how to enter the adult world. She calls it a tug of war between the obligations of real life and the constant and rewarding stimulation provided by the digital world. What gets lost is the development of social skills and emotional intelligence.
The increasing absence of fathers in the home is an incredibly complex problem with many factors to consider. There are economic and educational issues as well as significant changes in cultural expectations. We know that traditional male roles—father as head of the household; sole breadwinner and disciplinarian (“wait till your father gets home!”) are not currently in favor. Women are far too often the only head and the only breadwinner! Even if both parents are present it is far more likely to be an egalitarian situation. Still the father’s role in contributing to the family income is essential, though again too often absent. But it is probably his role as an active and engaged parent, fully involved in the difficult process of raising children, that is most sought after.
So what is the problem here? We know that engaged parenting for either gender depends on social intelligence and a capacity for empathy. Yet there is research to indicate that empathy is more fully developed in women than in men as a result of millennia of care-taking in which women have engaged. That is, the differences are not simply the result of social conditioning but rooted in significant differences in biology. Studies show that there are fundamental gender distinctions in implicit measures of empathy, with parallels in development and evolution. (Leonardo Christo-Moore et al. Gender Effects in Brain and Behavior. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Review. Vol. 46, Part 4. October 2014, pp.604-637.)
Maybe fathers have a bit tougher time tuning into the ever-changing landscape of children’s moods, tantrums and tears. Maybe men are backing away because they cannot cope with the emotional bumps and bruises that inevitably accompany parenting. But the thing is we cannot afford to lose them. A father who has the courage to become an engaged parent is a treasure. A father who becomes a committed unselfish parent to a child is surely one of the most beautiful of all human relationships. We need them, not just as breadwinners but as role models in the home; as adults who are deeply invested in the growth of their children who are the future of our society.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.