Let’s re-examine the traditional role of fatherhood, the one many of us Baby Boomers have grown up with. (I am just a year ahead of the Boomers but I still count myself in it.) Many have already evaluated the conventional responsibilities of fathers but I would like to approach them from a different perspective.
My father went to work every day, rain or shine. He came from a family of farmers and was the first to finish high school, let alone college. He was a successful attorney in a small town in Ohio. He provided for us and we never questioned that he would do so. Yet he was detached from the rest of the family. At the dinner table, he would dominate the conversation with long diatribes to which we really had no response. Then he would be silent and the three of us, my mother, my sister and me, would chat about what was really going on. He attended our concerts and the like and sometimes he would drive me to school. But except for the papers he helped me write–about the constitution or freedom day–we never really talked. It was only as he lay dying, barely able to speak at all, that I felt that he really saw me.
How sad! Why was it like this for him and for us? His own father was pompous, arrogant and abusive. Truth be told, I think my father hated him. But his role as the provider was essential for all of us. My mother was a gifted teacher but she was forbidden by law in the 1930s to teach once she was married. She was destined to be the homemaker and care giver. She chafed at this role which was so limiting to her but she saw no way out.
How did it get this way? Why were the roles so codified, so cast in stone? Where does it leave us now that we are evolving as a people and a society? Well, women are becoming breadwinners in great numbers, sometimes because they are the sole support of their families! They are stretching their wings; trying new things; using all of their talents. But men are not coming into the homes or becoming the engaged empathic parents that would enable women to share some of the real burden of rearing children. Of course, some men are and I am very proud to say that my sons fall into this category. But too many are dropping out—neither bread winners nor caregivers. The crossover of roles has really not taken place.
It is apparently easier for women to take up opportunities in the work place than it is for men to assume an engaged role as a parent. The reason for this asymmetry lies in important biological and even evolutionary differences. As I said last week the research indicates that men’s lower scores on measures of empathy have biological and physiological roots. Women have, of necessity, evolved as caregivers and their “empathy bones” have evolved accordingly. Another important determining factor is that women give birth! That means that an infant is literally a part of the mother for nine months. Women’s challenge is often that of seeing their baby as a separate being—letting him alone for Pete’s sake!
For men the challenge is to develop their empathy skills; build their emotional muscle. We are not the prisoners of biology. We have an enormous cerebral cortex that distinguishes us from lower mammals. We have the ability to look at a situation, see what needs to be done (in this case engage with our children); and figure out how to do it. That is the strange new challenge that fathers are facing. Next week we will talk about how to build those emotional muscles!
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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.