Where are all of the fathers?

While doing research for a class, I stumbled upon Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, a novel published in 2016 that some credit with sparking the current wave of feminism in Korea. The novel follows intergenerational and societal experiences of misogyny, centered primarily on two sites: the home and the workplace. Kim Jiyoung, the protagonist, continually defies the patriarchal social order that expects her to get married, have children, and exit the workplace to serve as a caregiver until death, only to finally succumb to the isolation and pain of motherhood at the end of the novel (which manifests in a personality split through which she occupies the pain and personalities of all the women she knows, but that’s an entirely other issue). Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is structured so as to point to motherhood as an almost inevitable trap of economic servitude and spiritual desperation for women, and to point beyond women’s pain to the failure of men to become the fathers, colleagues, friends, and allies that a just society requires of them. Though Jung Daehyun, Kim Jiyoung’s husband, expresses actionable sympathy for her situation as a pregnant woman with career ambitions, caught between familial obligations and her desire to make a place for herself in the world, ultimately it doesn’t matter. Because he, as a man, earns substantially more for the same work and is more likely to get promoted, the couple decides that it simply doesn’t make sense for them, starting a growing family, to prioritize her career over his more stable, higher-paying one. In the end, economics and social hierarchies trump good intentions: the dedicated, feminist husband becomes a distant, if still well-meaning, father—all in the name of finances. 

While this particular story, based partially in fiction and largely in fact, occurs in a different context than that of America, both politically and historically, I appreciated the insight that the distance of this experience from my own afforded me. Across the Pacific, across cultures, the reality of womanhood was remarkably similar, and the critiques universally scathing. Through exposing the conditions of womanhood and motherhood, feminist media, in books, television, film, and art, inevitably speaks also to the ever-present but oftentimes far more hidden conditions of manhood and fatherhood. As viewers and readers of media across the world watch mothers and other birthing parents experience bloody birth, clean up bodily fluids, discipline rowdy toddlers, guide their children through math homework and elementary school essays, chaperone middle schoolers to field trips, and give teens the uncomfortable sex talk, it eventually begs the question: Where are all of the fathers? 

A shot of the Weasley family home from director Chris Columbus’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Overall, it does seem that representations of fatherhood are improving, at least marginally so. With regard to modern media, good dads are increasingly diverse and easy to find. One can easily open Netflix or sift through the dozens of lists, essays, and rave reviews on the subject to find countless examples of tender, open, and present fathers. Among my own visual media favorites of recent years have been Harry Kim of Always Be My Maybe, a middle-aged father who gently eases his adult son through grief, love, and growing up, Chief Tui of Moana, who, anxious about the future of his dying island, entrusts his daughter with preserving its culture and community, and Burt Hummel of Glee, a bumbling Ohioan whose earnest, often awkward approach to parenting his gay son through homophobia, the loss of his mother, and growing pains echoes with heartfelt sentiment. Netflix’s teen-oriented television series On My Block also offers quite a few representations of good dads. In books, we’ve been blessed with Arthur Weasley of Harry Potter, attentive father of seven and rare social justice advocate in the wizarding world, as well as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road’s gruff, unnamed father, who shelters his young son from the mysterious, apocalyptic world around them. Fathers are increasingly complex individuals, whose roles in advancing the stories we tell go beyond comedy and trauma. It’s not difficult to find representations of fathers who fail but mean well and regroup, who cry with their children in moments of hardship, and who find time to be there for both the moments that matter and the ones that don’t. 

That’s surely progress.

In the United States, American fathers are doing more in the home and less in the workplace. As of 2016, the average father did 18 hours of combined childcare and housework per week, an increase by almost three times of that of the 1960s. In the workplace, average working hours per week for fathers have decreased from 46 to 43 in the same time. As of 2016, 17% of all American stay-at-home parents were fathers, a significant increase over the last four decades. However, past representations and current realities continue to loom over modern media, and the reality is that fatherhood has a long way to go—in almost every country and culture. Significant gaps between motherhood and fatherhood, as well as between fatherhood and home life, more generally, still show. Mothers still do 14 more hours of childcare per week, report enjoying parenthood less, and struggle more with work-life balance than fathers. At the center of all of these changes are questions primarily of labor and finances—questions that popular media, politics, and individual families have all been unable to escape. Good real-life dads struggle to be present even if they have the best of intentions, and the most obvious reason is their occupation of the role of ‘provider.’ Even in dual-income households, fathers, on average, work longer hours and make more money, and they report feeling greater pressure to provide for their families financially. Financial stress has hit Americans hard, especially since the pandemic, and working parents have been one of the groups feeling this stress most intensely. This undoubtedly affects how parents interact with their children, and the division of labor that occurs between mothers and fathers. The ease of being the relatable, tender-hearted father as shown in media becomes disconnected from the realities of American life.1 2

An example PSA from the Fatherhood Media Campaign

One governmental response to this has been the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse’s Fatherhood Media Campaign, which features the slogan “Take time to be a dad today,” and frequently airs on sports-related television networks. On the Clearinghouse’s website, they offer toolkits, activities, and data packets available for purchase. In these, it is mentioned that there are barriers to making what seems to be such a simple choice (whether or not to spend more time with your child). However, the structure of the campaign, which falls under the arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, still ultimately places the responsibility of making time and creating conditions that allow fathers to be present on individual fathers themselves. This strategy seems disconnected from the scale and causes of this issue. 

Policy that addresses structural issues, like proposals to implement paid maternity and paternity leave, which would allow households to more equally divide the labor of childcare and housework from the beginning of parenthood itself, are a good start. Paid leave also holds the potential to lessen tension between work responsibilities (making money and ‘providing’) and home responsibilities, which are unpaid and often considered less economically valuable (though there is plenty of data to suggest otherwise). Legislation to shorten the working week from its current 40 hours has also been introduced recently, and, if passed, would encourage the continuing shift of fathers’ time from paid work to housework. Proposals to raise the minimum wage would also have to accompany this, as, otherwise, poor, working parents might simply have to take on second or third jobs to make up for lost wages (although many working parents have already joined the roughly 13 million Americans with two or more jobs). Policy addressing gender equality in the workplace and gaps between men and women’s earnings are also necessary, so that, if women wish to continue their careers and become mothers, there is ample support for them to do so. 

Like Jung Daehyun, many fathers want to do better. These changes create space for them to actually be better, and to create a more just future for their children along the way.

– A. Littlejohn-Bailey

Note: Beyond this, questions of feminism, culture, and the oppression of racialized fathers still remain. Once a father becomes more active, what kind of roles does he take on? Just the role of fun, easy dad, leaving the hard work to mothers? Without widespread feminist cultural reform, that future is very plausible and still deeply unjust. It also doesn’t make sense to blame a migrant father who is deported or a Black father who is unjustly convicted and incarcerated for their absences from their children’s lives. Without racial justice, immigration reform, and anti-interventionist foreign policy, it is reasonable to imagine a future in which white fathers of the Western upper class thrive, and nonwhite, poor fathers across the world and their children are left behind. That is still not justice. As the conditions of fatherhood tend to reflect the conditions of society, and improving society is a much more complicated issue than simply figuring out how to get fathers to do more childcare work, just economic, racial, gender, sexual, immigration, trade, and legal policy must be implemented across societies. Unjust policy creates unjust, harsh conditions for fathers, and the reverse is true, as well. 

Sources and Further Reading

https://www.fatherhood.gov/for-programs/fatherhood-media-campaign

https://www.fatherhood.org/championing-fatherhood/americas-fatherhood-problem-mass-media-and-how-we-can-fix-it

https://screenrant.com/best-television-dads-ever-phil-dunphy-jim-hopper/

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/09/30/918158081/juggling-financial-stress-and-caregiving-parents-are-very-not-ok-in-the-pandemic

https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/benefits/pages/how-bidens-paid-fmla-proposal-would-work.aspx

https://www.bea.gov/news/blog/2012-06-11/what-value-household-work

5 thoughts on “Where are all of the fathers?

  1. Hi Annabelle!
    Thank you for your post. I learned a lot by reading it. One topic that you mentioned which I want to comment on is that “good real-life dads struggle to be present even if they have the best of intentions, and the most obvious reason is their occupation of the role of ‘provider.’” I think it was really important for you to include this statement.
    Although absent fathers may be to blame for the gap between motherhood and fatherhood, and between fatherhood and home life sometimes, it is important to note that it is not always the father to blame for this issue. The societal (and gendered) expectation that the father should be the breadwinner definitely contributes to these gaps. As you mentioned, Covid epitomized this concept. With all the extra financial stress, at-home mothers have felt the burden of the “motherhood/fatherhood” divide extra hard. I especially think it was hard for working women who had to put their careers on a hiatus in order to be home with their children through quarantine. Also, I liked how in your “note” you mentioned how this issue is not just a one time fix, it has potential “economic, racial, gender, sexual, immigration, trade, and legal policy” as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Annabelle! I thought that this was a really thoughtful blog exploring the role of fatherhood in both culture and in homes. One aspect of this that you address is that we often see more “good dads” portrayed in media than we necessarily know in real life. This is such an interesting disconnect, and it’s interesting to connect that with who is making these cultural portrayals of fathers. Your note about how fathers are often not able to be in their children’s lives not because of issues with monetary obligation but rather more oppressive forces is also incredibly fascinating and adds another dimension of discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Brynn, thanks for your comment! It was weird writing this, juggling my experience of my own father’s parenting, other fathers I know in real life, Fathers(TM) as a whole, and then fictional fathers. In each of those groups, I had a completely different judgement, which at times made it difficult to address fatherhood as one, discrete thing. In actuality, many of us have terrible fathers, and fathers who are bad people. That’s a big factor to this, and one that I’m unsure of how to address through legislation beyond offering support for families to live without those fathers. However, I did want to address this issue with hope and compassion, too, because it would seem wrong and societally damaging to give up on fathers altogether. If fathers are getting better, that shows that they can get better, and then society must take a closer look at the ways in which it is preventing them from being the dads they should be and want to be in order to continue that trend of betterment. For me, that’s where all of these social justice-oriented policies come in. For the most part, fathers aren’t seen as groups that need saving in America (and likely elsewhere, as well), but maybe that’s been the wrong approach.

      Like

  3. Hi Annabelle! Thanks for posting – I found it really insightful to think more about fatherhood and its connection to various societal gaps and expectations. I think it’s interesting to contrast the disconnected reality of media and literature to some of the (lack of) fathers in the lives of people I know. While the father is often portrayed as the breadwinner, this can result in tradeoffs in terms of being at home with their children, especially when they’re young and growing up. As this starts to get more attention, it’ll be interesting to see trends in and differences between paid maternity and paternity leave as well. There may be a spillover of the gender pay gap to parental leave, which is something policies will have to be conscious of.

    Like

  4. Hello! Thank you for posting. This is something that I feel really will effect me and a lot of my peers as I am pursuing a demanding career and often am met with the question, “but what if you want to have kids?” It is true that progress towards equality in the workplace for men and women is increasing, but this often comes at a great cost to women who get stuck stuck in the trap of then saddling the “double day.” This phrase is representative of the phenomenon of the modern women being in the workforce, a step forward, but then also having to manage the full time job that is taking care of a house and family, causing exhaustion, burnout and frustration. It is important to consider that this problem is exacerbated for many minority and low income communities, who have poorer access to childcare, and less flexible jobs.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s