The Changing Faces of Fatherhood in the Twenty-First Century

I love my 2 gay dads National Equality March Washington, D.C. 2009 for fatherhood blog post

This year Father’s Day fell on my father’s birthday. My thoughts turn to him and how recent trends have reshaped attitudes towards fathers and fathering.

The original Latin word for father is pater, and paterfamilias describes the male head of a household. Traditionally the patriarch, or paterfamilias, was the sole wage earner, the family provider and protector, and the moral and religious educator of offspring. In our collective imaginations, he is the Great Father archetype, a wisdom figure, a protector who restores justice and brings order to chaos by embodying righteous authority and power. In the Vedic Hindu tradition, he is the sky father; he is the Greek god Zeus and the Roman god Jupiter. He is the stern god of the Old Testament and the Heavenly Father of the New Testament.

In our dreams, the good father archetype (see my previous blog, “Fathers: Heroes, Villains, and Our Need for Archetypes”) may appear as a kindly old beggar, a roaring male lion, or a familiar male figure we admire. Cultural heroes like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, the Lakota leader Sitting Bull, or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. offer a projected version of the good father archetype as can presidents, tribal chiefs, cult leaders, movie stars and heroes in literature. Atticus Finch, the father in the novel and movie To Kill a Mockingbird, and Dr. Cliff Huxtable, Bill Cosby’s character on the 1980s TV sitcom The Cosby Show are two fictional fathers who depict idealized versions of a wise, morally upright father. These figures may bear little resemblance to our flawed flesh and blood dads, but they fill a psychic need, as do some leaders, to believe someone stronger and wiser is looking out for us. Fathers of minority or other marginalized groups are only now regularly being represented in popular culture.

My personal story illustrates an outdated patriarchal model of fathering. I grew up in a white middle-class family in a quiet New Jersey mid-twentieth-century suburban neighborhood. My father worked at a 9-to-5 government job. My mother worked as a private secretary before she married. A second salary would have improved our family’s resources, but my father forbade my mother from forsaking child-rearing for a job. Father was king. He issued the commandments; mother enforced them. She ruled the household: hygiene, schoolwork, and manners. He controlled the finances and made the rules. One of his favorite injunctions was: “You don’t have to love me, but you do have to respect me.” (I write more extensively about my complex relationship with my father in “My Jewish Question, My Father.”)

Everyone I knew was raised to respect their elders. Part of the traditional value system included filial piety and civic manners. While this model of family dynamics still exists, it is no longer the norm. In recent decades, there has been significant research into the roles fathers play in child development. The changes in societal attitudes toward marriage, women’s financial independence, single parenting, and masculinity indicate we are in a new era of envisioning fatherhood.[1]

Fathers go by many names—dad, daddy, papa, papi, pops. Whatever we call him, across diverse backgrounds, children with involved fathers experience better mental health. Children raised with active fathers have fewer behavior problems, longer attention spans, enjoy greater sociability, and are less likely to commit juvenile crimes.[2]

Today’s fathers can be gay, straight or trans; married to our mothers or not; stay-at-home or non-residential; a donor dad, a stepdad, an incarcerated dad. Since the late twentieth century, the role of women in the workforce has transformed the role of fathers. Between 1948 and 2001, the percentage of working-age women employed or looking for work nearly doubled—from less than 33 percent to more than 60 percent.[3]

According to research funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, one in three children live in a single-parent household. Within single-parent families, most children—14.3 million—live in mother-only homes. About 3.5 million children live in father-only homes.[4] Between 2 million and 3.7 million children under age 18 have an LGBTQ+ parent. Many of these children are being raised by a single LGBTQ+ parent, or by a different-sex couple where one parent is bisexual. Approximately 191,000 children are being raised by two same-sex parents. Overall, it is estimated that 29% of LGBTQ+ adults are raising a child who is under 18.[5]

Psychological studies suggest that father love has as great an influence on a child’s mental health as mother love. A father’s presence in a child’s life, his positive attention and guidance, can help a child develop a sense of their place in the world, which influences their social, emotional, and cognitive functioning.[6]

Some fascinating data from the Pew Research Center on the modern American family and on gender and parenting tells us men are more likely than women to give children more freedom. More men than women want to raise children the way they were raised. Women are more likely to: say they are overprotective of children; consider raising their children as the most important aspect of who they are as a person, and are more likely to worry about their children being bullied or struggling with depression or anxiety. Only a quarter or less of parents feel it is very important for their children to marry (25% for men, 18% for women). Similar numbers feel it is important for their children to become parents.[7]

A study conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) found that fathers tended to be more involved in caregiving when they had positive psychological characteristics like high self-esteem and lower levels of depression and hostility. Fathers were also more involved when their children were boys.[8]

Data supplies facts, statistics track trends, but our experience concerning fatherhood and our relationship to our fathers is not a statistic. It is a unique bonding phenomenon and a crucial theme in the story of our lives. Literature reveals what statistics can’t—the complex feelings, desires, and struggles inherent in this intimate relationship.

One writer who has expanded our empathic understanding of a father’s relationship to his child is Ta-Nehisi Coates. His book, Between the World and Me, is devastatingly beautiful  and written in the form of a letter addressed to his son that tries to consolidate the many fears he holds for his Black child:

“You would be a man one day, and I could not save you from the unbridgeable distance between you and your future peers and colleagues, who might try to convince you that everything I know, all the things I’m sharing with you here, are an illusion, or a fact of a distant past that need not be discussed. And I could not save you from the police, from their flashlights, their hands, their nightsticks, their guns. Prince Jones, murdered by the men who should have been his security guards, is always with me, and I knew that soon he would be with you.” [9]

What are five words to describe your father? What makes your father unique?

[1] Cook, Eliza Lathrop, “Better Understanding Fathers: An Overview of U.S. Fatherhood Trends and Common Issues Fathers Face,” Parenting in Context, Cornell University College of Human Ecology, 2014.

[2] Fast Focus Research/Policy Brief, “Involved Fathers Play an Important Role in Children’s Lives,” Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin-Madison, February 2020.

[3]The Changing Role of the Modern Father,” American Psychological Association, 2009

[4]Child Well-Being in Single Parent Families,” Annie E. Casey Foundation, updated April 24, 2024.

[5] LGBT Data & Demographics, Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law, 2019.

[6]Dads can be positive role models for living a physically and psychologically healthy life,” American Psychological Association, updated December 21, 2022.

[7] Minkin, Rachel, and Horowitz, Juliana Menasce, “Gender and Parenting,” Parenting in American Today, Pew Research Center, January 24, 2023

[8]Factors  Associated with Fathers’ Caregiving Activities and Sensitivity with Young Children” Journal of Family Psychology, 2000., Vol. 14, No. 2. pp 200-219

[9] Coates, Ta-Nehisi, Between the World and Me. One World. Penguin Random House. New York. 2015.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at Transcending the Past.

If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “Fathers: Heroes, Villains, and Our Need for Archetypes,” “Fatherless Daughters: The Impact of Absence,” and “Given Away: The Plight of the Wounded Feminine.”

Keep up with everything Dale is doing by subscribing to her newsletter, Exploring the Unknown in Mind and Heart.

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