Since feminism promised to usher in the New Age of Equality, today’s men hardly know how to be men, husbands and fathers. And today’s women hardly know how to appreciate and encourage their men. Harvey Mansfield’s fine new book, Manliness, attempts to deal with this gender confusion.
One of Mansfield’s wisest insights is a critique of social scientists. “(Social science) studies, seeking quantifiable precision, split up the sexes into discrete aspects or behaviors, such as spatial and verbal abilities or violent and non-violent tendencies, and then never reassemble the pieces into a whole.” (Page 37, Emphasis in original.)
This problem is especially acute in our modern understanding of fatherhood. You might say that social science has figured out that fathers are important by process of elimination. Eliminate fathers, and kids’ lives deteriorate. Father absence is a disaster that places kids at risk for negative outcomes, ranging from dropping out of school to drug use to teen pregnancy to depression.
But when the social sciences ask themselves, “What exactly do fathers do?” the answers are a little thinner. Research shows that fathers do less “child care activities,” such as feeding and changing diapers. But what do men do more of? They rough-house with kids, toss them in the air, tickle them and teach them to take risks.
These results, of course, are the things feminists love to hate. Women work the Second Shift of household chores. Men come home from work, sit in front of the TV, drink beer and generally do nothing. The man’s “contributions” to childcare are more like play. Big deal.
Some advocates of same sex marriage have even reinterpreted the evidence on father absence to mean that children don’t really need mothers and fathers, just two loving adults. As long as the child’s needs are met, it doesn’t matter whether a man changes the diapers or a woman plays touch football with them. Mirroring the feminists, these advocates seem to believe that if social science can’t put its finger on exactly what men in particular contribute, men aren’t doing anything significant.
Like the social scientists Harvey Mansfield criticizes, the gender radicals want to disassemble mothers and fathers into their specific functions, but never reassemble the pieces into a whole. Our masculinity and femininity can be reduced to a bundle of traits and activities. If we can’t measure it, it isn’t there. But evidently, even those beer-guzzling, channel-surfing lumps are doing something.
My husband recently did something for our family that brought this into focus for me. We are foster parents. We once had a couple of very sweet kids who had lived with us for a long time. We were very attached to them, and never really thought they would go home. Their parents surprised everybody by doing every last item on their case plan. The phone call finally came that made it clear that the kids would go home one day soon.
The kids were elated. I was devastated. I tried to contain myself because they were so happy. But I was visibly a wreck.
My husband came into our bedroom, chased all the kids out, and closed the door. I was sobbing. I had a dozen reasons why it was all a big mistake. The kids would be better off with us and the parents would surely collapse at the first sign of trouble, and The System is so corrupt and awful.
He held me by the shoulders, looked straight into my eyes and said, “These are not our kids. Let them go.” I wasn’t ready to stop crying, but I knew he was right.
So they went home. Their parents really had gotten themselves together. The kids did great, and are still doing great.
Now I ask you, which of us, my husband or I, did the most for those kids? To even ask this question is to misunderstand the nature of the family, of marriage and of parenting. I certainly did more driving in the car pool, and helping with homework. That is the stuff women complain about, and that social scientists measure.
But he was always there, too. He’d play catch with them, take them boating and glare at them when they misbehaved. He was there for me too, backing me up, insisting the kids respect me, holding me accountable, and yes, telling me to get a grip when I might have gone off the deep end. At the crucial moment, he kept me from doing something really stupid and destructive. You’d have to be a nut to believe that the number of hours each of us spent with the kids was the most relevant fact about who contributed to their success.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s good when father helps with kids and the household, if only because mother feels loved and appreciated by him. But even when we can’t put our finger on it, the masculine presence in the household contributes. We women do our families a great service when we recognize and respect that fact about our men.