Just in time for Father’s Day

Pamela Paul has a rather Slate-ish post up at The Atlantic, asking the controversial question: Are Fathers Necessary?

Unsurprisingly, her conclusion is no. Not really. “The bad news for Dad is that despite common perception, there’s nothing objectively essential about his contribution,” she writes. “The good news is, we’ve gotten used to him.”

There’s plenty more to chew on in the piece, of course. Essentially, she riffs off recent revelations that the most successful parents are lesbian couples. I’m not particularly surprised by this, if only because I think men have been traditionally less involved in child-rearing than women. Of course, that’s changing rapidly as gender roles shift and men take a more hands-on approach to parenting. The implications of Pamela’s piece toward gay men raising children are not mentioned at all, though to be sure, in order for gay men to raise children, fathers certainly are quite necessary.

As a father, I admit to bristling a little reading this. Then again, I find this sort of approach to studying what works in parenting mostly silly, as are the wild concoctions they create – self-help parenting books and contrarian essays, etc. etc. 

I picture a bunch of childless researchers pouring over these test results, running over their findings and crunching the numbers all without any context or necessary bias which actual life experience creates. Numbers don’t lie, sure, but everyone has an agenda.

Same with reports that having children actually makes parents less happy. Here’s what the estimable Jonah Lehrer had to say about that:

The fact of the matter is that it’s much easier to quantify pleasure on a moment-by-moment basis, or document the swing of cortisol levels in saliva, that it is to quantify something as intangible as "unconditional love". Changing a diaper isn’t enjoyable, and teenagers can be such a pain in the ass, but having kids can also provide a profound source of meaning. (I like the amateur marathoner metaphor: survey a marathoner in the midst of the race and they’ll complain about their legs and that nipple rash and the endless route. But when the running is over they are always incredibly proud of their accomplishment. Having kids, then, is like a marathon that lasts 18 years.) The larger point, though, is that just because we can’t measure something doesn’t mean it isn’t important, or that we should always privilege the quantifiable (pleasure, stress) over the intangible (meaning, purpose). Real life is complex stuff.

Yes it is. And so is being a father, or measuring the value of having a father (or a mother, or grandparents, or friends…)  The fact of the matter is, we don’t really know. Every father and every child is different. Relationships vary from one family to the next.

I’m all for non-traditional families, so long as they’re built on love and commitment. Traditional families are great too. I’m pro-family and pro-monogamy and pro-commitment. I think kids with two dads or kids with two moms will do just fine. But as a father, I do feel like my contribution to my kids’ is important. If you’re a father, you should feel that way, too. It may be that the immeasurable things are some of the most valuable, and that the studies which try to measure them little better than wild shots in the dark.

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25 thoughts on “Just in time for Father’s Day

  1. Citing that study is pure mischeif making. It’s one study and it’s brand new. Ya can’t base stuff off that. That lady’s just trying to get a rise outta someone.

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  2. It’s one study and it compares apples to oranges. Comparing lesbians that become impregnated through IVF to all hetero families is not a fair comparison. A better comparison would have been lesbians-to-heteros who undergo IVF treatment.

    IVF treatment can cost anywhere from $300-2000 or more up-front. People that have that kind of money on treatment that insurance typically does not pay for are not a random sampling of the population. Having a kid is expensive in any event, but the up-front costs are important. Not just in having the money handy, but in seeing those dollar signs in one big number.

    I favor gay and lesbian parenthood as science permits and adoption law can accommodate. The study does indicate the lack of danger in lesbians raising kids. It does not indicate much in the fitness or unfitness of fathers.

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    • Lesson of the day, read the article and then comment. The article refers to a study separate from the new one about Lesbian parents. The lesbian parent study is still flawed for the reason I describe, but I misunderstood EDK about what the author of the Atlantic post was citing.

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  3. I would add to this something else. Society works better when fathers have an investment in their children.

    My father told me a while back of a group of men that were invited to screen commercials for wearing life vests to see what was most effective. The most effective ad they had was a man lying dead in the water and two terrified kids in a boat with no way to get home.

    Fatherhood increases responsibility in men (on the whole). It increases male investment in society. It decreases risk-taking (in good ways). This is not just good for men, but it’s good for women. A society in which men have no investment in the family is a society in which men are not invested in society is a society that is going to have a hard time moving forward.

    Yes, many men are productive and cooperative by nature and children (or the lack thereof) doesn’t change much. But a lot of men describe having children as being the time in which they “grew up” because they had something that they had to take care of. If none of these men grow up, society loses. Men, women, and children.

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  4. Trumwill: I saw a study that showed IVF children (as well as adopted kids) were more appreciated by their parents than naturally conceived children, which certainly seems to back up your point.

    As for Jonah Lehrer’s comments, there’s some evidence that most people overvalue the sort of retrospective happiness he describes, relative to experiential happiness (if memory serves, Dan Gilbert discussed this topic on a video that got posted on The Situationist).

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    • @CaptBackslap, I would also be willing to bet if you were only looking at IVF and adoptive parents, you would also see different rates of happiness as compared to the rest of the parenting population.

      The thing with the parental happiness surveys, as I see them, is that they’re looking at the aggregate which tells you something but not what some people think it tells you. Some people present the data as proof that people would be happier if they didn’t have children, but try convincing a couple that has tried for years to conceive and failed that they’re really happier for it.

      It doesn’t work that way. How I think it does work is that there are more parents that would be happier without children than there are childless couples that would be happier with children.

      I think that a lot of parents try to talk their way around these surveys because they think that it means they made a mistake. For some it does. I think that’s what happens when having kids is the “default choice” for married couples. People that should think long and hard about it don’t. Meanwhile, those that deviate from the default made a more conscious decision. They likely knew what would make them happier. And they were right.

      My wife and I will be trying to conceive soon and I am not worried about the detrimental effect it will have on our happiness. I’m more worried about what’s going to happen if we can’t conceive. These numbers do not change the worry-balance for me a bit.

      None of this is to discount the results of the surveys, which are quite relevant. People trying to tell childless couples that they need to have kids really need to cut it out. It’s people that were talked into having children (by their spouse, by family and acquaintances, or simply social norms) that are dragging the averages down.

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        • @Cascadian, I’m really happy to hear it! Talked into it by your wife?

          I look at some of those who don’t want to have kids and think that they are 100% on the money. Others… I’m not so sure. My brother’s wife is probably better not having them (unfortunate for my brother, a natural father). One of my wife’s sisters, though, is such a natural parent but doesn’t want kids. My wife’s other sister would probably be a fantastic parent, but would not be happy doing it. She does seem to be embracing her role as a step-mom, though.

          Between my wife and I we have four siblings only one of which (my adopted brother) will have kids. Whether their decisions make them happier or not varies, though even if it does I still consider it sad in some way. If not sad for them, then sad for the world that would be made better off for having kids like their would-be kids in it.

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      • @Trumwill,
        All good points there. I’d add that IVF/adopted kids aren’t more appreciated merely because their parents are all people who really wanted children. People are generally more favorable to all sorts of things as the cost to obtain them increases; in this way, IVF and adoption fees serve the same psychological function as a fraternity initiation.* The same retroactive justification mechanism might be operating with the “intangible” benefits of parenthood that Jonah Lehrer mentioned.

        *analogy of the year, right there.

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        • @CaptBackslap, Keep in mind that ‘adoptive’ is a big word that covers lots of situations not entirely analagous to ‘IVF’. If you happen to find a study on adopted children, it might not say what you expect. Infant adoption by non-relatives would be closer.
          On point, I adore my 7-month old and these kind of things are not very useful. I think deep inside all this talk there’s a valuable lesson – maybe that as a society we could to do a better job of making pregnancy an induction for men as well more the way IVF and infant adoption are.

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  5. There’s absolutely no upshot is the thing. What would it be, that we should reverse the social norm that pushes fathers to stick around and help raise their kids? Why would we ant to do that? Is there any doubt that growing up with two parents around is better than with one? Do we think that we have a chance of influencing a lot of mothers with children by men that they knew intimately but who are now split with them to seek out relationships with other women who are interested in helping raise the children? What’s the point?

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    • @Michael Drew, I think the point of the column is for men, as Father’s Day approaches, to be grateful that they are allowed to be a part of their children’s lives.

      This is in contrast to several years ago when the annual Father’s Day tradition was columns bemoaning men because fathers leave their families behind.

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      • @Trumwill, I know you’re kidding, but the evidence is merely that they maybe aren’t as crucial as the popular imagination suggests (likely the case with parenting overall, I’d surmise), not that having a dad around isn’t a net positive. So that point really isn’t there to be made, is it?

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      • @Trumwill, I think the point of the column is for men, as Father’s Day approaches, to be grateful that they are allowed to be a part of their children’s lives.”

        Yes, and that is what is so offensive about the column, that men are supposed ot be grateful – to whom, some gate-keeping mother? – that they are allowed to parent their own children. How well recieved do you think anarticle would be just before Mother’;s day that wondered exactly how much mother’s contributed to a child’s well-being after weaning, and how much they should be allowed to hang around after they had served their purpose of birthing and nursing?

        This sort of thing might have been considered brash and insightful in the 70’s but now it sounds like trite, pathetic man-bashing. The hypocritical thing about it is that even this auther believes fathers, either individually or as a collective in the form of the state, are absolutely crucial financially for children. Do you really think she thinks it’s progressive to expect mothers to raise kids all on their own dime?

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  6. That’s what the evidence suggests, but that’s not how the article frames it. The point bring made is that men are inferior parents than women. That’s pretty much it. I don’t think it’s meant to be helpful. It’s a club meant to be used.

    (I think I’m a little risible about this because just a couple weeks ago on my blog men were described as an “unnecessary addition” to the family with the implication that they’re kind of in the way.)

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    • @Trumwill, No, I’m with you, and it’s a fanciful argument in any case, since the question is not what gender the second parent for most children will be of (in most cases considerations other than which gender makes the better child-rearer will determine that), but rather whether the second parent will be present. The author hears Obama’s (et alia) call to responsibility on the part of fathers as a claim about gender efficacy in parenting, when the claims about the ‘essential role’ of fathers is really just a rhetorical device to instill a sense of value and pride in the work of fatherhood. It is an unfortunate article.

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  7. As I mentioned back in that thread where we discussed Watership Down, my father passed away when I was a little kid.

    I grew up and became an adult with a wife and a career and a house and four cats anyway.

    So are father’s *NECESSARY*? No.

    Given the choice, however, I’d have had one well until my teens, twenties, and thirties.

    Reading stuff like this makes me think that the author is looking at situations like mine and saying “SEE???” while my response is to want to kick her in the proverbial nuts.

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  8. A disambiguation that helps here, because articles like these commonly trade on the equivocation between two readings of a statement.

    The statement in this case is: Fathers are not necessary for families. The two readings are:

    Reading 1: The denial takes wide scope.
    It’s not the case that for all families (the contribution of fathers is necessary).

    Reading 2: The denial takes narrow scope.
    It’s the case that for all families (the contribution of fathers is not necessary).

    Reading 1 is obviously true, and only the most obnoxiously arrogant fathers would believe otherwise. There are well adjusted kids that come from all sorts of families. It is not surprising that certain families, in which the partners are committed to equitably negotiating their roles, should result in very well adjusted kids.

    Reading 2 is false No involved and invested father I know (including me) believes it.

    Best,

    Dan O.

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