Family  /  Debunk

Mythologizing Fatherhood

Ralph LaRossa explains the problems with mythologizing modern dads and the stereotypes present within views of fatherhood of the past.

Needless to say, separating fact from fiction is a challenge -- and, for some, an epistemologically meaningless exercise. But if it is believed that researchers can, and should, carefully piece together information to provide a reasonably accurate picture of things, then it is important to ask, to what extent do these stories of fathers in the 1950s empirically hold up? My read of the historical evidence is that the stories fall short.

Although it is correct to say that, on an aggregate level, fathers in the postwar era did less child care and especially less infant care than did mothers, it is incorrect to say that, by and large, because of their work schedules, fathers had absolutely no time to devote to their children; or that, when they did have time, they were clueless as to how to interact. Let me add, too, there is ample evidence to indicate that a number of fathers in the postwar era-as well as before-regularly changed diapers, got up for 2 a.m. feedings, rocked and burped children, and administered to sick babies. In at least one instance among the files I have been poring over, it was the father who taught the mother how to care for the baby, rather than vice versa. Granted, the vast majority of fathers viewed their involvement as "helping" mothers (the division of routine child care was decidedly unequal), but their help was not necessarily as inconsequential or as optional as some have suggested.

What is especially remarkable about the hyperbolic accounts is that they are recurrent. Although the five I refer to above were all published fairly recently, similar kinds of accounts can be found in every decade over the past 100 years. Children, but especially sons from what I've been able to gather, repeatedly have told stories of how yesterday's dads (not just their dads, but all dads) were totally uninvolved.

What is also interesting is how often hyperbolic stories of fathers in the past serve as a prologue to other stories-namely stories of how a son and the generation of fathers he belongs to-are, or will be, entirely different. The major message seems to be (quoting from a Parents' Magazine article in the 1930s) that "The old type of father is passing!"

Which brings us back to the question, what purpose do myths serve? Social psychologists tell us that all stories, including myths, are intricately tied to the politics of identity. Stories, as such, are inseparable from who we think we are, or would like to be.