I was 40 when my first child was born, a son who looked just like me. My easy identification with him was probably crucial, because even at an age that in earlier times would have augured impending senescence, I wasn’t well prepared to be a father. Had my son been born even a few years before, I would have had difficulty doing the job well, and he would have suffered.
I wasn’t alone in my suspended adolescence. An American male who hasn’t served in the military or cared for an aging parent or grandparent likely has little experience of being responsible for another human being and therefore little to train him for fatherhood. No wonder, then, that so many young men find the experience overwhelming. The crisis of absent fathers is complex, but the tragic yield of that crisis is simple: about one in four American children now live without a father in the home.
It can’t be that all those missing fathers are without feeling for their offspring. Perhaps the more salient explanation is that they would like to play the role of a father—maybe the father they never had—but don’t know how.
The decline in the culture of work has contributed greatly to the growing, comprehensive incapacity of men. Last year, over the holidays, I watched It’s a Wonderful Life with my young children, and they were puzzled by the scene in which George Bailey prevents Mr. Gower—the town pharmacist whose son was killed in the war—from accidentally poisoning a child through improperly mixed medicine. They understood Mr. Gower’s grief, but why was George, who appeared to be no more than 12, working in a pharmacy?
I don’t lament the loss of young children from the labor force, but it’s by no means unusual today for a man to graduate from college with no substantial work experience. The kind of entry-level jobs once performed by teenagers are now jealously guarded by adults with their own families. An affluent or well-connected young person might have internships, but while some involve substantial duties, they’re still a kind of playacting rather than work. For upper-middle-class professionals, real work may not begin until the mid-twenties. This phenomenon has bent the arc of maturation for men in ways that we’re just beginning to recognize.
In Brooklyn, much performative parenting is on display in my brownstone neighborhood, where fathers aren’t so much imparting lessons to their children as wishing to be seen doing so. (The Covid-19 lockdown has put a crimp into that.) This is partly because New Yorkers are a performative species. There is also, however, a natural skepticism about fatherhood that today’s Prospect Park dad must work to overcome. The father who disciplines a wayward toddler must signal by his every word and deed that all is well. I suspect that this has contributed to the widely observed phenomenon of helicopter parenting: dad used to be the one who would let you run wild.
Performative fathering may not be entirely a bad thing, because a father who performs the acts of parenting is at least providing care and may through habit and repetition learn to be a parent in a more authentic sense. Today’s children have some chance of knowing both people who gave them life; fathers who stick around are less emotionally remote than in the past. This knowledge also comes with a downside, though: a father known intimately can’t easily be idealized, as young men of earlier generations could idealize their fathers.
For men, simple respect is harder to earn nowadays and is often replaced by “respect,” a concept born of hypervigilance that evolved in the kind of high-threat environment most of us no longer live in, but that our dubious popular entertainments render all too well. The pursuit of this spurious “respect” is poor preparation for fatherhood. Indeed, being a father often means banking one’s status goals in the name of deeper aspirations.
Women have a folk tradition of mothering advice, but men don’t often discuss their experiences of parenting. The athletic performance of one’s child is a safe topic. Beyond that lies a zone of insecurity. This is unfortunate, because the role of a father, while often ornamental compared with what we ask of mothers, is nonetheless demanding. Men like to be cast in a hero’s role, but it’s hard to know what heroic fathering would look like. One’s role as a father is mostly defined in the negative: do not strike the children; do not display excessive anger; do not fail to be gainfully employed; and above all, do not disappear. We desperately need the late London psychoanalyst, D. W. Winnicott, to return and give us the “good enough father,” as he gave an earlier generation of British women the “good enough mother,” who was flawed, even incompetent, but not in ways that made her unreliable for her child.
Fatherhood involves both relentless present-mindedness—when is the deadline for baseball tryouts?—and the more complex imaginative project of divining what your child might think of you in 30 years. Who can possibly guess what shards of memory she will assemble to form a narrative that, for her, will be the truth of her earliest years? Thinking about it is enough to make one crazy. But that’s the job, and it holds little promise of restorative justice. Objectively bad but whimsical parents are fondly remembered, while the patiently loving and self-abnegating are sometimes resented for their reproaching virtue.
The world looks especially perilous now, but no parent ever looked to the future and thought: “I can’t see what could possibly go wrong.” By and large, children tend to reproduce the educational attainments of their parents and to accede to whatever social class they were raised in. The problems of happiness, of meaning, of character—those are more difficult. There, it may be the case that a father’s influence is rather small, and that we are all to some extent on our own.