As a group, few have made more progress than fathers in the past 50 years. Granted, there were always good fathers out there – those who were more involved than simply putting money in the bank. However, social and cultural norms that guide the collective behavior of fathers have shifted radically. While many still follow outdated stereotypes, others have adopted the more progressive roles within the family and as parents. Kudos to those who embrace these new roles!
What Happened to Fathers?
When widespread, sweeping social change happens, there are usually multiple factors at work on several levels. These political and social issues force us to make changes to survive. For example, women entering the workforce during World War II set many changes in motion. We are still experiencing the ripple effect of that social action. It was one of the early influences that affected the changing roles of women in the workplace and men in the home and family.
Women became more liberated in the sixties, and men quickly followed suit. The caricature of families that includes dad at the office earning money while mom stays home with the children has been wiped out for the most part. Stay-at-home dads and single fathers are rising in number. Fathers, as a whole, have stepped up to be more actively involved in their children’s lives. 1 in 6 custodial parents are fathers. While this pales in comparison to the number of mothers who have sole custody of their children, only a few decades ago this was unheard of except in very rare cases.
Since the majority of families with children include two working parents, it would be short-sighted to minimize the struggle of men who work and actively participate in their children’s lives. Active fathering can be as stressful for working men as it is for working mothers. Nonetheless, when both parents work, parenting becomes more of a team effort by necessity, unless the family employs outside help, ie. a nanny. The outcome for good enough parents is generally more well balanced children.
What is the Good Enough Father?
Parenting requires skill, patience and understanding. Setting limits, offering guidance, helping with homework and providing unconditional love are but a few of the job requirements. As it has always been, a father’s involvement, or lack thereof, greatly affects the psychosocial development of children. With the increase in active fathering, men are now also held more accountable for their influence on the psyches of their children.
A famous psychologist named Donald Winnicott coined the term ‘the good enough mother’ in reference to mothers who were able to attune to the needs of their infants, and reflect back unconditional positive regard for their babies. In other words, the good enough parent listens for and meets the implicit and explicit needs of their children, and connects emotionally in a mindful way, helping the child to see him/herself as loved and loveable through the eyes of the parent.
At the time Winnicott developed this theory in the early fifties, mothers were the primary caretakers of infants and children. Although his work was geared toward very young children and mothers, I think we can apply this theory to fathers and children of all ages. The good enough father (mother) is not perfect and cannot be, but s/he is largely responsible for the outcome of the child’s emotional well being.
In essence, the good father is one who is 'good enough'.
Don’t Minimize the Importance of Fathers
As a veteran social worker and therapist, I can remember when, as a collective, we largely believed that children being separated from their fathers in cases of divorce or separation was not all that damaging. After all, mothers were the primary caretakers and fathers were not all that involved in child-rearing. However, as the divorce rate continued to rise, we began to realize the many ways kids were suffering from the absence of their fathers.
The loss of a parent is a significant life event at any age. While divorce or separation is not a loss in the literal sense (as in death), it is very significant for children to be separated from their primary caretakers. Any good psychosocial history asks about separation from parents and siblings. In most cases, this loss needs to be addressed and resolved in therapy. Even those who did not have actively involved parents often grieve the loss of what the relationship might have been.
True, children adapt and life goes on in most cases. However, there is a lot of truth to the stereotype of women with ‘Daddy issues’ and men who have other issues from lack of a male role model. It is not a popular feminist thing to say, but we need our fathers. At the very least, we usually need to talk about and understand what that loss means to us and grieve for the loss of the relationship. While the idiom having any father is better than having no father is untrue, as it turns out, most of us benefit greatly from having a ‘good enough’ father.
NOTE: Nothing in this article is meant to minimize the importance of mothers or lesbian couples – this article is not about you. Peggy Drexler and others who study lesbian couples and their children have noted that the majority find male role models for their children, and that their children grow up to be as well adjusted as other children from two parent heterosexual families. The same is true for single moms who raise children alone. Additionally, I am speaking generically about fathers and men, and do not include abusive or negligent fathers or husbands/partners in these general terms. Additionally, I have not differentiated between heterosexual, homosexual or other groups of men.
1. Fatherhood. (2014). Statistics on Fatherless Children in America. http://fatherhood.about.com/od/fathersrights/a/fatherless_children.htm
2. Imperfect Parent. (2014). The Good Enough Mother: Letting Go of Perfectionism. http://www.imperfectparent.com/articles/good-enough-mother/860_1/
3. Peggy Drexler. (2014). Moms Are Enough. http://www.peggydrexler.com/articles/momsenough.pdf
3. National Parks Service. (2014). Rosie the Riveter: Women Working During World War II. http://www.nps.gov/pwro/collection/website/rosie.htm