Yesterday, Fathers’ Day, was commemorated and, as with most of these days dedicated to social relationships, it has become so commercialised and commodified that the occasion now retains the most tenuous connection to the relationship. But we are living in a time of change in all social relationships brought about by new ideologies (eg feminism); evolution of the state system and societies (globalisation), as well as stubborn structural remnants from the past (slavery and indentureship), that the role of the father today bears closer examination.
While slavery’s downplaying of the role of the father has been blamed for the travails of the single-parent family (read “mother-led family”) in the Caribbean, feminist critiques have, in recent decades, condemned the “patriarchal domination” that the traditional culture reinforced in its normative, “nuclear” family structure, where the man was the “head of the household”. What is needed today, therefore, is not just a focus on “social cohesion” at the macro level between groups, but within the building bloc of society – the family.
It has been suggested that there ought to be a distinction made and acknowledged between “fathering” and “fatherhood”. “Fathering” is what a man does when he contributes sperm to a woman so that the latter’s egg may be fertilised to develop into a child. This is what a man’s role was during slavery in most instances and he did not settle into “fatherhood” where he had a role in the rearing of the children. He rather performed in a “visiting” relationship, where he would generally contribute as least as possible to the upkeep of the children. After indentureship, Indians created the nuclear but not the extended family structure they left in village India.
Today, with modern technology, the man’s physical presence has been made superfluous in “fathering” since this can be achieved with sperm donated anonymously at “sperm banks” and inserted into females for fertilisation. Interestingly, even the role of the mother has been complicated with both sperm and eggs being fertilised “in vitro” (in glass) in the laboratory and then implanted into the uterus of a woman. We now have the latter individual being labelled a “surrogate” mother.
It would appear then, that the role of men in “fathering” might continue to diminish in importance and with it, whatever moral imperative there was for the man to deal with “fatherhood”. We are not making a normative statement here, but simply noting an objective societal development globally and locally which can then be addressed. The question thus becomes one as to the necessity of “fatherhood” in the creation of a more harmonious and well-functioning society.
It has become a cliché to point out society’s reflective handwringing about the “damage” done to children because of absent fathers. But two possibly contributory factors have to be disaggregated: the financial contribution the absent father would have made to the upkeep of the family and secondly, the “role model” the father supposedly provided to the children. It is a fact that most single-parent families, headed by mothers, are poor and this creates all the pressures that poverty imposes on all families – not just single-mother families. Since poverty is one of the variables, maybe like the US in 1999, laws ought to be passed to ensure that “deadbeat dads” pay equitable child support.
We can also test the absent “role model” ideal even without “deadbeat dads” paying their fair share: we now have a significant number of single-parent women who are holding down well-paying jobs. Have we conducted studies to determine whether their children need a “dad” in the house? And this questions the ideal of “fatherhood” when most married men see their role as “just being there” and leave it on the wife to “raise” the children.
The new questioning of gender roles in and out of the family can be seen as positive in defining more clearly the nature of “fatherhood”.