Is Parental Gender-Role Scaremongering Necessary?

Pamela Paul at the Atlantic explores the significance of gender in parenting. As Dr. Gartrell has pointed out, the research is finding that it doesn’t mean that much:

In the February issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family, Judith Stacey, a professor of sociology at New York University, and Timothy Biblarz, a demographer from the University of Southern California, consolidated the available data on the role of gender in child rearing. As Stacey and Biblarz point out, our ideas of what dads do and provide are based primarily on contrasts between married-couple parents and single-female parents: an apples-to-oranges exercise that conflates gender, sexual orientation, marital status, and biogenetic relationships in ways that a true comparison of parent gender—one that compared married gay-male couples or married lesbian couples to married heterosexuals, or single fathers to single mothers—would not. Most of the data fail to distinguish between a father and the income a father provides, or between the presence of a father and the presence of a second parent, regardless of gender.

This is nothing that most non-patriarchalist liberals haven’t figured out already. Two parents tend to have a better handle on their kids than one, poverty is rough on growing kids in ways that affluence isn’t, and spending plenty of time with kids is more important than having both genders represented.

With this in mind, Barack Obama, whom Paul cites as a “freakish outlier” from the statistics on fatherless children, is a really bad example. Obama grew up with a single mother, and with two grandparents, and when he didn’t have his grandparents, he had a stepfather. His young, divorced, adventurous mother was far from alone in raising her son.

The quality of parenting, Biblarz and Stacey say, is what really matters, not gender. But the real challenge to our notion of the “essential” father might well be the lesbian mom.

Oddly enough, there’s nothing in Paul’s article about the significance of the circumstances of parenthood. Lesbian parents do well supposedly because women pay closer attention to their children, but she says nothing about how maybe, just maybe, a planned child has a better start at life than one that resulted from a torn condom. Since the title of the article is “Are Fathers Necessary?”, where “father” here is defined as “heterosexual sperm-contributing dad,” I suppose it wouldn’t help her message to suggest that a couple who can only have a baby if they really want to, has an advantage over a couple that has to put more effort into maintaining their non-parenthood. That’s completely leaving out the gay male parents, though, and why should they not be included in this conversation? You try spending thousands upon thousands of dollars and months of edge-of-seat waiting on adoption or surrogacy, and see how lackadaisical a parent that makes you.

Family history might also explain the differences Stacey and Biblarz found between children raised by single mothers vs. single fathers. Since the creation of a life takes an enormous biological investment from the mother and very little from the father, it is not only possible but entirely common for a woman to become a mother, whether accidentally or intentionally, without a male partner in her life. The man might not even know about the child. Furthermore, since our society regards mothers as the better parents by default, is it possible that the circumstances behind single fathers getting primary custody of their children tend to be a lot more traumatic for the children involved? Could that explain, at least partly, why…?:

single moms tend to be more involved, set more rules, communicate better, and feel closer to their children than single dads. They have less difficulty monitoring their children’s whereabouts, friendships, and school progress. Their children do better on standardized tests and have higher grades, and teenagers of single moms are actually less likely to engage in delinquent behavior or substance abuse than those of single dads.

I’m sure the way men are socialized to view parenthood has a lot to do with this, but could it also be partly that a mother has to do something pretty bad for the kids to end up living with a single father? Whereas, a father can just as easily become uninvolved in his children’s lives due to sins of omission, and might not even be aware of their existence in the first place? Might that discrepancy put single fathers at a disadvantage in their relationships with their kids? Just a little bit?

The most interesting part of the article is this:

Sticking to “gendered” parenting roles offers a seductive affirmation. Fathers, roughhouse all you want. But we, gatekeeper moms, are in charge of the rest. We could give you detailed instruction, and you still couldn’t possibly do it as well. “Even women who want their husbands to help more with the kids don’t want to give up their traditional authority,” says Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families.

My question here is: Why are we asking whether fathers, qua male parents, are necessary to their children’s development? It’s almost like we’re all terrified that if heterosexual fathers aren’t assured that their children need a man in the house, that they’ll collectively pack up their bags and abandon ship. No, wait, scratch that. It’s exactly like we’re afraid the only thing keeping straight dads in their kids’ lives is the ego boost of knowing that Children Need Fathers. It is because mothers want fathers to participate in raising the children—but not too much—that the pundit class can’t abide the idea of gay or lesbian parents raising perfectly well-adjusted kids.This is also the reason why no one’s saying anything about gay male parents: they’re in no danger of abandoning their kids, but we don’t want straight dads to hear they could be equally involved as mothers in their children’s lives.

Perhaps the insecure heterosexual dads would benefit from less scrutiny on gender and biogenetic relationships, though. Maybe it would be best to stop making it about how much kids need a parent of each gender, and more about how much children depend on their parents’ love and attention. “Your children don’t need you because you have a Y chromosome, and they don’t need you because they have half your genes. They need you because you love them. They call you Daddy because you’re there for them. Don’t let them down.”