Two Fatherhood Advocates React to Slate XX’s “Just Say No: For White Working-Class Women, It Makes Sense to Stay Single Mothers”.
In this post, Jeremy and Scott will discuss the issues raised in a recent controversial post on Slate.com, Just Say No: For White Working-Class Women, It Makes Sense to Stay Single Mothers.
Jeremy Adam Smith:
I read, liked, and respected Red Families vs. Blue Families, the first book by June Carbone and Naomi Cahn—I even hosted an online panel discussion to promote the book. But this article profoundly disappointed me.
There are some excellent points here. Marriage is a good lens through which we can understand the impact of inequality; it’s true that efforts to preserve marriage by limiting the independence of poor and working-class women have been incredibly destructive. I’m totally comfortable with this key sentence: “The same changes that have made marriages more equitable and successful among elite couples have made it less likely that marriage will look attractive to [poor and working-class women].” This is actually a point I made, less succinctly, in The Daddy Shift.
My quarrel is with how the problem is framed in this essay. I think that starts with the title, of course–which I’m sure June and Naomi didn’t create. I’m an online editor and I get it; provocative titles win more clicks than thoughtful ones. But the title points to a deeper flaw in the piece’s argument: It confuses the problem with the solution. Fatherhood is still framed as breadwinning at lower SES; therefore men who are not good at breadwinning are not worthy fathers.
The progressive policy that flows from this framework suggests a much stronger investment in training and education, as well as policies like universal health care—the social-democratic case made in the piece’s final paragraph. I’m on board with that, as far as it goes, although my reasoning has more to do with reducing inequality than making marriageable men.
But where I part ways with June and Naomi is in believing that this is enough—to me, the investment piece is only half the solution, and in some ways the easiest. The problems are also cultural, psychological, even spiritual–and for us to address those problems, we need to move away, far away, from defining fathering as breadwinning, which is linked to a host of changes in masculinity. To say that men become less worthy of marriage and fatherhood as their income goes down is to say that skills like compassion, empathy, and care are optional for them. This is a terrible message; it’s dehumanizing. We need to help boys and men see that their self-worth and their worth to families goes beyond their financial contribution. We need to see men whole and nurture them as whole human beings, not as functionally specific social actors.
Another way of putting it is that June and Naomi may be right about economically marginal women and their needs—but wrong about their male partners. The piece’s last paragraph says that we need to invest in job training and opportunities for poor and working-class fathers. Absolutely. But if we’re talking about re-building families along more egalitarian lines, our efforts can’t stop there, because there’s more to fathering than making money.
There’s another issue and I’m not going to pretend to be objective about it. It’s this: I’m increasingly sick of people writing off men—men writing off men and women writing off men. This takes many forms. Sometimes it’s a matter of discounting men’s experience; sometimes it’s just stereotyping or rhetorically erasing their contributions at home. Conservatives do it, but progressives and feminists do it, too. There’s nothing progressive or feminist about it. Writing off men doesn’t create change; it’s a surrender to the status quo.
I’m imperfect, but I’m a man and I take care of my son; I try to coach him through his hard times; I volunteer at his school; I do dishes; I vacuum. Don’t tell me that I’m exceptional; I see all kinds of dads share care and work as full co-parents. Not enough, perhaps, but let’s not be so fixated on the negative that we overlook the positive. I exist; I’m not alone. And there are lots and lots and lots of poor and working-class fathers who contribute to their families, financially and emotionally. Don’t erase us. Our boys need to see us.
One last word. It’s easy for a guy like me to reject or self-righteously denounce a guy like Carl, the bad father in the essay—to pretend that he has nothing to do with me. But I refuse to do that. There’s a bad father inside every good one; there’s a good father fighting to exist inside every guy like Carl. Lily, the good mother, may give up on him, and that’s fine; marriage shouldn’t be obligatory and shouldn’t be a prison. But I don’t think we as men have the luxury of giving up on each other.
I don’t have too much to add to Jeremy’s eloquent and thoughtful response to the Slate XX piece. He (unsurprisingly) wrote it better than I ever could, so I’ll limit myself to elaborating on just a few points.
First, the authors wrote a nuanced piece based on research findings. Considering the controversial topic, I think they did a mostly admirable job in making a reasoned, factual argument (I don’t fully buy it, but that’s a different issue).
But, oy, the headline. Sometimes that’s the nature of the beast in online journalism’s fight for clicks and eyeballs, but sometimes a piece is better served with a more accurate and nuanced headline. In fact, a few days before Jeremy brought this article to my attention, I saw the headline and decided to stay the heck away from what I perceived to be a trashy hit-job on dads. (Since we’re all in this together, a headline that turns off so many potential readers/advocates is counter-productive.)
Second, as the authors of the original piece and Jeremy note, when taken solely as a cost-benefit analysis, some unmarried, pregnant, working-class women may be better off financially without a husband. This is especially so if the man in question is as obviously immature and reprehensible as “Carl,” the walking, talking, unemployed, video-game playing, spending-his-girlfriend’s-money, deadbeat stereotype used as a framing device in the article. Like “Lily,” I’d also try like hell to keep someone of his low character out of my life.
Third, as I read this article, I was reminded of another set of data from the Pew Research Center. When their report was released, the headline was “Breadwinner Moms”—highlighting the fact that moms were the sole or primary income in 40% of US families. However, as I wrote several places, one only gets to the 40% number by cobbling together the 11% never-married single mother households (almost all of whom live below the poverty line with a median income of $17,400), the 14% single-mother-divorced households (with a median household income of about $30,000) and the 15% of dual-parent households with female breadwinners (with a median household income of $80,000).
This more specific look at the data reveals that unmarried mothers and their kids are already incredibly poorly off economically. I can’t imagine that a father, however “non-marriageable” (based solely on earning potential), in the picture could make economic matters worse (see Brad Harrington’s awesome response in the NYTimes for more details).
Maybe Carl’s more empathetic cousin would be a great SAHD, maybe his more responsible cousin would make a great role model of modern manhood, maybe his more compassionate cousin would make a great life partner. By writing off dads as unfit for marriage solely based on income, we are closing them off to gaining competence and confidence in other important parenting roles, to everyone’s deficit.
Finally, there is a raft of research (see here, here, and here) that shows that kids who grow up with a father in their lives benefit in almost every way kids can benefit (of course, there are individual exceptions). For instance, kids with paternal involvement do better in school, have better health, get into less trouble, persist in their educations, are less likely to get pregnant before marriage, and are 1/3 as likely to be incarcerated.
Perhaps Lily is better off not having Carl around. But, maybe if we gave guys like Carl or his cousins a chance to grow into fatherhood in its many forms and roles, their children would benefit. And isn’t that what is most important?
Jeremy Adam Smith is producer and editor of the Greater Good Science Center ‘s website. He is also the author or coeditor of four books, including The Daddy Shift, Rad Dad, and The Compassionate Instinct. Before joining the GGSC, he was a 2010-11 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. You can follow him on Twitter!
Photo: Flickr/Timothy J Carroll