Men Don’t Mother

There’s been a strange turn of opinions about fatherhood—at least in recent public debates. Decades of research have now documented the tremendous challenges children face when they grow up without their fathers. But you would never know it by looking at some of the recent public arguments for “genderless parenting.”

So what do the decades of research on fathers say? Boys from fatherless families are twice as likely to end up in prison before age 30. Girls raised in homes without their fathers are much more likely to engage in early sexual behavior and end up pregnant as teenagers—for example, girls whose fathers left home before their daughters turned six are six times more likely to end up pregnant as teenagers. Children who grow up without married mothers and fathers are also more likely to experience depression, behavioral problems, and school expulsion.

There is also more abuse in homes without fathers. In studies of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, fathers living with their children emerge as strong protectors—both through watching over their children’s activities and communicating to others that they will protect them. In one study, abuse was 10 times more likely for children in homes with their mother and an unrelated boyfriend.

These differences can partly be explained by the fact that these children are more likely to grow up in poverty. But that too reveals the importance of dads, as married fathers are the primary breadwinners in almost 70% of married families—providing resources that benefit children in a whole host of ways.

In spite of this evidence, some academics and voices that shape public opinion are asserting that fathers are not, in fact, essential. As two researchers recently argued in a top-tier family science publication, “The gender of parents only matters in ways that don’t matter.” Though it may be important to have two “parental figures,” their genders and relationship to the child don’t matter that much. Fathers—as well as mothers—are supposedly disposable when it comes to their own children’s development.

Not surprisingly, arguments for “genderless parenting” are often based on a particular view of what defines male and female equality. Depending on the definition, one can do what the other can do, and do it just as well, if given the chance. Thus, mothers and fathers are interchangeable, and one or the other gender is unnecessary and replaceable.

It’s easy to see why these claims seem believable. We all know mothers who are breadwinners, and fathers who perform the traditional female role of providing full-time quality child care. And a body of research shows that fathers have both the desire and capacity to be protective, nurturing, affectionate, and responsive with their children.

But are fathers and mothers really the same? Do mothers “father” and do fathers “mother” in the same way the other would do?

Canadian scholar, Andrea Doucet, has explored this question in her book Do Men Mother? Her extensive research with 118 male primary caregivers, including stay-at-home dads, led her to conclude that fathers do not “mother.” And that’s a good thing. Although mothering and fathering have much in common, there were persistent, critical differences that were important for children’s development.

To begin, fathers more often used fun and playfulness to connect with their children. No doubt, many a mother has wondered why her husband can’t seem to help himself from “tickling and tossing” their infant—while she stands beside him holding her breath in fear. And he can’t understand why all she wants to do is “coo and cuddle.” Yet as Doucet found, playfulness and fun are often critical modes of connection with children—even from infancy.

Fathers also more consistently made it a point to get their children outdoors to do physical activities with them. Almost intuitively they seemed to know that responding to the physical and developmental needs of their children was an important aspect of nurturing.

When fathers responded to children’s emotional hurts, they differed from mothers in their focus on fixing the problem rather than addressing the hurt feeling. While this did not appear to be particularly “nurturing” at first, the seeming “indifference” was useful—particularly as children grew older. They would seek out and share things with their dads precisely because of their measured, problem-solving responses. The “indifference” actually became a strategic form of nurturing in emotionally-charged situations.

Fathers were also more likely to encourage children’s risk taking—whether on the playground, in school work, or in trying new things. While mothers typically discouraged risk-taking, fathers guided their children in deciding how much risk to take and encouraged them in it. At the same time, fathers were more attuned to developing a child’s physical, emotional, and intellectual independence—in everything from children making their own lunches and tying their own shoes to doing household chores and making academic decisions.

As she evaluated these differences, Doucet wondered if fathers just weren’t as “nurturing” as mothers. Their behaviors didn’t always fit the traditional definition of “holding close and sensitively responding.” But a key part of nurturing also includes the capacity to “let go.” It was this careful “letting-go” that fathers were particularly good at—in ways that mothers were often not.

Her findings provide empirical evidence for the feelings described on Public Discourse by Robert Oscar Lopez in his recent account of growing up without the influence of his father. Lopez yearned for what kids in traditional families often take for granted—the opportunity to learn how to act, speak, and behave in ways that reflect the unique gender cues provided by the parenting of a father and a mother. Although Lopez would have appeared normal on most sociological indexes (as a well-trained, high achieving student), inside he felt confused. In his own words, he grew up “weird,” unable to relate to or understand either gender very well. And that made it hard to understand himself.

Andrea Doucet ends her report by sharing an illuminating moment from her research. After a long evening discussing their experiences as single dads, Doucet asked a group of sole-custody fathers, “In an ideal world, what resources or supports would you like to see for single fathers?” She expected to hear that they wanted greater social support and societal acceptance, more programs and policies directed at single dads. Instead, after a period of awkward silence, one dad stood and said, “An ideal world would be one with a father and a mother. We’d be lying if we pretended that wasn’t true.” Nods of agreement followed with expressions of approval from the other dads. Although many had had bitter experiences of separation and divorce, they couldn’t help but acknowledge the inherent connectedness of mothering and fathering—and the profound deficit experienced when one or the other is not there.

Arguments for the non-essential father may reflect an effort to accept the reality that many children today grow up without their dads. But surely a more effective and compassionate approach would be to acknowledge the unique contributions of both mothers and fathers in their children’s lives, and then do what we can to ensure that becomes a reality for more children.

This essay first appeared October 26th, 2012 in Public Discourse: Ethics, Law and the Common Good, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ, and is reprinted with permission.

Jenet Erickson


Jenet Erickson is an assistant professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. She earned her Ph.D. in Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota in 2007.

  • publiusnj

    A father is not essential IF some male has contributed the necessary genetic material for conception and the woman does not want any support in the way of: 1) money; 2) handyman services; 3) rearing of the child; 4) companionship/sexual congress; and 5) male modeling. IOW, if one throws out the way people have been joining together for eons and substitutes outsourcing of all needs on a contractual or volunteer basis, then one can deconstruct the marital relationship and substitute a different markt-based concept.
    Why a woman would want to abandon married relationships in favor of subcontracting to a variety of suppliers who have not “pledged their troth” to her and can exact whatever price the market will bear is beyond me. One of the things she loses as a result of abandonment of marriage and the husband’s “troth” (loyal faithfulness) is the value her attractiveness or his regard for her might bring in a marriage relationship. Husbands realize that they need to contribute value to the relationship (i.e., handyman, companionship and rearage/modeling services, as well as “bringing home the bacon”) in exchange for the woman’s troth. Service providers in the post-marriage marketplace, though, will charge all customers whatever they can without any faithfulness (or, oftentimes, even fairness).
    Shouldn’t the Government be opposed to allowing the abandonment of marriage to occur? Not necessarily, whaterver it might do to crime rates, etc. In fact, a cynical office holder (and there are some of them, I believe) will realize that the abandonment of marriage could be a bonanza for Government because it could exact taxes on every transaction in which a service provider charges a potential spouse for any service that might have been provided “for love” by the other spouse. (Indeed, if either of them seeks sexual congress on a marketplace basis, the Government can earn taxes on that too)

    • Carl

      LOL, I like your business analogy in your comment! And it’s no coincidence that many businesses that succeed promote “family, fatherly, and motherly” attitudes when promoting business practices. Many sports teams do the same.

      And there are studies out their that prove that “outsourcing” in business doesn’t work either. Business managers who outsource take advantage of low bidding wars for contracts, but studies show that years later companies are always paying more than doing it in house. Many managers choose outsourcing to get rid of the employee relationship only to find later that a nurtured employer/employee relationship is the most profitable practice.

      The parallels of business and family are astounding!

  • Vanessa Garza

    I know this has to do more with why there should be a man and woman taking care of a child, but does anyone have any insight on a home with mom and dad, but the father is not a strong (good) father figure?

  • hombre111

    Good article. It also makes me think of one of the major reasons for the collapse of the black family and the high crime rate among black youth. When I was a seminarian, I took a class under a Jesuit sociologist named Joseph Fichter. America had just discovered the extent of American poverty and there was this great rush to do something about it. One answer was welfare, ie, payments to poor families without work. The Repubs responded with their usual vast empathy and insisted that no welfare money would be given if the father was in the home. The liberals countered that the father usually needed job training, but the Repubs vetoed that, as well. I can remember Fr. Fichter roaring: The black father are going to leave the home so their children can be fed. This means black children are going to grow up without fathers. This will destroy black society as we know it. And Fr. Ficther was right. And of course the Repubs got to blame it al on the liberals.

    • Carl

      WOW, and this from a guy who doesn’t see the cause and effect as written in Humanae Vita.

      • hombre111

        Humanae Vitae was prophetic when it saw dire consequences from the use of birth control. In some ways. But all those people around you at church who have small families are practicing birth control and they are not leading evil lives. They live a life open to life, living with love and generosity. But for whatever reason, they have prayerfully decided to limit the size of their families. I think God honors their decision made in honest conscience.

        • Carl

          Being open to life while using contraception at the same time is an oxymoron. But I guess it’s possible that a couple could have ten children over twenty years by spacing their children every two years using contraception. LOL, so how many confirmed cases like this scenario exist?

          CCC2370 says to “render procreation impossible” is intrinsically evil.

          Humanae Vitae spells it all out and I’m not going to retype it here—it was sadly [completely] prophetic.

          • hombre111

            There is a culture-wide re-evalution going on about the meaning of sex, sexuality, genitality, and so on. Some peoplel have been thoughtful and responsible, some irresponsible and destructive. Unfortunately, the Church has not chosen to be part of this discussion. But yes, a person can be very pro-life while using contraception. They can be thoughtful and loving in their marriage, thoughtful and loving to their children, and very concerned about the larger issues of life in this world, including an anti-abortion stance.
            The Church’s teaching about contraception revolves around the assumption that a human person begins the moment egg and sperm come together. This is a problematic conclusion to say the least, and many other people of prayerful, thoughtful conscience disagree.

            • Bob

              Hombre111, maybe it’s time for you to head across the street to the Protestant Church, you really don’t have to be Catholic if you don’t want to. You obviously don’t feel the Catholic Church contains the fullness of Christ’s teachings, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the keys to the kingdom, the ability to bind and loose. Quite frankly, by choosing to go against important Catholic teaching you have already made your decision to leave. Catholics that joyfully follow the doctrines of the Church find great peace regardless of your “culture-wide re-evaluation going on about the meaning of sex.” and yes…..the Church is part of the discussion, it’s you that has decided to ignore what the Church is saying in this discussion. the day I follow the teachings of the culture and not of Christ is the day I choose to head down the road to perdition.

        • Halifax

          Um, it is SO not true that all those “small families” at church are practicing birth control.

        • The Truth

          Anyone using artificial contraception is in sin. Read “Covenant of Love” Pope John Paul II on sexuality, Marriage, and Family in the Modern World by Richard M. Hogan and John M. Levoir. If you read this book and still believbe as you do, you’re nonsensical and not capable of reason.

    • Carl

      Just an out right lie, “no welfare money would be given if the father was in the home.”

      The father’s income applies to the calculated assistance and is NOT an automatic denial of benefits.

      Your ideology is just breath taking on how the corruption and gamesmanship is played within the entitlement society. For example, if a man doesn’t have money for school or doesn’t want to work through school all he would have to do is knock up some girl, live with her, shazam free school, and dump the chick later!

      When they payed more for each child welfare mothers were purposely having more unwed children—facts.

      • hombre111

        The law has changed since then but by then the damage had beend one. It became normal to have the father absent from the home. And a Repub led society refused to give men job training. At that time, blacks were migrating up from the South, looking for work, but without job skills. The broken black family is a gift to America from Republican America.

        • The Truth


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