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Fatherless America

Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem

by David Blankenhorn
Book review Copyright © 1995 by Bert H. Hoff

David Blankenhorn, Fatherless in America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem (New York, NY: BasicBooks, 1995) Order on-line


Book  cover
Fatherless America
by David Blankenhorn
Order on-line

This is a powerful and important, deeply disturbing book. The authorís thesis is that the most urgent domestic challenge facing the United States at the close of the twentieth century is the re-creation of fatherhood as a vital social role for men. Unless we reverse the trend of fatherlessness, no other set of accomplishments Ė economic growth, prison construction, welfare reform, better schools Ė will success in arresting the decline of child well-being and the spread of male violence. He develops this thesis very effectively by showing how the media and family experts subtlely undermine the strength of fatherhood.

The book effectively addresses something that, I suspect, has been gnawing away at many of us. A malaise that society, in promoting separated families, "blended" families and alternative lifestyles, offers little support or honoring of traditional fatherhood. I hasten to add that the book is not a call to "traditional family values" as the term in used in the political arena these days. In his call for community organizers to build an infrastructure for a populist movement to empower families and strengthen community life he states, "Unlike what is often called the Ďreligious right,í these new organizations would not anchor themselves in the issues of homosexuality, abortion and school prayer."

We are at a point where there are as many children in fatherless households today as there were during World War II. But the social ethic is entirely different. Then, the social ideal of fatherhood was upheld. The social fabric blessed and honored the role that fathers had to play.

The problem, I suspect, stems from efforts to make the best of alternative family structures and to keep the children (and adults) from being shamed or stigmatized. At any rate, society seems to focus on "OK alternatives," like step-fathering or single-mother homes. The analytical technique for doing this, by family "experts" and in portrayals of family life in movies and other media, is an approach called "deconstruction." If you examine each of the components of fatherhood, you can find an alternative way to provide that component to the child. But the wholistic sum is more than the individual parts. If you "deconstruct" your car engine to examine the parts, it wonít run until you reconstruct it. If you "deconstruct" a living being, you wonít be able to put the parts together again and bring the being back to life.

One by one, the author examines the alternatives to fatherhood which are seen as providing all the constituent parts of fatherhood. A "nearby guy" (boyfriend, brother, or whatever) and child support. A "sperm father" and child support. Chapters address "the unnecessary father," "the old father" (patriarchal tyrant), "new father" (SNAG, Sensitive New Age Guy in an androgynous role, unsure of his own masculinity), "deadbeat dad" (make him pay, and hope he stays out of your personal life, for example through visitation), "visiting father," "sperm father," and "stepfather and the Nearby Guy." In their efforts to present a rosy picture of these menís contributions to children'sí lives, experts and the media fail to see what is missing.

The father in the household provides something the others donít, as Mr. Blackenhornís reports of focus groups with hundreds of fathers movingly demonstrate. The father is willing to make sacrifices, to protect and serve. They take seriously their duty not only to provide material support, but to protect, to teach, to prepare the child for the adult world, and to be there for the child. "To protect and serve" sounds suspiciously like the motto of the L.A.P.D. But it is an obligation that fathers, liberal or conservative, take very seriously. It is a thankless obligation, since our culture spends more time celebrating alternative family structures than it does in honoring the millions of traditional fathers.

Ironically, one consequence of this is an increase in male violence. There is a stereotype that fathers teach or celebrate violence, that the tyrannical patriarch models violence and encourages a son to "be tough." The opposite is true in most families. The father models alternatives to violence and delivers the message that what the boy sees on TV, violence and mayhem, is not acceptable in his personal life.

I see this in Menís Work, even in our magazine. We have run only one article on fatherhood, Lee Edmundsonís "Tips for New Fathers" a couple of years back. We are in touch with two men who want to write something celebrating new fatherhood. I hope we hear from a lot of other men, and that we celebrate fatherhood more in these pages. I also donít hear much talk at menís gatherings about the joys and burdens of fatherhood.

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