Parenthood for father and mother is both a transition and a transformation, although many factors alter the roles themselves (Benedek, 1959; Lamb, 1975). As education, technology, society and the definition of family change--especially with the high divorce rate in the West--fathers in the 21st century are less assured of their impact on the lives of their children.
However, appropriate preparation for fatherhood has the potential to enhance maternal, child and family health (Gage and Kirk, 2002). Emotional and psychological obstacles can be worked through to enhance the father-child relationship. This article will examine the father's changing role in Western society and resources that can help prepare fathers to fill that role.
Throughout human history, war and the abandonment of pregnant women have left children fatherless. Before World War II, the single mother remained within her family circle, where a grandfather or uncle could become a substitute father. Today, the multigenerational family in the affluent West is rare.
A surprise result in a 1999 poll taken in the United States by The National Center for Fathering revealed that 72.2% of respondents saw fatherlessness as the most significant social problem facing America. A 1997 Gallup Poll had shown that 24.7 million children (36.3%) lived without a father. It was estimated that in 1954, 80% of children in the United States lived with both biological parents whereas in 1997 only 50% had intact families. Data from 1997 also show that approximately 58% of black children, 32% of Hispanic children and 21% of white children lived with a single mother.
Obstacles to responsible fatherhood include lack of education, training and jobs needed to provide for children (Lurie, 1992). Aside from programs that provide low-income fathers with the education and work opportunities needed to become consistent providers, to become good fathers, many men require guidance in dealing with feelings of anger or low self-esteem. Support groups can address such issues as child rearing, male-female relationships, decision making, anger control and taking responsibility for one's life (Lurie, 1992).
Another critical factor in a father's involvement with his child is the quality of his attachment to the child's mother (United States Office of Personnel Management, 2000). Lack of attachment and the emotional throes of divorce can upset the father-child relationship. Similarly, in a study of African-American fathers' involvement with their infants, fathers who reported a more satisfying relationship were more involved with their infants (The Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study, 2004). In addition, adolescent parenthood has been associated with long-term outcomes of greater depression compared to men who became parents during their 20s (Heath et al., 1995). Treatment of anger and depression can help guide men to becoming good fathers.
In 1976, Goldberg's The Hazards of Being Male warned that there were problems with the "privileges" of being a man. He believed it was a form of discrimination that a pregnant woman had the total say about an unexpected pregnancy--the father could not insist on an abortion nor that she not abort. The law protected only her decision, not his. He also felt that many men stayed trapped in a difficult marriage and encouraged them to put themselves first. He devoted a chapter to 19 impossible binds in which a man was "damned," regardless of the choice he made. Goldberg felt social pressures were contradictory to a man's inner needs.
Feminine rearing of boys who were later expected to be tough men was a particular issue. The task of dis-identifying from mother is a developmental task for every boy (Greenson, 1968). Fathering, therefore, remains a key issue for single mothers and in divorced families. Male teachers, ministers, sports heroes and even gangs play a role in providing substitute father figures, for better or for worse.