Editorial: The Psychology of Fatherhood (I)

By Dantel G. Brown, Ph. D.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article appeared in the Sept. 1st, 1961 issue of Vital Speeches of the Day. It is the manuscript of a speech delivered to the Annual Meeting of the Maryland Council on Family Relations, Baltimore, Maryland, May 11, 1961, and to The Cadets of The Second Class, United States Air Force Academy, Colorado, May 14, 1961. The entire manuscript is too long to be included in one issue, so the last part of it will be published in next month’s issue. Readers of this journal will do well to carefully consider the remarks made by Dr. Brown.)

(Editor’s Note: This discussion concerned with the psychology of fatherhood has been divided into several sections as follows: First, how does one become a father? And what does it mean to be a father? Secondly, what are some of the problems of being an adequate father? Thirdly, why are fathers so necessary? And, fourth, some concluding thoughts).

How Does One Become a Father?
What Does It Mean to be a Father?

It is perfectly obvious that no particular talent is required for biological fatherhood. Just as there are few requirements for marriage in the first place, i.e., any male, 21 years of age with an IQ over 60, can usually get married; likewise practica11y no requirements exist for becoming a biological father. One unfortunate result of this is the fact that there are tens of thousands of marriages every year in which for the most part about the only contribution of the father to his offspring is that of a single sperm! Thus, there are some 200,000 illegitimate children born every year with no legal, and usually no psychological father. It has been estimated that in Germany alone, there are some 100, 000 illegitimate children born to GI “fathers.” Most of these children are in institutions and have been denied any semblance of normal family life. There are also hundreds of thousands of children who, while legitimate, are nevertheless unplanned for and unwanted, born to fathers, many of whom are essentially indifferent, openly rejecting, or psychologically non-existent as far as the child is concerned. In other words, these men are biological fathers only, i.e., in the really significant and meaningful sense of fatherhood, they are essentially or almost completely lacking. Now the question arises in this connection, should society not demand greater responsibility of fathers than this? Should not at least some minimal qualifications be established before fatherhood occurs?

As things stand now, for example, do we even suggest that, before becoming responsible for bringing another human being into the world, that a man consider what he has to offer this new life, how much he wants to be a father, whether he will shoulder his responsibility in nurturing and training and guiding this offspring so that he or she might grow up to live a useful and productive life? Just recently there was occasion to counsel a young couple who had known each other about ten days before getting married and, one month later, the wife was pregnant. This couple was seen a few months later and the wife was completely miserable in the marriage, openly rejected and hated the husband, referred to her unborn child as the “idiot,” etc., while the husband’s attitude was indifference and unconcern with the whole affair. Now it is sad enough to observe a marriage like this, but is it not much more tragic that a child will be born into this union? What chances for normal, healthy emotional development will a baby have who is born into this kind of marriage?

This problem of fatherhood apparently has its counterpart as far as motherhood is concerned. A recent survey conducted by Dr. Richard Masland of the National Institutes of Health, indicated that approximately one half of the pregnant women interviewed were not sure they wanted their babies. Dr. Masland told a congressional subcommittee that half the women questioned were not at all sure they really wanted to have a baby. This, of course, suggests that many women are simply not adequately prepared to have children. And since this present paper is concerned with fatherhood, the question might be asked, if only about half of the pregnant mothers were not sure they wanted their babies, how many of the fathers wanted them?

One of the problems in this process whereby an unwanted pregnancy and an unwanted child is born to a married couple, psychologically, emotionally, or economically unprepared for parenthood, is the failure to recognize that human sexuality has two essentially separate functions. One of these major functions is procreative, in which the goal is the reproduction of life, to bring a new life into existence, to have a child. The other basic function of sex in marriage is physical love in which the goal is marital pleasure, to increase closeness and intimacy between husband and wife, to provide sexual fulfillment in marriage. Unfortunately, there are many couples who never recognize or appreciate the basic difference of these two functions and, consequently, experience intense conflict and confusion. The father, of an unplanned, unwanted, rejected child is a psychological hazard and serious risk in terms of mental health and emotional well being of that child. Too many men become fathers through accident, ignorance, irresponsibilty, indifference, or unconcern.

Freud has expressed the essence of the twofold function of sex in marriage as follows:

It would be one of the greatest triumphs of mankind . . . were it possible to raise the responsible act of procreation to the level of a voluntary and intentional act, and to free it from its entanglement with an indispensable satisfaction of a natural desire.

Similarly, the theologian, Brunner, has observed that the Christian ethic must come to stand for the independent meaning of sexual pleasure in marriage as an expression of love, and not merely as a means of procreation.

Being an adequate psychological father requires a great deal more of a man than merely being a biological father. It requires love, acceptance, respect, of one’s offspring; it involves providing generous amounts of TLC, tender loving care. It involves being a worthy example; in involves living and not simply preaching the basic values of life such as honor, integrity, kindness, etc. Psychological fatherhood in other words is what really counts in the life of a little child, and older child, and adolescent. To be wanted, to be loved, to be respected, to be supported, to be guided, to be encouraged–these things are the things that a child needs from a father and has a right to expect from a father. Unfortunately, however, mere biological fatherhood in no way guarantees that these basic needs will be supplied. In fact, being an adequate psychological father is not even related necessarily to being a biological father. Thus, an adoptive father who warmly accepts and genuinely loves his adopted child may be immeasurably better than the child’s so called “real” father, i.e. the man who accidently or inadvertently supplied the sperm for conception. (“Biological” would be a better description than “real” father, since as already noted, many biological fathers are not “real” fathers at all!) Of course, in order to become an adoptive father, one must possess at least certain elementary qualifications, such as, sincerely wanting and desiring a child, having a minimum income, adequate housing, freedom from gross physical or mental illness, etc. No wonder, then, that many adoptive fathers are superior to many biological fathers who lack one or more of these requirements, especially the most important of all, that of wanting and desiring a child.


What Are Some of the Problems and Difficulties in “coming an Adequate Father?


Lack of Preparation. One of life’s most responsible and significant challenges, namely fatherhood, often involves no training or preparation whatsoever. To drive a car, one must pass certain tests and meet certain criteria that indicate at least minimum competence; however, to become a biological father, no requirements are considered necessary and, generally, none are required.

Despite the tremendous importance of father’s role in family life and in shaping the character and personalities of succeeding generations, the majority of our sons for example will enter the first grade and graduate twelve years later without so much as a single course in preparation for family living; in addition, only a very small percentage will have the opportunity to take course work in human psychology and human relations, despite the fact that this knowledge is related to all aspects of their life for the rest of their life. And, what we have just said about the lack of preparation for family living and parental responsibilities, applies to an even greater extent when it comes to sex education. There is probably not one high school in 500 that makes any effort at all to provide a straightforward, honest discussion of the facts of life, particularly the human facts of life.

And one consequence is abysmal ignorance among otherwise intelligent and educated people. So, we seem to assume that if our children are given sufficient quantities of English, history, mathematics, and science, somehow they will also be equipped for marriage and parenthood. The fact of the matter is, however, that there are multitudes of marital and parental failures and disturbed families, and it is reasonable to assume that some of the misery and unhappiness involved could have been prevented or lessened through proper preparation and education. In this connection, it is interesting to note that the United States Air Force Academy is one of the few institutions of higher learning that has a required course in marriage and the family. There is recognition here of the significance of family relations in a man’s future life, in this case, his future military life.

A second problem in becoming an adequate father is that of deficiencies in masculinity in general and in the husband role in particular.

In recent years, a number of writers have commented on the failure of many American men to function in the masculine role and in their inadequacy as husbands. There have been discussions of such topics as “The Crisis of American Masculinity,” “The Decline of the American Male,” “The Well kept Husband,” etc. By “Crisis of American Masculinity” is meant the apparent increase of inadequate, unmasculine males in our society; by “The Decline of the American Male,” is meant the loss by many husbands and fathers of the position as “head of the house,” the position having been taken over by the wife; and by “The Well-kept Husband,” is meant the emotionally immature, overly dependent husband who is cared for by his wife along with other children in the family. We arc talking here about boys who grow up as perfectly normal biological specimens of maleness, who are intelligent, and physically fit, but, here is where the difficulty comes, who are retarded in masculine adequacy, i.e., boys who have a deficiency in being able to shoulder the responsibility of mature masculine manhood. As examples, you may recall, Brick Pollitt, in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Jimmy Porter in Look Back In Anger, i.e., young men incapable of mature love relationships with their wives, much less becoming adequate fathers, despite the fact that such men give every observable sign of being “verile” and “masculine.” A problem here seems to be that boys who suffer inadequate fathering themselves grow up to be inadequate fathers, thus, the pattern is repeated in succeeding generations. Boys who are smothered by mother and starved by fathers are not likely to grow up and become adequate as husbands or fathers. By and large, it seems that a man is much more likely to become an adequate father if he is secure in his own masculinity to begin with and if he is able to function effectively as a husband.

Still another problem that stands in the way of becoming an adequate father is what might be called pseudo-masculine notions. What kind of an image of masculinity do we hold up for our sons? In this connection, a recent check of 8 or 10 magazines for men (Man’s Life, Rugged Men, Stag, Male, Fury, Sir, Man’s Adventure, Battle Cry, etc.) showed that, without exception, the covers of every one of these so-called “men’s magazines” depicted some form of violence, brutality, or sadism. And the majority mixed in sex with cruelty, such as a woman in a cage with a big burly man lashing at her with a long whip, or another cover showing a woman tied down to a bed with a heavy rope and a sadistic, insane-looking man lurching above her and another equally repulsive male firing a gun. Is this masculinity? Someone has observed that too many husbands in marriage resemble an orangutan trying to play the violin!

Does masculinity for men mean, as the psychoanalyst, Josselyn, has suggested such things as: belittling and looking down on women as a group? making money and acquiring power? and denying feelings of tenderness, affection etc.? In connection with the belittling of women, some men have an attitude, toward their wives that may be characterized as one of, “well, after all, she is only a woman.” Now this idea, “only” may be appropriate when applied to a child, but certainly not to one-half of the adult human race that happens to be as bright and talented and capable as the other half. As one woman has put it, “When men belittle us, they belittle half of life, and they belittle their own happiness. To demean women is to demean love and relationship, and these are the two qualities in which civilization is very weak and which it greatly needs.” (From Scott-Maxwell, Women and Sometimes Men).

The idea that masculinity is proportional to the power over others or wealth that a man can acquire is a fallacy of the first magnitude. The fact that a man may be a great success in his business or profession in no way guarantees that he will be equally successful as a husband or as a father. The denial of feelings as a characteristic of masculinity, is related to the idea that feelings of affection, compassion, kindness, etc. are feminine and, hence unmanly. Many boys tend to be driven to harshness, crudeness, and destructiveness because they have somehow equated this with the ultimate repudiation of anything that resembles being “feminine,” This “taboo on tenderness” is probably part of the basis for many fathers not being affectionate and emotionally close to their children as they should be and as their children need them to be. Fathers should not be afraid to love their children openly and as generously as mothers; after all, a child’s psychological development depends on this as much as his physical development depends on vitamins and minerals.

Gorer, a British anthropologist, has observed that American males are the most sissy-conscious group of men on earth, i.e., they continually struggle against any implication that they are other than 100% super he-men! In lamenting this false notion of masculinity, Philip Wylie has concluded that it is “about time to abandon the idiotic notion that sensitiveness is the same as sissiness.” What we are saying quite simply here is that these false notions about masculinity create problems in helping boys to grow up to become adequate fathers. And this is not only a problem in our society but found among various groups throughout the world. One writer has summed it up as follows:

In far too many cultures, men have been brought up in accordance with an unfortunate concept of masculinity. According to this concept, it is perfectly proper for a man to be coarse, vulgar, unclean, violent, lacking in self-respect, undignified in behavior, and to devote his life to the acquisition of power and material wealth. There is no gainsaying the fact that this conception of what men ought to be has been responsible for a very great part of the tragedies that fill human history. The aforementioned qualities have been exhibited by so many men over so many centuries that is not at all surprising that it should be almost universally believed they are inherent in the masculine character.

But the evidence suggests they are cultural in origin. And the evidence is right at hand for everyone to see. Men who have been brought up according to a diametrically opposed concept of masculinity are refined, dignified, civilized in bearing, possessed with self-respect, and exhibit regard for ethical, intellectual, aesthetic, and religious values. The world might become a considerable better place to live in if parents were to repudiate their barbaric concept of masculinity and bring boys up in accordance with one as civilized as that governing the rearing of girls. Men can help the process along by living their lives on the assumption that there is nothing unmanly about being civilized. (Kamiat, Feminine Superiority.)

Surely, to think of Mussolini, Hitler, or Stalin, as “masculine personalities” is to make the term synonymous with some of the worst potentiality of human nature. On the other hand, surely, Jesus, St. Francis of Assissi, or Gandhi, were not less “masculine” because of their love, compassion, and reverence for human life. In short, we are suggesting that there is a real need to re-interpret and re-evaluate the idea of masculinity and to begin rearing our sons accordingly.

The fourth and last difficulty I would like to mention is the lack of depth of fatherliness. It has been suggested that the roots of fatherliness are not as deep as those of motherliness (Josselyn). Why shouldn’t the father be as deeply significant, psychologically, to a child as the mother? This lack of depth of fatherliness is reflected in various ways in our culture. For example, it is interesting to note that in the book, Dictionary of Thought, there are many references to the word “mother,” while the word “father” doesn’t even occur. We often hear about how unselfish mother love is, how wonderful motherhood is, but what we are asking here is, what about father’s love and what about fatherhood? Why are fathers, as a group, not as wholeheartedly committed to the rearing of their children as mothers? To the extent that this is so, not only is the child denied a very significant and crucially important relationship, but the father also misses one of the most rewarding human experiences that life affords. “When men abandon the upbringing of their children to their wives, a loss is suffered by everyone, but perhaps most of all by men themselves. For what they lose is the possibility of growth in themselves for being human which the stimulation of bringing up one’s children gives.” (Montagu).

Perhaps, because of some of the factors already mentioned, fathers are not as likely to mean as much to their children as mothers. Another source of difficulty in this connection is the very limited amount of contact many fathers have with their children. A few years ago, in an article entitled, “American Men are Lousy Fathers,” Philip Wylie observed that there are 168 hours in a week. “The average man spends about 40 of them at work. Allow another 15 hours for commuting time, lunch, overtime, etc. Then set aside 56 hours, 8 each night, for sleep. That adds up to 111 hours, leaving dad 57 hours he can find time to be a father to his children.”

Now how many of these 57 hours does the average father actually spend with his children? Well, one group of 300 7th and 8th grade boys kept accurate records for a two weeks period. The average time the father and son had alone together for an entire week was 7 1/2 minutes. Thus, the price of business success or professional achievement might sometimes occur at the expense of being less adequate as a father. Certainly, this is a very real problem in many families. Of course, it is not simply a matter of quantity of time that a father spends with his child, but the quality of the relationship that counts, at least given a minimum of contact together.

Finally, Komarovsky, Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, has observed that perhaps both mothers and fathers in many instances lack sufficient depth in their role as parents.

It is quite true that building bridges, writing books, and splitting the atom, are no more essential to society or more difficult than child rearing. But, in our opinion, women cannot be made to believe it unless men believe it too; unless, that is, the whole of our society becomes oriented toward values quite different from those which dominate it today. If men believed for a moment that the rearing of children (and their role as a father) is as difficult and important as building bridges, they would demand more of a hand in it too. It would become unnecessary f or child psychologists to campaign for more active fatherhood. A man could derive prestige and self-esteem from spending weekends with his children, even if this called for a less single-minded dedication to occupational success. The conflict between occupational and family interests would then also become a problem for men and each would have to strike his own balance between the conflicting interests.

Truth Magazine, VI: 1 pp. 2-6
October 1961