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Largely because of the lessons boys and girls learn when they're young, by the time they marry or begin to form adult relationships of their own, their attitudes about gender and parenting are already firmly in place. After years of training, for example, women have bought into the dominant view that mothers are biologically predisposed to nurture children. As a result, they have no trouble seeing themselves as mothers, whether they're married or not. Men, too, have internalized the myth of the superior mother. But for them, fatherhood and fathering are inextricably linked with marriage, or at least with being in a committed relationship.
Not surprisingly, family researchers have discovered in recent years that men's satisfaction with their marital relationships is a major factor in determining how involved they will be with their children. The more satisfying men's marriages are, the more involved and happy they are in their fathering roles, and the more unhappy and volatile their marriages are, the less involved they become and the lower the quality of that involvement.
This marital satisfaction/father involvement connection may actually start before men become fathers. Researcher Shirley Feldman and her colleagues found that expectant fathers whose marriages were rated as "satisfying" during the third trimester of their wives' pregnancy were subsequently more involved in caregiving and play with their six-month-old infants. In addition, psychologist Martha Cox and her colleagues have found that the quality of a father's parenting is better when his marriage is better and that a supportive marriage can help to overcome his lack of preparation for parenthood.
Even babies sense when their fathers aren't happy in their marriages. Eleven-month-olds, for example, are less likely to look to their fathers for help in novel situations (such as seeing an unfamiliar person) when their fathers are in distressed marriages. As John Gottman found, men in unsatisfying marriages tend to withdraw from their wives and perhaps from their children. Children whose fathers are unhappy or under stress "act out" more and suffer more from depression than children whose parents are in less stressful marriages. And kids who watch their parents fight are frequently more aggressive, feel more guilty, and tend to be more withdrawn.
Does the quality of a marriage have as much impact on mothers as it does on fathers? Not according to psychologist Jay Belsky and his colleagues, who conducted a series of home observations of mothers and fathers when their infants were one, three, and nine months of age. Other studies confirm Beisky's results. Adolescent fathers, for example, have more positive interactions with their infants in families where there are high levels of mother-father engagement. Mother-child interactions, however, were completely independent of the mother's relationship with the father. Overall, said one group of researchers, the quality of the marriage, whether reported by the husband or the wife, is 'the most consistently powerful predictor of paternal involvement and satisfaction'
Given the connection between marital satisfaction and paternal involvement, it shouldn't come as a surprise that fathers who are in supportive and satisfying marriages bond more securely with their infants and toddlers. What is somewhat surprising, though, is the way mothers benefit from the additional support their happy husbands provide them. Studies in both the United States and Japan have found that the more emotionally supportive a father is, the more competent a caregiver his wife is and the better her relationship with their children.
Even in the happiest relationships, there's little argument that fathers aren't always as involved as they could and should be. Some fathers, of course, have no desire to be involved. Most, however, do. But the mixed messages that fathers get from the media and from their employers (which we'll discuss in detail in the following chapter), and the lack of support they get from society in general, make it especially difficult for fathers to do anything to substantially change their lives. What holds fathers back most from getting involved is their partners, many of whom are reluctant to give up their control of an area in which they've been dominant: the caregiving role, which historically and culturally has been central to women's identity.
In truth, women have been children's primary nurturers for a relatively short period of time. Before the Industrial Revolution, when they left their wives and the family farm to work in cities and factories, men were the central figures in their children's lives. But rather than consider the historical precedent for men's involvement, too many people - especially women - have seized on the past two centuries and insist not only that women naturally do a better job of raising children, but that they don't even need men to help out. A 1994 National Opinion Survey confirmed this view. In response to the question "Can one parent bring up a child as well as two parents together?" 50 percent of women said yes. In contrast, men disagreed by more than a two-to-one margin.
These conflicting messages about how involved to be ("You need to take a more active role around the house" versus "I don't really need your help anyway") ultimately reinforce fathers' negative self-image and lack of confidence in their parenting skills and abilities. Whether they pull back by themselves or they are made to feel unwelcome in their own homes, the result is the same: far too many men are unable to participate as actively as they would like in raising their children.
Men do, of course, bear some of the responsibility
for this. They could, for example, not hand over their crying babies to their
wives; they could put in a little extra time learning how to parent the oldfashioned
way: on-the-job training. Still, most researchers who have studied men's and women's
roles and responsibilities in the family agree that mothers play a "gatekeeping"
role, either supporting or inhibiting fathers' involvement with their infants.
Fathers, they say, are precisely as involved at home as their wives will let them
the factors that most influence mothers' gatekeeping behavior - and which in turn
most influence fathers' levels of involvement - are their attitudes about the
father's and their own care-giving roles. Psychologists Ashley Beitel and Ross
Parke found in 1998 that men whose partners believe that women are innately superior
to men in their caregiving abilities and who do not value their husbands' involvement
are, not surprisingly, less involved with their infants than men whose partners
had more supportive attitudes. Mothers who view their male partners as competent
actually boost these men's competence by encouraging them to take on more responsibility
and practice their caregiving skills. At the same time, the more competent a father
is, the more involved he tends to be and the more his wife will think he's competent.
As it turns out, mothers' attitudes about fathers' competence are important in
predicting fathers' involvement with their children - even after taking into account
fathers' own attitudes.
Reflection Exercise #8
Bi, S., Haak, E. A., Gilbert, L. R., El-Sheikh, M., & Keller, P. S. (2018). Father attachment, father emotion expression, and children’s attachment to fathers: The role of marital conflict. Journal of Family Psychology, 32(4), 456–465.
“Parenting time, parenting quality, interparental conflict, and mental health problems of children in high-conflict divorce": Correction to O’Hara et al. (2019) (2020). Journal of Family Psychology, 34(1), 23.
Tombeau Cost, K., Jonas, W., Unternaehrer, E., Dudin, A., Szatmari, P., Gaudreau, H., Kennedy, J., Atkinson, L., Steiner, M., Meaney, M., & Fleming, A. (2018). Maternal perceptions of paternal investment are associated with relationship satisfaction and breastfeeding duration in humans. Journal of Family Psychology, 32(8), 1025–1035.
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