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The Tragedy of the American Dad

Believe it or not, but once upon a time in American history (mostly before the Industrial Revolution) a father was considered the primary and irreplaceable caregiver of his children.  The father had the ultimate responsibility for the well-being, education, and spiritual training of his offspring. It was he that took the public shame if his children lived wayward lives. He would be shunned if he did not live up to his fatherly duties. In divorce, he would receive the children because society thought the children would run wild without the presence of a male.

In this time, parent books were written towards male readership. If there was a local education available, the teacher would have been a male. The Sunday school teacher was also male.  In that day, what most people would have thought to be ‘women roles’ now were actually believed to be so important that only males were considered for the jobs. Thus, if today’s feminist lived in this ‘once upon a time’ they would be advocating and pushing culture to embrace the idea that a women should also have the right and ability to educate and be considered important contributor to the raising of children.

Ironic, indeed!

It is true, I might add, that this ‘once upon a time’ did have many short comings, for it certainly seems obvious to me the important role that women play in children’s lives, and, during this time, women and children were seen as property—a very antiquated view I must say. Yet, regardless of what one thinks of this ‘once upon a time,’ its concept of fatherhood certainly does seem like a fairytale compared to our culture’s narrative of the Dad today.

For the last 150 years or so, our culture’s understanding of the ‘father’ has slowly diminished. So while the father was once the primary and irreplaceable caregiver, the culture shifted to thinking the father as solely the protector and provider.  As this narrative took hold on our culture’s imagination, a shift to the mother as the natural caregiver and educator took hold. Courts started giving sole custody to the mother and parent books were written for women readership. The schoolteachers and Sunday school education became the woman’s occupation. If the children misbehaved, it was the shame of the mother. If she went and worked outside the house, it was conceived as an act of neglect on her part.

Furthermore, it was now consider unmanly for the husband to partake in such practices because it was argued it was not ‘natural’ or ‘befitting’ of the male nature. I have talked to many older women who have told me their husbands never changed a diaper in their lives. This often shocks me, seeing as I have changed what seems like thousands of diapers, but once I recall the narrative of the ‘roles’ of women and men many years ago, I understand why.  His ‘role’ was to work and bring the bread home and keep the exterior of the house in order; the woman’s ‘role’ was to take care of the children and keep the interior of the house in order.

Yet, even this order began to crumble and the concept of the father was reduced again.

As women started to enter the work force in greater numbers and local governments becoming the primary protectors of the citizens, the father was left without a ‘role’. What was he good for? While this is going to sound perverted to some, many began to argue that the only thing the father is needed for is sperm.

Lets face it, our culture’s narrative led to this conclusion. For if the father is not a natural caregiver and educator, a role best done by the mother, and he is not really needed for protection, because the state can do it better, and since the women can work outside the home or the government can supply the provisions, then it follows that the father is only needed for the biological ‘stuff’.

It is any wonder, then, that never before in history have more children been without their biological father through voluntary absence. It used to be that children lacked their biological father because of death; not so now with the rise of divorce, out-of-wed locked babies, and sperm donation centers.

What is the dad to do? What is his role? Do children really need their dads? Perhaps what is needed is a summary of the current research on the effects fatherlessness on children to reawaken our imaginations to the importance of fatherhood. While such a summary will not give us the ‘father’s’ role per se, it will certainly show he is more valuable to his children and society as a whole than what he can give biologically.

Tomorrow I will be publishing such a summary (found here).


Brandon Wall is a counselor in Cedar Rapids, Iowa:


Dr. Bing Wall is a therapist specializing in marriage and relationships and issues facing single adults with a practice in Ames and Urbandale, Iowa.  To set up a time to see Dr. Wall click here or call 888-233-8473.  For more information about Dr. Wall click here.

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