Is it possible that almost every disturbing trend in American society shares a common theme – one that is both obvious in its harm, and yet politically unspeakable? If so, then Mary Eberstadt has named it for us in this brilliant essay just published in First Things. The culprit: a veritable epidemic of fatherlessness.
A wave of violence gripped the United States over the past summer, causing over a billion dollars in property damage and claiming at least twenty-five lives. While it is easy to pin the blame for this “unrest” on the usual suspects – Donald Trump, the coronavirus pandemic, racism, political polarization, etc. — Eberstadt sees it as “but the latest eruption along a fault line running through our already unstable lives,” as “deprived of father, Father, and patria, a critical mass of humanity has become socially dysfunctional on a scale not seen before.”
The social science research could not be clearer: statistically, children do best when raised by married biological mothers and fathers. Eberstadt notes that “absent fathers predict higher rates of truancy, psychiatric problems, criminality, promiscuity, drug use, rape, domestic violence, and other less-than-optimal outcomes.” And yet today, almost one in four children in the U.S. grows up without a father in the home, a figure that includes 65 percent of African Americans.
Of course, such an environment is not possible for every child. Divorce and death have long separated parents from their children, and even a two-parent home does not guarantee a healthy family dynamic free from abuse and neglect. Demography is not destiny. Success stories abound of individuals who have overcome difficult childhoods to attain great success as adults: consider two-time president Barack Obama or Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, just to name a couple.
However, one could compare these success stories to people who have lost a limb: the fact that it is possible to live a happy, fulfilled life without an arm or a leg does not meant that having two arms and two legs is no more advantageous than being an amputee. People survive absent, abusive, and/or neglectful fathers, but the wound remains. And it hurts. And in their pain, many seek out dangerous father substitutes like gangs and extremist groups like Antifa.
While Eberstadt is Catholic, her argument also accords with the eastern wisdom of Confucianism. She makes frequent references to “filial piety,” the traditional Chinese virtue of respecting one’s parents and ancestors. Confucius taught that the father-son relationship was at the core of all other relationships, including that between ruler and subject. Moral duties and obligations flowed both ways, whether one was in the dominant or subordinate position. The virtue of empathy (shu) was meant to counterbalance the need for loyalty (zhong).
Eberstadt speculates that the decline of fatherhood has accelerated the decline of religion (loss of God the Father) and patriotism (love of the father-land and respect for the Founding Fathers), dubbing this the “threefold crisis of paternity.” Deborah Savage laments: “they have been left alone in a cosmos with nothing to guide them, not even a firm grasp of what constitutes their basic humanity, and no means of finding the way home.”
Fatherlessness results not only in aimlessness, but also anger and resentment. This is the rage fueling the destruction not only statues of Confederate fathers, “but of Founding Fathers and town fathers and city fathers and anything else that looks like a father, period.”
Police officers certainly fit this category as well, be they male or female, black or white. Since the death of George Floyd and even before, they have been subject to countless brutal attacks and assassinations. Recent demands that we deploy social workers to the scenes of conflicts instead of police may be tantamount to “keeping Dad out of it and letting Mom handle it.”
In our schools, offending students are offered seemingly endless “second chances” by well-meaning teachers, counselors, and administrators. While zero-tolerance policies represent a likewise undesirable extreme, the lack of consequences is also destructive — to both the bullies and the collective, who must put up with their ongoing misbehavior.
Sometimes kids need a cookie and a hug and to be told everything will be okay. Other times they need to be challenged and disciplined and made to take responsibility. Usually (but not always) mom is the “good cop” to dad’s “bad cop.” In the memoir now movie Hillbilly Elegy, it was J.D. Vance’s grandma (“mamaw”) who stepped into the role of father.
Many people – but especially young men – are desperate for someone to demand more of them, not less; to insist that they clean their room, stand up straight with their shoulders back, and take some damned responsibility, bucko! How else can we explain the phenomenon of Jordan Peterson, best-selling author of Twelve Rules for Life? People don’t just want hugs and cookies, they want rules! And rules tend to come from Dad.
The sad truth is that even kids being raised in homes with their biological fathers are often missing out on just such “tough love” and guidance. It is within the maternal instinct to shelter one’s children from physical harm. Fathers understand somehow intuitively that children need to roughhouse and wrestle, even if it means getting hurt. But they are often overruled.
Considering the evidence presented in The Coddling of the American Mind, it would seem mothers are getting their way more of the time. Children are no longer allowed the same kind of free play and structured risk-taking enjoyed by previous generations. While this approach has resulted in fewer accidental deaths, it has also led to rising anxiety and diminishing self-reliance. Earlier generations of college students once protested for more free speech; now they demand trigger warnings and safe spaces.
Mary Eberstadt traces the decline of fatherhood and the family back to the launch of the birth control pill in the 1960’s, certainly a monumental development. But perhaps it is time for the feminist movement to consider how some of their tactics and messaging may have discouraged men from taking responsibility. When men constantly hear “women don’t need you; we can do everything just as good as men,” they will more often than not simply shrug their shoulders and fade into the background. Respect was historically the price men were paid for the immense responsibilities they shouldered on behalf of the family. Why assume this burden in the first place when the only rewards are insults and mockery?
Men, and especially fathers, should be respected and celebrated, alongside women and mothers. The unique needs of boys and men should be acknowledged in our schools, our churches, and our workplaces.
Of course, there is a limit to this course correction. Celebration of masculinity should never be used to denigrate femininity. Male or female, each of us contains both a masculine and a feminine nature, the exact balance of which may change over time. Recall the Chinese yin yang symbol. Yang represents the masculine, the orderly, and the known; while yin symbolizes the feminine, the chaotic, and the unknown. Though opposites, yin and yang are also complementary, relying on each other for their very existence.
I don’t want to live in a world where my sons are coddled, mocked, or ignored, but I also don’t want to live in a world plagued by sexism and male chauvinism. Masculinity itself is not “toxic,” but by repressing the healthy expression of masculinity, we force it into such unproductive channels as violence and machismo.
As a culture, we have grown to associate masculinity with the negative effects of its excess. However, femininity is not without its dangers; it can become “toxic” as well. Consider the storybook characters of Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel. Sleeping Beauty’s parents sought to shield her from all danger, thus their refusal to invite the Evil Queen to her baptism. But Maleficent was not to be thwarted; her revenge was to cause the princess to fall into a deep sleep, just at the point when she should have been reaching maturity. Likewise, Rapunzel’s mother locked her away in a tower.
The rise of what we may accurately call the “nanny state” shows that government need not wear a masculine guise to become tyrannical. Likewise, the fact that Anthony Fauci and Gavin Newsom and Joe Biden happen to possess Y chromosomes has not kept them from embodying and encouraging the worst of the “feminine” vices – lethargy, neuroticism, and cowardice.
Here we now sit – asleep in our towers, walled off from others, admonished not to work or play or worship or gather. It’s okay, we are told; the government will take care of us.
And yet we all – men and women – desire something more, some greater purpose than mere survival to give our lives meaning. Only by returning to the traditionally masculine virtues of fortitude and perseverance and responsibility can we free ourselves from the grip of the nanny state.