Fathers used to know best. Before the cliche of the dithering dad colonized pop culture, patresfamilias were commonly depicted as thoughtful, if distant counselors, dispensing measured advice and measured understanding. Reassurance was dad’s stock in trade. Not so much anymore.
The notion of dad as the family rock (while perhaps a bit generous) made sense in the 1950s and 1960s — provided dad was white and salaried — when men were in prime position to offer stability. Not only did these fathers have the privilege of their gender and of job stability in a rapidly expanding economy, they also had access to numerous social tools and organizations designed to provide them with support and camaraderie. Men were in charitable orders, unions, and bowling leagues. They knew everyone in the bar on Saturday night and in church on Sunday. They were stable because they were propped up by their communities.
Then everything started to change.
Some of the changes were fairly obvious. According to Pew Research Center data, roughly 47 percent of couples with children under 18 were supported solely on a father’s wage in 1969; today that number has dipped to 27 percent, with dual income earners financing 66 percent of American families. In keeping with these numbers, dads now spend six more hours a week doing housework and five and a half more hours performing childcare tasks than fathers in 1969. While dads have yet to experience actual parity in paid and unpaid labor with moms, there has been movement in that direction.
Some changes have been less obvious. Principle among these is the decline in organizations that provided fathers with social support. In 1954, nearly 34 percent of eligible workers were unionized. Now that number stands at just 10 percent. Membership in the fraternal and charitable orders that once offered men a chance to serve their community and socialize have also plummeted. In his book Bowling Alone, sociologist Robert Putnam puts some numbers to the decline. He notes that at the time his book was published in 2000, membership in the Lions was down 14 percent since the early 80s. It was also down 18 percent for the Elks, 39 percent for the Masons and 44 percent for the Jaycees. There’s plenty of reason to believe those trends have continued.
Church participation has also declined for men. In the Catholic Church, for instance, 5 percent fewer Catholic men find themselves in the pews every week according to research from Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. And neighborhood bars have also been in decline. According to Nielsen research, the last decade saw the closure of one in every six locals. Who reassures the reassurer? At this point, no one.
James Nichelson, Chairman of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks Past National Presidents Advisory, believes the end of men’s extracurricular activities can be attributed to a shift in cultural norms, but he notes there is another factor. Parenting styles have changed. “Generation X and all of the younger folks are very busy with their kids and their kid’s activities and their not joiners,” he explains. “They live on their telephones.”
But just because opportunities to socialize have evaporated, doesn’t mean the urge is gone. And that lack of outlet can become a problem for the whole family when dad ceases to be a rock and becomes a sponge.
“As a tribe, men aren’t the best at talking about their feelings and emotions. We already start out with that deficit,” explains Dr. John D. Moore, a psychologist specializing in men’s issues. “And then, it feels like there are less places to go and talk about feelings and emotions. And what can happen as an end result is that it becomes difficult for them to provide that emotional support for their family when they’re holding a lot of feelings and emotions that are undealt with and unprocessed.”
In Moore’s practice, he often sees men lamenting the loss of institutions of masculinity. It’s not that these men believe clubs, bars and gathering halls have been ravaged by feminism. There’s no bitterness. But there is a sense of personal loss. They envy their own fathers. “These were places…