Saturday, September 30, 2006

Can Latham rescue fatherhood?

Mark Latham is the new leader of the Labor Party opposition in Australia.

He has recently turned his attention to what he calls a crisis in masculinity. According to Latham the identity of men has become "blurred and confused" leading to loneliness and depression.

The solution suggested by Mr Latham is that "We should foster fatherhood at every opportunity" so that men have "a real sense of belonging to society".

So far, so good. But then Mr Latham spoils it all by outlining his model of fatherhood. As one paper reported it,

Mr Latham ... said men needed to do more to recognise the significance of fatherhood.

He said he expected more men to give up work to stay home to care for children.

"Women have traditionally taken this role, but I expect in future we will have many more stay-at-home dads in Australia," he said.

"This is an important part of rebuilding male identity - recognising the significance of fatherhood."

So there you have it. Mr Latham's wants to rebuild male identity by having men take over the traditional female role of mothering children. And this is supposed to make men less confused!


Left liberals like Mr Latham often seem willing to talk about concepts like identity and connectedness, concepts which are also important to conservatives.

The problem is that the left liberal attempt to deal with such things inevitably becomes twisted by their commitment to liberal individualism as a first principle.

Liberals want individuals to be created by their own reason and will. Our sex is not created by our own reason and will - it's something we are simply born into. Therefore, liberals quite logically try to downgrade the influence of our sex in our lives. They prefer to see gender as a mere social construct from which the individual can be liberated.

That's why liberals take such a positive view of sex role reversal. It's a kind of proof that the influence of gender is being overthrown. It is a statement that our own will and reason is unlimited by the fact of gender.

The fact that liberals are led, by their philosophy, to reject the influence over us of our sex, explains the many hostile comments by liberals to the mere existence of gender distinctions.

Gloria Steinem, for instance, has complained bitterly about "the false division of human nature into the "feminine" and "masculine"; and Jessica Bernard has campaigned against traditional masculine fatherhood in favour of "paternity without gender, fatherhood without manhood."

The Australian social commentator Hugh Mackay has even called for those who have fought against gender distinctions to have their sacrifices recognised on ANZAC Day, alongside the sacrifices of soldiers who gave their lives for their country.

For Mackay, the achievements of those who "were prepared to fight a culture war that has radically refocused our understanding of the supremacy of personhood over gender", are equal to the efforts of Australian soldiers who fought in the World Wars. (The Age, 22/3/2000)


So you can see the problem for Mark Latham. His politics allows him to recognise the social dysfunction brought about by a confused male identity. However, he is committed to the idea that masculinity itself is a mere social construct and that sex role reversal is liberating and progressive.

It is therefore quite logical for Mr Latham to tie the two things together by suggesting that a crisis in masculine identity should be solved by a sex role reversal in which men increasingly become "mothers" to their children.

Most men, though, will not see it this way. They won't take the view that men and women are so interchangeable that men can simply take over a feminine role within the family.

As it happens, even after a decade or more of encouragement, men have become the primary caregiver in only 1% of Australian families.

Mr Latham has correctly identified the importance to men of a male identity, and he has correctly identified fatherhood as being crucial to this identity. But this is as far as he can go. His liberalism won't allow him to accept the idea of a distinctly masculine fatherhood, which is different to the role played in families by women.

What does such a masculine fatherhood look like? I won't attempt to give a complete answer in a short article. But there are several obvious features that can be quickly mentioned.

Firstly, fathers are ultimately the ones responsible for providing for their families. This provider role is not always well appreciated, but it is still important for families.

It has a positive benefit of allowing mothers to care for their families without the pressure of full-time work outside the home. Take the case of "Jane" as recorded by Bettina Arndt in an article on modern marriage (State of the union, The Age 15/4/2000). Jane spent 12 years looking after her two children, whilst her husband Peter worked to support the family financially. When her children were aged 12 and 10, she returned part-time to paid work, but as the article points out,

She finds she can't cope if she works more than 20 hours a week. "When I'm flat-chat and Peter is flat-chat, it's hideous. I become a shrew. It's not worth it. I didn't have children to shriek at them and blame them."

Peter is effectively helping his family as a father by protecting his wife from the pressures of full-time work. His efforts to be a provider mean that his children have a less stressed, and more gently feminine mother to care for them.

According to "Australia's foremost fatherhood researcher", Macquarie University psychologist Professor Graeme Russell, many men are aware of the importance of their efforts to be providers, despite the denigration of the role in the media. Professor Russell states that,

They [men] know the role of provider is being devalued, yet when you talk to men about this, they'll tell you they still see their work as family nurturing.

Being a provider is not the only role that fathers perform. It's also important that men support their wives emotionally. The Herald Sun relationships columnist, Toby Green, puts it well when she describes men as fulfilling "the role of nurturer to the nurturer". Toby Green says of new mothers that,

It is important, since she feels she is the lifeline to the child, that he [the father] be the chief emotional support to her. Someone needs to fill her emotional cup so she is topped up to fill that of someone else. (Herald Sun, 1/7/99)

Finally, fathers also have an important role to play in socialising their children, especially their sons. This was recognised as long ago as 1506, in an Italian play called Clizia. The daily life of a "good father" was described in this play as follows,

He [Nicomaco] passed his time worthily; got up early in the morning, heard Mass, ordered the day's food, and then saw to whatever business he had in town, at the market, or at the magistrate's office. If not, he either discussed some serious topic or other with a few friends or shut himself in his study at home to balance and tidy up his accounts. Then he dined happily with his family and after dinner talked to his son, gave him advice, helped him understand human nature, taught him how to live, in fact, with examples from the past and present.

It would be possible, of course, to add a great deal more about the masculine contribution men make to their families as fathers. Suffice it to say that Mark Latham misrepresents things if he believes that men can only contribute to families, and achieve a sense of identity and belonging, by filling the caregiving role that women now play in family life.

We still need men to successfully carry out the traditional fatherhood role that is most suited to their masculine nature and which best complements the role played by women within the family.

(First published at Conservative Central, 13/03/2004)

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