Kevin Roy, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, is an expert on fatherhood and social policy. His new book, Nurturing Dads, challenges ideas about mainstream fatherhood and discusses ways to encourage meaningful engagement among different kinds of dads and their kids. His conversation with Center Director Julie Drizin follows:
DRIZIN: Why did you and Bill Marsiglio decide to write Nurturing Dads?
ROY: Bill was approached by the Russell Sage Foundation to think about a book on fatherhood and social policy. We’ve been working together for probably about 10 years and we really have been working on this idea of nurturance as being pretty important for fathering. Typically when anyone in social policy or even popular media talks about fathers, its’ a very traditional stereotype. It’s guys who are providing for their kids and residing and married to their partner-- you see that a lot with Father’s Day. You get these very typical images of ties and blah blah. But we know through the work I’ve been doing that men and families and their interaction with kids and family members is so diverse, and really has been changing a lot in the past couple decades.
So what we focus on is nurturance, and that’s the relationship of men with children and families… Providing and residing in marriage and the relationships with mothers and the kids are still important, they don’t go away, but we really thought, here’s a policy book that shows what men are thinking, what they want out of policy and law, which is a way to support their efforts to be nurturing providers or nurturing caregivers really…
DRIZIN: Unlike girls who are raised largely their whole lives to imagine that motherhood is part of their life goal and trajectory--they’re raised with dolls, raised to be extremely sensitive to the emotional states of other human being, and boys are socialized differently. I remember when I was growing up, Free to be You and Me, the Marlo Thomas book came out and the song “William Wants a Doll” was a very big deal and eventually the grandmother tells his parents, let him have a doll. And she buys him a doll because someday he’ll be a father and we want to know that he knows how to be a loving dad to a baby.
Isn’t part of the issue with redefining or enhancing the role of fathers start with educating boys to be babysitters, educating boys to think about a combination of engagement as well as responsibility?
ROY: Absolutely, absolutely. I think it’s interesting because from what we’re learning now, a lot about boys, early adolescents, teenagers, teenage boys, they do engage in very caring relationships with their siblings, with their peers. There’s some research now showing how deep and intimate boys’ friendships are--one researcher says it’s almost like reading about a love story…
Boys get a very heavy dose of aggressive behavior and learning to deal with violence and guns and all these different things. I think it becomes clear to them as they get older that this is the way they should be attuned, and not to the care giving, emotional side. I think there’s interesting research that shows about the age of 13 or 14, boys are kind of suddenly told, “You don’t want to express this around your friends or people you care for because that’s not manly.” And so they still feel this need to be this way. It’s part of who they are, but what’s reinforced is kind of the ability to stand alone, to be macho, to be independent, to be cool emotionally and not let things affect you.”
So I think there are kind of bridges we need to build. You know there’s a long time between the ages of 13 and the age of 25 or 30 or 35 when men have kids. Can we continue nurturing within that time period? Can we go ahead and support men to express themselves in a caring way at different points in their lives and make that safe for them? But I agree. It has to start early. It doesn’t just start with having kids. What’s interesting is the Free to Be You and Me is very much part of our culture now.
When I grew up with it and my kids are growing up with it, it’s kind of like a no brainer. They think “oh ok, boys can do this.” But it’s cooler to have video games with shooting. So it’s out there. They’re competing for our boys right now, these two visions of boyhood.
DRIZIN: So you mentioned when boys become men or when they become fathers at 25, 30, 35, whatever. The truth is though that there are plenty of young men who become fathers very young, just as there are women who become moms very young. And that many, many of those pregnancies are unplanned, unintentional, unwanted, and it puts people in a position where they sort of have to rise to the occasion. And I’m wondering what kind of interventions work in those circumstances.
ROY: Interesting. I think a couple things. Teen pregnancy is always a concern, decade after decade, and the rates of teen pregnancy haven’t really changed much in about 100 years. What’s changed is that teens aren’t getting married. And that’s kind of a big concern. Suddenly you’ve got babies having babies but they’re not doing it together. So what kind of support system do you actually have for this? The successful interventions from what I can tell don’t leave it in these teenagers’ laps to figure out, ok you’re getting married and then everything will work out. [Successful interventions] involve families, extended families and kin. So both girl’s and boy’s families may come into the mix-- particularly their mothers--to offer support, to work things out with the courts or with community groups.
I think the other thing is that it’s important that these young men be involved because for the most part there’s an initial moment where they feel mentally responsible and obligated. But they’re very captured by this turn in their life and they really want to be able to take part in it. And often times I think it’s kind of easier to shut them out and have, you know, the mom and her family deal with it. It’s very hard to make this work across families, but when it does, you can see that it broadens the resources that families have…
DRIZIN: It seems that in the last few decades, there’ve been a couple of instances where fatherhood has taken; I guess you could say the spotlight. I remember back in the 80’s or 90’s there was the whole promise keepers movements of stadiums filled with Christian Fundamentalist and Evangelical dads who were sort of reclaiming their role as head of household. And then we had the Million Man March which was African American men coming together not just around fatherhood but around a range of issues.
Have there been other major developments or movements that you’ve seen that are having an impact in the new millennium in the role of fathers?
ROY: It’s interesting. So both of those kind of social movements really took place in about the mid 90’s and that was also a time when the Clinton administration, particularly Vice President Gore were really involved in promoting responsible fatherhood. And it was very much kind of the understanding that what it would take was for men to have a change of heart. They need to step up and be responsible. And what was interesting is it echoed across kind of classes and incomes and races and ethnicities. It captured a lot of men’s imagination and recast their relationships with their kids…
The paternity establishment were really set up in the mid 90s (through welfare reform) to kind of be… more punitive, unfortunately. But what came out of that I think 5 years later, 10 years later, was an emphasis on marriage and promoting marriage. And that was under the Bush administration. And I think just more broadly, general recognition that we can promote fathering but you can’t do so without taking mothers into consideration and the relationships they have… So that kind of went on until I would say the mid 2000s, late 2000s.
What you have now is a child support and a paternity establishment system that’s been running for 15 years and is more and more efficient and effective. But I think you do have demographic changes than even we had just 15 years ago so that now the majority of women who have kids in their 20s are doing so outside of marriage. And that means something for men in that situation, right? So that means the majority of men are non residential fathers in their 20s. I think what you’re seeing is a very slow, I would say diversification. More and more men can do more and want to do more in their kids’ lives. And more and more men are feeling disengaged. So I think that kind of the high and the low end are spreading out, and there’s larger and larger gaps between what fathers experience as the common father. There’s a lot of diversity in there and I think that’s kind of what’s been happening over the past 20 years.
DRIZIN: Right now our country has been facing tremendous economic turmoil. A lot of men have lost their jobs and along with that have lost their ability to fulfill what they thought was their role, which was as bread winner for their family. And many more men are home with kids either by default or increasingly by choice, in part because the women in their lives, the mothers of their children or their wives are able to hold on to jobs or have greater earning power at the moment. So this seems to be, I mean, it doesn’t cut cross necessarily, class lines, but it does seem to be this sort of new “hipster” dad, more engaged dad, kind of role popping up.
ROY: Right and you can see it was on the cover of the New Yorker where you’ve got 45 dads in the playground and one mom walks onto the scene and feels very strange with all of the fathers with their strollers. I do think that’s happening. And you can see it you know on the cover of Time and Newsweek and they talk about the new man. I mean, I think what’s happening are these very individual negotiations where parents are sitting down at the table trying to figure out, you know, who’s going to be working, who can be working, who’s going to stay at home? How do we make these kinds of decisions when we are pretty strapped? And I think what you’re finding is very intense negotiation between parents--and that’s even if they’re not married or living together…
I don’t think fathers are locked in to any kind of one way of being, like, Mr. Mom forever. I think it depends on the child’s age and what kind of access the family has to resources. And so that’s introducing a totally new dynamic into families because I think they need to negotiate their identities anew every month in many ways, and it’s exhausting and these families are always on the hunt for making sure that they’ve got stability, you know, month to month.
I think it’s pushing men to consider new fields of jobs that may have been traditionally women’s jobs. And I think things will look very different 5 or 10 years from now in terms of the work that men are doing.
DRIZIN: Think we’re going to see a bunch of “Daddy Day Cares?”
ROY: You could. It wouldn’t surprise me. It wouldn’t surprise me at all.
DRIZIN: It is kind of interesting, I mean there’s always been this anything that’s associated with children seems to have a lower stature in our society such that child care workers and teachers, you know when the teaching profession transitioned to be primarily, almost entirely female, It just became less valued, and there just aren’t that many men engaged in the care of children. I don’t want to say it’s freakish but you know it’s always surprising if you go into a childcare setting or even an elementary school and there are men present.
ROY: That’s right. And it’s a two way street. So the question is, how many men are attracted to those jobs, and then if they are, what kind of message do they get that this is not the place for you, that you’re not trusted, that this is threatening for kids because of abuse situations or what have you.
I think that a lot of it has to come down to training and kind of structural incentives… it’s a broader issue about the way that we support workers who care for our elderly or our kids or our kids in school. You know, do they have the stable jobs, do they have the benefits, are they paid well enough to make those jobs attractive? And you know, I’m not sure if men moving in to those fields of occupation is going to give them a higher status.
They’re going to be lower status because they’re seen as, you know, care occupations.
But I think that there are ways that we can, and I think other countries have invested resources and changed incentives and priorities to kind of give them a little more stability and a little more heft. We’ll see…
DRIZIN: So reporters who will be reading this and editors might be looking for some new story ideas on how to cover Father’s Day. What to do that’s not just a greeting card look at this annual holiday. Can you name a few ideas perhaps they’re coming from your book or research or programs that you’ve seen around the country that would be worth profiling? Some story ideas that some journalists can get connected to?
ROY: Sure, sure. One of the things I think is important is not just to recognize fathers who are kind of there in the household ready for breakfast and bed kind of thing. That there are a lot of men who are not with their kid on Father’s Day and in very different situations.
We’ve been looking a lot at fathers who are in the military as well as fathers who are incarcerated. These are men…who are not with their kids, but they’re striving to retain those relationships. And Father’s Day is a big day for them too, so how are they able to communicate and get involved with their kids? And so what kind of systems and structures and maybe resources do we need to provide to keep those folks engaged with their kids?
These things are important for a few different reasons, because those men will be coming back to their families and communities. And oftentimes for incarcerated men, they may go right back into prison if they don’t have a strong relationship there that will keep them in that community. So literally promoting father child involvement for incarcerated men can prevent recidivism. And the same goes for men who are coming back from being deployed; I think that they’re dealing with physical and mental stress, and things have changed in their families and things have changed with themselves…
The other thing I think is important to think about is that fathers across classes are dealing with children in multiple families. So the way it’s thought about with low income families is these are guys who have multiple kids with multiple partners and it just seems very chaotic and hard and oftentimes the images that he’s involved with the kids he has now but he doesn’t see his kids from previous relationships at all. And we find that that’s not true. That actually fathers when they’re able to kind of stabilize their family situation want to go back and have those relationships with their kids. And how do you do that on Father’s Day?... Father’s day is about celebrating multiple men involved in each child’s life to some extent. And that’s a pretty complicated message to send to kids in particular, but that defies any stereotype that we have. It suggests that there are families and maybe even groups of men can work together to really dedicate themselves to really nurturing their kids. And that’s something that it’s usually, we see it as on one father’s shoulders, it’s you know, on his plate, he’s got to make it work. But in the book we really emphasize that fathering is a social arrangement, and it doesn’t mean that takes men out of the picture at all. They’re very much involved and engaged and motivated, but it works in tandem with other relationships in their lives, very much so. So I think that’s something that a Father’s Day message, it would be very different to emphasize that.
DRIZIN: And it’s interesting because it seems like there’s a tremendous number of supportive programs and systems in place for moms. I mean there’s the whole mommy blogosphere, there’s all these new mothers groups, there’s La Leche League and Mocha Moms. There’s a whole range of support networks that women tap into when they’re home with kids whether it’s mommy and me and all these things that bring moms together with their kids to support each other in their new role. I don’t know whether there are parallels for dads, and I’m sure you discovered them with your research in this book.
ROY: There are some. They’re beginning to get some recognition. There are boot camps for young dads. There are dads coming together, there’s a group in California called Eco Dads that see themselves as kind of guardians of the community and the environment and so they’re working with kids on sustainability issues which is really interesting. I think the hard part is that in emphasizing men’s nurturance with kids and their relationships, we don’t want to take away from mother’s relationship with kids because it’s not an either or situation…
DRIZIN: And we’ve also seen Quite an explosion in the last decade, 15 years, of gay male couples who have become fathers, which is a huge social change. I mean there have always been gay male fathers, sometimes in marriage, sometimes in divorce. But now, you know, two men as a couple, married couple in some cases intentionally adopting or doing surrogacy is really big social change in this country.
ROY: Right, and I think there the issue from our perspective is really one of policy and law and how uneven we are across the country in terms of allowing gay couples to adopt and supporting marriage first and foremost and then in terms of gay men’s involvement with kids and raising kids. It seems like there are obviously kind of regions and spaces where this is supported and comfortable and safe and other where it is not. And that’s going to be a dynamic I think for a long time. Although it seems to us, when Bill and I talked about it, that there’s a kind of cohort differences that younger men feel somewhat differently about this than let’s say folks in their 60s or 70s. So it could be in 20 years that a lot of these changes will move though and that gay fathers will be accepted along with heterosexual fathers as being you know, we’ll kind of, you know, applaud their involvement with their kids. But at this point, it seems that a lot of it is being structured by policy and law in a very uneven way across the country.
DRIZIN: So if there were a few key policy changes that you think would make a difference in inspiring dads to be more engaged and more nurturing on a national level, what are the key policy areas or laws that you think should be put in place?
ROY: Right. I don’t think there are any kind of easy kind of laws to put up there are things will change overnight. I think that one that we saw and we’ve recognized for a long time is pass through laws which is the child support that low income fathers pay that goes to reimburse the state for welfare payments and doesn’t go to their children or the mothers of their children. So in effect, fathers are paying child support to the state. Their kids didn’t see any of that money, and there was very little incentive for them to pay. And so you’ve seen a lot of child support over the past 10 years kind of plateau out, and you haven’t seen a growth as more and more fathers become part of that system. Part of it may be they can’t pay because of the economy, but a lot of it is the incentives behind that.
So Danny Davis and Barack Obama and Evan Bayh tried for a number of years to try and change the pass- through laws so at least the money from the child support from the fathers would go to the families. And I think that would be an important piece. There are much broader more extensive things that need to happen. For example, there are a number of people in the child support enforcement across the country and then at a federal level who are doing really innovative things with fathers. A lot of them are very small programs. They’re not linked together. They’re kind of not systemic. They’re happening at different spots around the country. And it’s an interesting tool that these are men who are divorced or men who were never married- they’re involved in the child support system. But to be able to provide them resources to be nurturing even at a distance would be very powerful and an effective way to kind of engage men I think. But what’s happening at the state and federal level is different than what’s happening at the local level. And so, what Bill and I propose is really we need to talk across levels because oftentimes initiatives come down from the top…
There’s also a need for a broad discussion of getting fathers involved with their kids. Not necessarily just through marriage or just through their jobs. How do you do that? Is there one way to kind of nurture kids? Part of it is I think creating a context for men to be involved with their kids more often, whether that is through their jobs as caregivers and teachers and working in hospitals and wherever kids are you see men. That’s one way of doing that. And that could be providing incentives for men to take those kinds of jobs and the training and education that they need to kind of make those career choices. Beyond jobs I think really looking at family law and ways that we often focus on couples and pit couples against each other in our law and policy as opposed to creating situations where they’re working together...
I think that the types of policies that need to come out are going to take a lot of effort on many different levels. We don’t unfortunately have one or two major policy changes that we would suggest-- it’s more of a rethinking of basic ways that parents are raising their kids.
DRIZIN: Now Kevin, your expertise in this area is not entirely and exclusively professional. You also have personal expertise and I’m assuming that as a father, a lot of your interest in this academic field stems from your personal experience. So I’m wondering if you would add something about what it means to you to be a father in 2012 and you know just some reflections on the importance of that role and relationship in your own life.
ROY: Sure, sure. So I have 3 sons who are 5, 9, and 13, and I was involved with the fathering research before any of them were born. And what I realized even before that was that my relationship with my father, who was a middle class, stable father, my parents divorced, was in many ways not as good as the type of guys I was working with, guys who had fathers who were low income, non-residential and unmarried. It really kind of surprised me as I began working with them that they had very close relationships with their kids, but they weren’t providing for them, they weren’t residing with them. And so, you know, how does that happen? And I learned a lot. And I always learned a lot over the past 20 years in working with men who are struggling and challenged to be with their kids.
And so my relationship with my sons is something I do not take for granted at all. It’s something that from the very beginning, my wife and I have strived to kind of share all of the care and the decisions and the kind of day-to-day grunt work that we do. And I think unfortunately I see a lot of young boys or young men who don’t have fathers in their lives or who did for a moment and they’re not there now. My boys recognize that I’m still here. And I think they respect that and like that.
You know, I see it as my responsibility to raise three boys who are aware of all of the gendered stereotypes out there and ways that they can really be engaged and care for each other and other people. That’s important…And they see me in terms of I teach about families and how that’s a very different role. You know, other fathers are lawyers and doctors and I work with people who are therapists and social workers and working with kids. And I think they see that it’s ok, it’s something that men can do. They don’t really think I’m a real scientist, but I do.
[My sons] are also aware of a lot of the struggles that men face when they want to be involved with kids because I researched that and it happens in our lives. We talk about a lot of that. It’ll be interesting to see where they go when they grow up and to be along for the ride.
Transcript by Lyndsey Wallen
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