The Myth of the Biologically Unfit Father

Q: Isn’t it true that mothers are naturally better at parenting than fathers? Don’t moms have some sort of instinct that dads don’t have?
A: Margaret Mead once said that fathers are a biological necessity, but a social accident. And throughout much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries our culture has been trying very hard to make this view a reality. Socialized into being the family breadwinner, "traditional" fathers provided a strong moral and material support for their families, meted out discipline for their children, but did little else. They paced the waiting room during childbirth, rarely, if ever, changed a diaper or warmed a bottle, and generally steered clear of the nursery, leaving the responsibility for child rearing almost entirely to their wives.

The view of fathers as "accidental" was shared by those who studied parenthood and child development. Sigmund Freud, for example, who had a major influence in shaping the 20th century’s cultural views of parenting, believed that since mothers usually fed and cared for babies, they were biologically better suited to be parents and they would exert more influence over their children than fathers would.

But there were some challenges. One of the fiercest critics of Freud’s focus on feeding as the centerpiece of early development was John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist. "The conventional wisdom was that infants were only interested in mothers because mothers fed them," reflected Bowlby in a 1977 interview. "I was profoundly unimpressed by that."

Rather than consider the importance of fathers, Bowlby continued to promote the idea that mothers were superior-but for slightly different reasons. For Bowlby, any emotional and social problems suffered by children resulted from the lack of an "attachment bond, the process by which the infant comes to prefer specific adults-specifically his mother-over others. Bowlby suggested that attachment is a result of instinctive responses important for the protection and survival of the species. Crying, smiling, sucking, clinging, and following all elicit necessary maternal care and protection for the infant and promote contact between mother and infant. He stressed that the mother is the first and most important object of infant attachment, relegating fathers to the role of mother’s little helper.

The notion of mothers’ biological superiority and, correspondingly, fathers’ inferiority got a big boost in the 1950′s from primate researcher Harry Harlow. In his now famous experiments, Harlow showed that rhesus monkeys would develop an attachment to a surrogate caregiver. Or, to use Harlow’s non-neutral term, surrogate "mother." To prove this he constructed two stand-ins; one, a wire mesh mother and a cloth-covered mother. Although the wire-mesh mother provided the food, Harlow found that the monkeys spent most of their time-sixteen to eighteen hours a day clinging to the cloth mother.

What this experiment proved was that attachment (in monkeys, at least) was based more on the "contact comfort" provided by the terry cloth covering than on the chance to feed. Fathers could have easily provided this kind of warmth and comfort, even if the couldn’t nurse their offspring. Nevertheless, Harlow persisted in labeling these experimental caregivers as mothers, a label that promoted the myth of the biologically primacy of mothers.

There’s no question that throughout history, fathers have taken on less of the care and feeding of infants and young children than mothers. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that this is true because mothers have some sort of biologically based nurturing or care taking superiority. If so, one might expect fathers to play a relatively minor role in childcare in all cultures. But this is not the case.

Fathers in a number of other cultures share infant and childcare more or less equally with their wives. And in our own culture, many, many men are actively involved in nurturing their children and there are thousands more who, as stay-at-home fathers, do nearly all of the childcare. And, as Kyle Pruett, a Yale psychiatrist and author of The Nurturing Father has documented, these primary caretaker fathers do an excellent job. Clearly, the family roles played by mothers and fathers are not biologically fixed. Instead, they vary with a variety of social, ideological, and other conditions.

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