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By Mark Anthony Neal
| @NewBlackMan

Wednesday, June 22, 2011.

I am a better father, than I am a husband; or at least that is what has been affirmed to me, if I am to gauge such things by the number of compliments that I receive from friends and passer-bys. Indeed it’s been so easy to believe the hype, as strangers react in amazement when I show any hint of nurturing, affection or playfulness with my two daughters. I used to strut around thinking I was doing something exceptional; twelve years of parenting and decades of critical attention to the discourses that frame contemporary Black masculinity have taught me that such affirmation is borne out of a belief that Black men play little role in the lives of their children. In a society that expects so little from them, Black fathers often get celebrated for doing exactly what they are supposed to do as parents.

I thought about all of this, when the Today Show recently did a story about the positive impact of horseplay between fathers and children. It’s not new research; I cited the decade-old research of Ross Parke and Armin Brott (Throwaway Dads: The Myths and Barriers That Keep Men from Being the Fathers They Want to Be) in my book New Black Man (2005), paying particular attention to the effects play with fathers has on the self-esteem of daughters. I can’t think of a father that doesn’t find such activity one of the most pleasurable experiences of parenting, especially with young children; such play is still a vital part of my relationships with both of my daughters. I can imagine play with fathers becoming one of the pillars of a normative American fatherhood, along with providing security and discipline.

Yet, regardless of race, the expectations associated with fatherhood are far less dynamic than those that we expect of mothers, so much so that there are even institutional impediments that discouraged men from fully engaging in parenting responsibilities beyond those that are viewed as normal.

It is only within the last decade, for example, that public restrooms include unisex changing stations or changing stations in men’s bathroom to accommodate fathers. In interactions with child-care providers, teachers, and pediatricians, fathers continue to be treated as disinterested on-lookers. Child-care providers almost never provided me information about the kinds of days my daughters had when I picked them up, without me making an effort to get such information. They would freely share such information with my wife—and always with much more detail than they shared with me. It has been no different with their schooling, as teachers and administrators seem genuinely confused—or even concerned for their safety—when Black fathers, in particular, decide to be classroom parents or occasionally decide to visit, as if we are all party to some on-going child custody case with our baby-mama.

And if institutional forces didn’t do enough to discourage more engaged parenting by fathers, popular culture has been a trusted source to further dissuade engaged fatherhood. Indeed there is an entire comedic tradition—a cottage industry really —built around fathers and parenting. Films like Daddy Day Care (2003), Parenthood (1989) and Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) and numerous television sitcoms have flourished by making the clueless, ineffective father the regular punch-line. In early television culture—and well into the 1980s—the comic image of the father trying to survive the challenges of domestic life, where countered by equally troubling comic images regarding women in the workforce; I’m thinking specifically about a the highly influential I Love Lucy, which along with early sitcoms like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie (where the main female characters had magic powers) served as a backlash to the influx of women in the workforce during World War II.

Indeed, in our contemporary culture, the lowered expectations for Black fathers are powerfully contrasted by expectations for Black mothers that adhere to parenting standards that are almost impossible sustain, without an engaged co-parent; mothers in general are given little sympathy when they fail to live up the societal expectations of what a “true” mother—woman—is supposed to do.

While there are many criticisms directed at absentee Black fathers—and legitimately so—very rarely is that level of critique extended to Black fathers when they are present, even if they are engaged in abusive behavior towards their partners and their children. Not so ironically, there is a equally troubling discourse that blames Black women, their ambitions, and their so-called attitudes for the failure of Black fathers to remain in the home or as engaged parents. Such critiques place a premium for fathers being present, often overlooking that what many children need, is simply to have as many adults as possible involved in their lives, regardless of gender or if they live in the residence.

With so many communities being challenged by chronic unemployment, particularly among adult males, parenting and gender scripts are seemingly being re-written as we speak. The Today Show feature that I cite above, as well as sitcoms like Modern Family, is evidence of a culture trying to wrap its head around what fathers bring to the table as parents—beyond traditional expectations—at a time when many fathers have little choice but to take a hands-on approach to parenting in order for their families to survive. It should not have taken a national economic crisis for us to realize that in devaluing the role that men can play in raising children, regardless if they are parents or not, we are devaluing the lives of our children also.


Mark Anthony Neal is the father of two adopted daughters, aged 12 and 8.  The author of several books, including the forthcoming Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities (New York University Press), Neal also teaches African-American Studies at Duke University and is the host of the weekly Webcast, Left of Black, produced in collaboration with the John Hope Franklin Center at Duke University. You can follow him on Twitter @NewBlackMan

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