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(originally published in the Winter, 2010 issue)
The odds against men are mounting. They’ve long been the minority at U.S. colleges and universities, and women are about even in the elite medical and law schools. Many campuses, concerned about the male-female ratios, now have unofficial affirmative action for guys, accepting less qualified XY chromosome specimens to keep attracting bright young gals who want to mingle with men on the quad after outperforming them in the classroom.
And for those who still have yesterday’s memo tacked to the wall that women make 75 cents on the dollar that a man makes in the workforce, the new stat in our new economy is that wives are rapidly catching up with their husbands in earning power. In 2007 more than 25 percent of wives pulled in more money than their male partners in households in which both worked, up from 7 percent in 1980. The number is 33 percent when you add families in which the husband was unemployed.
The percentage of better-earning wives has no doubt risen even higher in the past two years, since three-quarters of the job loss in our sick economy has occurred among men, especially poor and blue-collar workers. In fact, as America moves decidedly from manufacturing to a service and technology economy, and male physical strength becomes less important, the superior education and social and communication skills of women have been elevated. In years to come, the situation is likely to turn more to the female’s favor, since two areas in which women excel—health care and education—promise to grow, even in a poor economy.
Of course, for many families who rely on two incomes, the rise in women’s income is a good thing, and husbands may welcome the boost in household income. Yet there is still a strong force within most men to be the primary breadwinner, based not only on pride and competitiveness, but also on the healthy male desire to protect and provide for his family. It will be interesting to see how the income levels of husbands and wives will affect marriages and families over the long run.
The shifting balance of finances in many marriages has worked hand-in-hand with the no-fault divorce regime to produce a perfect storm against men. When we think of divorce, we often imagine a wife enduring an abusive husband and cutting the marital knot to protect herself and the children. Or the poor wife who finds her husband is involved in multiple affairs, à la Tiger Woods. We also may recall the clueless, ego-addled governor who falls in love with an alluring Latina woman and expects his wife to affirm his life’s new direction.
Recent events leave little room for imagination when it comes to dumb husbands breaking up the marriage and leaving their wives to file for divorce. But research shows that the majority of divorces in America occur in the first seven years within low-conflict marriages. A bigger factor than infidelity is lack of commitment and communication, coupled with unreasonable expectations. One or both of the spouses may have looked to marriage as the answer to their dreams and the fulfillment of all their needs. Then children, money, mortgages, and disappointment creep into the picture. The couple drifts apart and lacks the commitment, maturity, and communication skills to work through the troubles.
And, yes, even in these low-conflict cases, wives file for divorce at a higher rate than husbands.
A bigger factor in the decline of men and masculinity is that fatherhood is seen as increasingly irrelevant to the future of our race, as the grand and noble act of procreation is replaced by laboratory mechanisms in which women have the decisive role. The movement began some 37 years ago with the Supreme Court wiping away any strictures against abortion in the Roe v. Wade decision. Since then, men have had no enforceable rights in the continued life of the child in the womb that they helped to create, leaving the decision of life or death in the hands of the mother—a form of materfamilias— and the intervention of “medical science.”
Men were not supposed to care, or feel anything, about being made legally impotent in the protection of their child, or even in the death by abortion of their own flesh and blood. Yet a growing group of them are gathering under the banner “Abortion Hurts Men,” and they are telling their stories of pain and alienation, and feelings of helplessness.
Men’s reproductive worth also has been devalued by in vitro fertilization and other non-sexual forms of baby making, as more women choose their gamete mates from among anonymous sperm donors. Women have the choice today of bearing children without passing through the sometimes turbulent waters of marriage, or even the emotional attachment and effort of sexual liaisons. They need not dress to impress, invest in a relationship, or wonder if the guy will pay for dinner. They need not go near a living, breathing man at all, but can start their pregnancy in a Petri dish, with her egg and an unnamed sperm.
Even the infertile can buy some eggs from the many Ivy League ladies who are anxious to pay off their college debt by charging high prices for their fresh ova after going through risky hormonal regimens. If a husband is not around to add a little sperm to the exchange, the infertile woman can always go to the local bank to buy some.
We have gone from the confusion of medieval biology, which saw women as mere receptacles of the male homunculus—the fully formed little man found in male seed—to the point where a man is a mere repository for sperm. He himself is expendable in the process of reproduction except for the vital stuff that must be separated from him, usually in the undignified act of masturbation. How are men to feel good about their reproductive worth when their contribution may be relegated to a small cubicle with a couple of copies of Maxim magazine?
These financial and technological crises have happened in harmony with a consistent media message that men, and fathers in particular, are more trouble than they are worth. In popular culture and prime-time TV, men are portrayed as oversized babies, bumbling fools, clueless brutes, or goodnatured buffoons who need their conniving wives and smart-aleck kids to get them through the day.
TV has moved quite a distance from the days of Father Knows Best— which, admittedly, engendered a backlash by showing family life in its idyllic starched-shirt and high-heeled best. Today, in most sitcoms, families revolve around the mother, who must care for, feed, and rear all her children, including the biggest one called Dad.
After counting up the attacks on men and masculinity and calculating their value in family life and procreation, you would be justified in asking, with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, “Are Men Necessary?”
What’s a man to do?
Well, to start with, he should not retreat from the culture and his family, admit defeat, and cry in his beer. These may be difficult days for the image of men but there is good news on the horizon coming from some unlikely sources.
The Rehabilitation of Men
As editor of the website Fathers for Good (www.fathersforgood.org), sponsored by the Knights of Columbus, I regularly review a wealth of expert studies and anecdotal stories about family life, marriage, and parenthood. The K of C, a Catholic organization of 1.7 million men and their families, launched the fatherhood initiative to respond to many of the negative influences listed above.
We hear often from frustrated men, who have been divorced against their will and are fighting with scant success a child-welfare bureaucracy and legal-custody system that are stacked against their efforts to keep close to their children. Too often they are treated as superfluous to the well-being of their kids, and viewed suspiciously by social workers and judges.
Yet we have also found at Fathers for Good some very positive trends coming from the hearts of men and the women who love them. These trends are summed up in the very name Fathers for Good, which has two main meanings:
1. Every man, deep down and amid his flaws, wants to be a good father, to make a positive and lasting contribution to the lives of his wife and children, even if he has to struggle all his life to do so.
2. Once a man becomes a father, once he plays his part in the creation of new life, there is no turning back. He is a father for good, with the responsibilities that go with it.
There is a great irony at work in the heart of our culture regarding fatherhood that throws a shadow on men’s best efforts. At the same time that many potent cultural, economic, and legal forces are pushing for the abolition of fatherhood, social-science data are showing clearly that men are necessary—absolutely vital—to a greater degree than even most guys thought. Men are needed in the family, in the workforce, in the culture—and the research proclaiming this good news comes not just from Catholic, evangelical, or family-friendly sources. Social scientists who are committed to feminism have arrived at the same conclusions regarding men and fatherhood. The foundational finding of these researchers is that children need their fathers in their life; that children thrive best in a home with their biological parents who are committed to their marriage.
This sounds like common sense to most of us, no doubt. But in this age of empiricism, studies like these are necessary to change the culture, and bring men back in contact with their children and their better selves. They provide a well-documented and “double blind study” boost to our confidence.
Here are just a handful of statistics regarding the effects of fatherless families (these and other statistics are taken from the National Fatherhood Initiative and used with permission of the Fathers for Good website):
• Fatherless children are twice as likely to drop out of school.
• Children in father-absent homes are five times more likely to be poor.
• A child with a nonresident father is 54 percent more likely to be poorer than his or her father.
• Infant-mortality rates are 1.8 times higher for infants of unmarried mothers than for those of married mothers.
• Being raised by a single mother raises the risk of teen pregnancy, marrying with less than a high-school degree, and forming a marriage where both partners have less than a high-school degree.
• An analysis of child-abuse cases in a nationally representative sample of 42 counties found that children from single-parent families are more likely to be victims of physical and sexual abuse than children who live with both biological parents.
Just as in the psychologist’s Rorschach test there is something called the “mother card,” the ink-blot image which invokes feelings about a patient’s mother, so sociologists have come up with the need for a “father card” in society. At a time when traditional marriage and the nuclear family are losing their normative status, it may prove to be the trump card.
Indeed, after hitting a high tide of a 50 percent divorce rate in the 1980s, marriage today is more stable overall, with the divorce rate for new marriages at about 43 percent in the United States. Young people today may be skeptical of lifetime commitments, and falling into cohabitation, but they are sure about one thing: They hate divorce because they have lived with its effects. So those who do get married tend to be more prepared and committed, which may have a positive trickle-down effect to the culture of cohabitation, as more people witness marriages that last.
As W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia and contributor to The Marriage Index published by the Institute for American Values, says, “Marital quality and happiness have stabilized in the last 10 years, with 65 percent of married couples reporting a high level of satisfaction. But the number of people who get married is declining, particularly among poor and working-class people, who are choosing to live together instead and have children outside of marriage. This is having an unprecedented and devastating effect upon their children, who grow up without the stability that marriage naturally brings.”
Super Bowl Sentiments
Slick 30-second visual bites of commercial culture may be a weak link with which to put together a theory, but I couldn’t help noticing a significant theme that aired on Super Bowl Sunday last February. A few of the high-priced advertisements on that male-bastion broadcast addressed the place of men in the culture, with a couple of broad swipes at feminization, if not feminism itself. There was the spot by Dockers, which months earlier had premiered its “Wear the Pants” campaign, challenging guys to step up, be real men, and “answer the call of manhood.” In the Super Bowl ad, a dumb mob marches through the fields in their boxers or briefs, chanting “I wear no pants.” It’s a striking image that has no clear meaning; perhaps it signifies emasculation of some sort. In any event, the ad ends by telling guys to be a “real man” and wear the pants—Dockers, of course.
The Dodge Charger ad didn’t have the obligatory beautiful woman draped over the hood. Rather, it presented a more real-life situation and resolved it in favor of manhood. After men are shown promising their beloveds to be good and dutiful companions (including putting down the toilet seat), they draw the line at their car. No matter what his significant other says, a guy will drive his super-stocked Charger, because he’s a man.
And how about the wussy guy being dragged by his girlfriend through the mall, quietly carrying bags into all the feminine stores, helpless even to remove the red bra draped over his shoulder? The narrator tells the guy to “get out of the skirt” and watch manly shows on handheld FloTV.
The message was that the feminized guy, whose wife cramps his masculine drive or whose girlfriend is his shopping buddy, is a big loser. Real men wear pants, play rough, drive fast cars, and handle the TV remote.
It may not mark a sea change in popular media, but certain cultural icons are being recast. And there’s a deeper story: With the advertising business being all about public perception and money, you have to believe that the Madison Avenue execs would not have signed off on this theme if the majority of mainstream American women (i.e., consumers) would be offended. Could it be that women want men back in their lives and fathers for their children?
Language of Love
As the absolute importance of fathers is affirmed by social science, and backed up by plain common sense, the status of men is slowly being raised. I would guess that most women welcome this trend, and their acceptance will help the resurgence of masculine virtue to proceed in a healthy direction. We must find a spot for men between machismo and emotional weakness. Yet the problem is that after three decades of rapid change brought on by the feminist revolution of the 1970s, men and women have lost a language of love and honesty, and no longer know how to speak about who they are and what they want and how to get along as true partners. The hook-up culture in college (and beyond), I think, is a result of this loss of language.
We need some wisdom suited especially for our times, and we may have it in the thinking of a celibate, now deceased priest who addressed the pain and alienation of our culture head-on, and identified the relationship between man and woman and the dynamics of family life as the centerpiece of the solution. I speak, of course, of Pope John Paul II, whose Theology of the Body has been called by social analyst George Weigel a “time bomb” that is due to take future generations by storm.
The pope delivered his teaching over the course of years, in weekly catechetical sessions, so a full explanation of this wonderfully woven narrative of human love and sexual complementarity is impossible in these few pages. But for me, the great appeal of Theology of the Body is that it draws energy from the very sexual revolution that it seeks to correct. Like a transformer station that takes raw energy and converts it into streams of electricity that are useful to a household, the pope takes the sexual energy unleashed in the 1960s, draws out the positive trends, and adds the tempering perspective and well-tested routing of the Christian tradition. The result is a teaching on human sexuality and love that has an edgy feel of modernity while maintaining the truths of Christian wisdom and natural law.
The teaching is especially effective in the English-speaking Christian world, where cultural overtones of Calvinism had turned even Catholics of the first half of the 20th century into broader-thinking Puritans when it came to flesh and sex. Theology of the Body reclaims the true Christian tradition of the human person as a composite of body and soul as it affirms the dignity of the flesh, sex, and reason—the “nuptial meaning” of the body.
John Paul also upholds the dignity of women, and their particular physical and psychological needs and gifts—which he terms “feminine genius”— while at the same time reaffirming a woman’s high vocation of motherhood. Robert George, a Princeton professor and commentator on social trends through his Witherspoon Institute, has reported often on the overwhelming data that back up the traditional roles of men and women in the family. “Mothers, if they are good mothers, are very good at modeling for their boys and girls strong gentleness,” he says in a Fathers for Good website video. “Fathers, if they are good fathers, are very good at modeling gentle strength. If you see that distinction you’ll see the unique and different gifts that a mother and a father bring to marriage and child rearing.”
Men and women together, equal in dignity and value, yet different in nature and capacities: This is the great model that John Paul sketched in his theology that placed the ensouled human body at the nexus of all history. Men and women together, different and complementary, is the way forward for our culture and civilization.
To put it in general terms, what men need today is a sense that they are necessary and have a place in a culture that seems in some ways feminized and able to do without them. Women need to accept the masculine virtues and unique strengths of men so they can be free to develop their own “feminine genius.” There will always be a tension between the sexes, expressed in different ways in different eras. The challenge is to make that tension a creative one for the common good of families and the future of society.
Brian Caulfield is a communications specialist at the Knights of Columbus headquarters in New Haven, Conn., and editor of the website Fathers for Good (www.fathersforgood.org).