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Fighting against fatherlessness

Despite high levels of fatherlessness in America, more and more men want to be there for their kids, both physically and emotionally. Yet many dads still struggle to know what it means to be a good father, and how to become one.
Sara Israelsen-Hartley, Deseret News Modified: June 13, 2014 at 12:02 am •  Published: June 13, 2014
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Dinner hasn't been over longer than 10 minutes, and Jason Bronson is out on the lawn with his wife and six children.

Matthew, 7, brings out the chalk and Bronson begins tracing around the "dead bodies" on the driveway. Thanks to her ponytail, 10-year-old Karlee ends up looking like a bunny while little Blake looks like an oversized gingerbread man.

Next, Bronson is dragged to the lawn for gymnastics with Jillian, 13, Kaley, 12 and Karlee, 10. It's admittedly not his favorite activity, but he does it because his girls love it.

"You don't have to be the smartest, best person to be a good dad," says Bronson, 39. "You just have to put in a lot of effort."

It's a mantra he learned from his dad, who, despite feeling insecure about his lack of handyman skills, still tackled several daunting-for-him projects.

"He tried it and it ended up OK," Bronson says. "I teach my kids, 'Don't be afraid to try new things. Try your best and fail, but just do it.' "

Through foster care, Bronson and his wife, Jessica, have tried to pass on that and other important lessons to the children who've come through their home over the past decade — five of whom they've adopted and a sixth whose paperwork will be finalized soon.

But that chain of paternal teaching and learning that Bronson experienced is being broken either by fatherless homes — nearly 24 million, or 1 in 3, children in America growing up in homes without a father — or by homes where fathers are ill-equipped or unprepared to be parents and role models. Rebuilding these connections is a life-long process, and experts say one of the most important tools is mentoring — both to the children, who will one day be fathers and mothers themselves, and to their dads.

In fact, a growing number of dads want to be more physically and emotionally involved in their chidren's lives, says Kei Nomaguchi, a sociology professor at Bowling Green State University. The problem is, it's easier said than done.

Society and media offer little guidance, with mixed messages regarding manhood and fatherhood. Many fathers struggle because they didn't have a positive role model as a child. And on top of it all, says Nomaguchi, is the intense pressure to provide in a sagging economy.

"If you want to have a fulfilling life and you're a dad, it's important to really understand that being around your kids, trying to be focused on them, is probably one of the most important and meaningful things you can do in your life," says filmmaker Dana Glazer, who produced/directed "The Evolution of Dad." "(But) there's a lot of messaging that is trying to counter that, and it's really hard. There's a lot of pressure."

Defining dad

Andrew Behnke begins each community fathering class the same way — by pinning a foam heart onto the sleeves of the participating men, who may range from white-collar executives to men who haven't held a steady job in 10 years.

"I tell them to wear their hearts on their sleeves," says Behnke, a professor of human development at North Caroline State University. "There's a need in our culture to make that cool, for fathers to really own being a loving father as ... what it's all about."

Fathers are awash in confusing ideas about what it means to father. Television and movies often portray goofballs who are inept at housework and child care, or masculine men who don't show emotion or ask for help. As a result, many men feel lost, "without a map of how to live, how to be a father," Behnke says. The men he works with want to step up, but into what role exactly?

While that struggle feels unique to today's men, it's actually an ongoing trend, says historical sociologist Ralph LaRossa, a professor emeritus at Georgia State University who studies family, gender and fatherhood.

The culture and conduct of fatherhood has always ebbed and flowed. In colonial America, many fathers spent all day working with their children on the family farm. Then the Industrial Revolution pulled fathers into factories and required a complete work/life rebalancing.

In the 1920s, media portrayed men as bumbling and incompetent fathers, while in the 1930s, men were increasingly encouraged to play more of a child nurturing role since the Depression made economic providing so difficult, says LaRossa, author of "The Modernization of Fatherhood." By the 1940s, fathers were seen as noble protectors who helped their children by serving the country during war.

The post-war boom of the 50s and TV shows like "Father Knows Best" and "Leave It to Beaver" promoted a traditional image of fatherhood, which was upended during the 60s feminist movement, bringing a second wave of "new fatherhood" that encouraged fathers to, again, engage emotionally with their children.

"I think it's important that people have a sense of history so that they understand that today's fathers are not the first generation to change a diaper," LaRossa says.

When fathers appreciate that the culture of fatherhood fluctuates, they realize they're not necessarily destined to become amazing simply through some type of fatherhood "evolution," LaRossa says. Effective fathering takes constant work and introspection.

More than money

But time for introspection is rare when dad is working several jobs or long hours just to make ends meet.

"Fatherlessness and marital dissolution are mostly due to economic difficulties," says Nomaguchi. "So to keep telling fathers, 'You should keep staying in relationships' or 'keep being responsible for (your) kids' is probably not helping."

When financial stress breaks up relationships, these fathers — who are trying to be the providers they think society demands — become non-resident fathers, Nomaguchi says, which not only affects them psychologically, but makes it difficult to be close to their children.

"Perhaps because they are socialized to be providers, men seem to take financial conflict particularly hard," writes Jeffrey Dew, a faculty fellow at the National Marriage Project and an assistant professor of Family, Consumer, and Human Development at Utah State University. He found that couples who argue over money at least once a week were over 30 percent more likely to divorce than couples who disagreed about finances just a few times each month.