Fathers, Male Role Models, and Raising a Boy

Tomorrow is father’s day. I don’t want this post to rain on anyone else’s father’s day parade, but for a single mother this day raises particular challenges that I wish to write about.

All holidays can be difficult for a single parent, particularly those who live far from extended family as I do, but I’ve found ways to make them tolerable and sometimes even wonderful. Last Thanksgiving, for example, I got together with my closest friend here (who is also a single mom) and our kids, and we ordered a big meal from the grocery store, made placemats, played games at my house, and took an evening walk with flashlights. It was a lot of fun, and I hope it becomes an annual tradition. Mother’s Day and my birthday are both okay too, now that I’ve learned and accepted that I have to take responsibility for planning my own celebrations.

Other holidays are not so great. Father’s day is one of them, especially now that P is old enough to understand, at least in limited terms, what the day is supposed to be about. I would prefer just to ignore it, but venturing anywhere in public makes that impossible. Today we were out running errands and must have overheard a half-dozen people talk about spending time with their dads or how great their dads are. And P’s preschool teacher guided him and all of the students in making father’s day presents, which I dutifully mailed. I don’t know what P thinks about it all; mostly, he doesn’t react, but I wonder whether that’s because he doesn’t hear or because he is silently, perhaps subconsciously, processing.

As a single mother who is raising a boy on my own, Inevitably this holiday highlights for me the issue of the “father figure” and the alleged importance of “male role models.” I have begun reading a book that addresses this issue head-on. The book, which was self-published online, is called 7 Risks for Single Mothers – and the Art of Managing Them, by Marian Evans. The author, an artist, is a single mother and seems to hold both feminist and sociological perspectives (though she does not identify as such in what I’ve read so far). Evans wrote the book after reading research documenting that single mothers, especially those who experienced a divorce or separation, die younger than both their married counterparts and single mothers who choose that status intentionally. The biggest reason is ongoing and chronic stress, often compounded by poverty, isolation, and sheer exhaustion, all of which compromises the immune system. Evans identifies two main societal reasons undergirding all of these risks: first, that mothering in general is a “highly demanding and grossly undervalued occupation,” and second, that “single mothers are less valued than mothers in general and tend to attract criticism and hostility rather than support and affirmation.”

In a chapter specifically about the risk posed by fathers and male role models, Evans identifies “the pressure to provide a male role model as yet another kind of emotional maltreatment that may cause single mothers to fear that we aren’t providing well for our children.” She continues:

“The overemphasis on the need for a male role model obscures the reality that the individual identity is multidimensional. It helps children to have a role model for any significant component of their identity. This may – or may not — relate to family, extended family (biological or social), sexual expression, gender, culture, class, ethnicity, genetic inheritance of various kinds, spirituality and or a relationship to a place. Each child’s identity and needs are unique to that child … This more spacious context places the significance of the male role model in perspective. It tends to support the idea that any emphasis on the need for a male role model is a kind of control, aiming to manipulate families who are not ‘legitimate.’”

Evans writes that when she realized this, it was liberating to her. It was, and is, liberating to me too.

Yet the “male role models” idea is profoundly hegemonic, meaning that it operates socially as common-sense and is accepted uncritically by just about everyone, including me. For example, P has been potty training for the past six months or so, and in general he is doing fine. And I am doing fine teaching him. But it is amazing how this process in particular has led well-meaning friends and strangers to suggest that P needs a man or an older boy to show him how to piss on the toilet. I expect it will get worse when he hits puberty and/or begins dating and having sex; lots of people already talk to me about that phase, though it is (fingers crossed!) a decade or more away. Annoyingly, I have bought into this idea too – that, when it comes to certain things in P’s life, especially those related to his anatomy or sexuality, I am simply incapable, due to my female biology, of supporting him. It’s ridiculous, especially because literally everything is available now on the internet, where I can find and weigh multiple perspectives to figure out what is right for my unique child – taking into account not just his maleness, but his personality and his distinct needs.

Then there is the issue of the men in our lives who try to be that male role model for P. Though there are a few, one such man in particular comes to mind today. A few weeks ago, we met our neighbors, a married heterosexual couple with three young boys, one of whom is exactly P’s age. This family radiates health in their relationships. The father home-schools his children while the wife pursues her advanced degree, so every day we see them outside playing baseball, going to the stream for their science lessons, etc. P has fallen in love with this family, especially the youngest son and the dad (he has fallen in love with several other families, too, including those who have girl children — the attraction seems to be larger families with a healthy, energetic dynamic rather than any particular gender identity or configuration). He asks me at least three or four times a day if we can go to their house. And the dad, who knows our situation (and even met P’s father several years ago, in a very random occurrence), has stepped into a mentor role for P – quite deliberately, it seems to me. He has helped P cross the street, has invited him to martial arts classes he teaches, and – you got it – has suggested various tips for potty training.

It is hard to explain how these aspiring male role models make me feel. On the one hand, I am grateful for them – and, for that matter, any adult who steps in to help me with parenting, especially on days when I am struggling, whether emotionally or physically. But it can feel condescending, as if it is coming from a place of pity rather than respect for me — an echo of that hegemonic idea that a woman, even a woman like me who has been raising my son basically on my own since his birth, just can’t do it all for him. I don’t mean to suggest that the men themselves are thinking that way, though they might be. But that is how I take it. Before I know it I’ve spent an hour worrying about it all. The chronic stress continues. And that, dear readers, is how I will spend my father’s day.

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One thought on “Fathers, Male Role Models, and Raising a Boy

  1. Everything you say and do makes me more in love with you. “…any adult who steps in to help me with parenting…” Bingo. You are enough. They are extra.

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