A conversation on fatherhood with anthropology professor Don Conway-Long
Fathers: They’re revered, adored and at times feared — even despised. No matter how you see your dad, you can’t argue with the fact that the way he fathered impacts your idea of family.
Anthropologist Don Conway-Long is fascinated with the shifting role of fathers in an ever-changing world. He teaches courses on gender and critical masculinity studies at Webster University in St. Louis. Conway-Long shares his thoughts on baby boomer and Generation X parenting on this Father’s Day.
Busted Halo: What’s your personal experience with fatherhood?
Don Conway-Long: I’m a stepfather, grandfather and uncle. I have three, thirtysomething daughters whom I inherited in their early teens. I’m not their biological father, but does that really matter?
BH: How involved was your father with raising you as a child?
DCL: He wasn’t. His generation didn’t do that. There were also other circumstances. We were a military family where there was discipline and rigid, sex-oriented roles — men did this, women did that. It was also a generation where the fathers worked all day, and then became weekend warriors when they made you do things they wanted to do. That’s the memory many of us had. I believe that’s partly behind our generation’s desire to not father like our fathers did. My father, who’s 78, regrets it now. Interestingly, he’s a truly involved grandfather. It’s a common thing that happens to men of his generation. They may not have been involved as fathers, but they become really involved with their grandkids.
BH: When did society’s concept of fatherhood change?
DCL: Three things happened to our generation. There was a renegotation of power between men and women. Women’s attitude changed, they no longer accepted that they had to stay at home. They became more powerful, and more demanding about sharing responsibilities at home. The economy also changed, and raising a family now required two breadwinners. The third piece was psychological. Dad wasn’t there for them, so the men of today recognize that as the missing link for connecting with their children.
BH: Is this so-called ‘Daditude’ here to stay?
DCL: I certainly hope so. It’s better for kids, and definitely better for men. Men should discover their softer, gentler side. And it’s important for boys to see so they won’t lead as much with all that bluster and pushiness. The girls will benefit from it as well. And we can’t forget the economy has something to do with this. More and more men are losing their jobs, so some are choosing to become more engaged with their families. But many more are running away from it. The thinking is, ‘Not only am I not doing the ‘man thing’ by not bringing home the money, I’m not even good at home.’ That’s why you see instances in the news where a man kills his kids because he can’t pay the bills. Meanwhile, when the economy is good, and everyone is getting the work they need, there’s a more balanced structure within the family. The glitch here is, while men have become more involved in terms of childcare, they haven’t done so much when it comes to ‘home’ care — cleaning floors and toilets. It’s good that they’re demanding more rights when it comes to raising their kids, so they’re doing better with parenting, but taking care of the home is also part of the equation.
BH: It seems these days many couples are waiting longer to start a family. Does age play a factor in the way fatherhood is being carried out today?
DCL: The older you get, wisdom supposedly comes, but I’m still waiting for mine. [Laughs.] But 36 is different from 26. The ‘older’ fathers I know are the ones who’ve been more engaged in raising their kids — not all, but most. Waiting longer to get married has become a worldwide phenomenon, not just here in the U.S., and it’s all because of the economics involved. In the Middle East for instance, it’s the man’s responsibility to raise the money to start a family. So they’re getting married much later to establish themselves first. The women too, they’re getting more education and building their careers. I’d also like to point out that there are more babies being born to single women in their 20s than ever before. That could point to overall dissatisfaction in finding good, balanced relationships with men. That was certainly the case with my daughters.
BH: Your daughters had a difficult time finding good relationships? Is it because you set the standard so high that you’ve handicapped them?
DCL: Oh my, it’s my fault, isn’t it? Well, my daughters grew up with me doing 50 percent of the stuff at home. I actually insist that I do. I make the food and clean up. So yeah, maybe the young men were thinking, ‘That’s what they expect of me?!!’
BH:If fatherhood has changed, has motherhood changed with it?
DCL: In some ways, no. The thing that’s been most consistent with motherhood is that mothers are the planners; they’re the datebooks of the family. Fathers don’t seem to remember the details of the dentist appointment. They show up, but that’s about it. The scheduling, for some reason, has always remained with women. Do women think it’s a form of work? Or do they actually like doing it? There’s a curiosity there. And men just don’t do certain kinds of work.
BH: What does the evolution of fatherhood mean in terms of masculinity? We label men as ‘metrosexuals’ and ’emo’ these days. Is the idea of being macho completely gone?
DCL: Absolutely not. After 9/11, there was the sudden rise of beefcake policemen and firemen. And the economy was already pushing people into the military — the rigid purveyors of masculinity. Recently in the New York Times, they were talking about the increased numbers of applicants to the academies. Clearly the idea of being manly still has some impact. Even in popular culture — just look at the Star Trek movie, the conflict between emotions and fighting, violence and risk-taking is embodied in Spock and Kirk, the intellect and the brawn. What about The Terminator? The list of films we’ve been watching shows we haven’t given up on the macho idea. Just look how much money we pay to those on the football field, as opposed to teachers.
BH: Has society’s concept of what makes a man really changed?
DCL: Men can cry now. Whoopee! But so what? Violence against women has gone down a little bit, but it’s still way too high. Has it changed that much? Whether it was 40 or 140 years ago, it’s constantly changing. Back in the time of Abraham Lincoln, men who were good friends slept in the same bed together. No one thought that was unusual or weird. So people think they’re inventing something new with this concept of ‘bromance,’ but we had that with the cowboys. The peak of oddness was probably in the 50’s when we had segregated sexes: men went to work and the women stayed in the suburbs. Thankfully, we’re no longer in that kind of world, but how do we know which kind of world is going to come up tomorrow? I must say that with the younger people, including the ones I teach, they’re getting far less homophobic than two, three generations back. Homophobia is just another sign of sexism, so that’s a good change.
BH: So how would you rate yourself as a dad?
DCL: I know I had to struggle with my anger, something I learned well enough from my own father. But I did a far better job than he did. All in all, the answer comes in the excellent relationships I have with my adult daughters.
BH: Do you think it was more challenging for you to take on the role as dad because your daughters came into your life as teenagers?
DCL: Yes. That was tough. Ask any step-pop of teenagers. By not having the formative years in the relationship, and inheriting kids in their prime rebellion years, what would one expect?
BH: How do you think you’re doing as a dad now?
DCL: I like the strong supportive relationship I have with my daughters (and the one I have developed with my 8-year-old granddaughter.) A few weeks ago, I took my middle daughter to dinner (sushi) and a concert (The Decembrists) for her 38th birthday. We had a blast. I suspect that is not something every ‘step’ can report.
Don Conway-Long, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Behavioral & Social Sciences Department at Webster University. An anthropologist specializing in men and masculinities, Conway-Long serves on the advisory board of Men and Masculinities (Sage) and is an editorial associate for Theory and Society (Springer). He’s also a professor of Islam and the Middle East, China, class, ethnicity, power, violence, and social theory.