In this issue
Toxic fatherhood: Hypothesis and hope
By John A. Minahan, PhD
A number of years ago, when I was a stay-at-home dad and my car needed new shocks, I gathered up my young daughter and headed off to the auto supply store. The clerk looked up the part, told me I had a couple of choices, then entered into a lengthy discussion with another clerk about brand, quality and cost. With my daughter now fast asleep against my shoulder, I had to ask these two clerks, both of them young women, to hurry it along since I needed to get home in time to do the laundry and start supper.
As I have often seen when telling this story, its effect resides in a perceived irony: a man caring for a child and running a household has to deal with two women in the auto parts business. Despite changes in our ideas about gender roles over the past several generations, the idea of a man taking the essence of his identity from the fact of domestic responsibility remains just a little amusing—and maybe even problematic. Consider another narrative, also involving the auto business, that is arguably a more representative example: in a recent TV commercial, race-car driver Darrell Waltrip is asked what he would do if he owned a particular pick-up truck. The scene then dissolves quickly to Waltrip, perched in the truck, using a chain to rip a garage door out of its frame. With aggressive rock and roll pulsing on the soundtrack, he stops, gets out, goes into the now gaping doorway and emerges a moment later with a metal box. Then we are back to a close-up on Waltrip: “I'm going to get my tools back from my neighbor,” he says, smiling wickedly.
We understand then that the garage door sequence is a fantasy. Which is, of course, to the point: violence is what a man would do given the freedom and the means—i.e., this truck. And it does have to be a truck; the very fact of this being a stereotype is also to the point: no minivans here. A man drives a pick-up, because a man needs to haul heavy things, not groceries and kids. One of those heavy things is his masculine self-image. It's worth noting that the man has to recover his toolbox, insofar as “tool” is slang for penis. The very manhood of this race-car driver, this manliest of men, is under attack. The locus of the counter-attack attack is the garage, the one setting in the domestic sphere that is the province of maleness. You steal my tool, I violate your man-space.
My story about the auto parts store presents irony; so does this commercial, albeit unintentionally: the man reclaims his “tools” by using a chain. As much as this model of masculinity enables violence to others, it also enchains one's own selfhood. If this is what a man is supposed to be, then it becomes difficult for a man to have healthy relationships, one of the key features of a meaningful life.
It is intriguing that in the commercial the last image we see is the truck dragging the garage door down the street: heading not home, presumably, but away. To preserve his manhood, a man must either be violent within the domestic sphere or absent from it. The term “toxic masculinity” becomes almost a redundancy.
If masculinity is this toxic, what hope is there for fatherhood? Why should the man drive his truck home? We know from recent scholarship that the absence of the father is linked to any number of social ills, including violence both in the community and within the family (Schwartz, 2004). But there are many ways to be absent, including an emotional remoteness or, worse, a turning to violence as a means of being present: A man removes affection and nurturing from his relationship with his children, replacing these with cold authority at best, and, at worst, with outright destructiveness. This, then, is my hypothesis: If toxic masculinity is an issue in society, it may also be an issue for individuals and families by taking the specific form of toxic fatherhood. Cultural norms do not stop at the boundaries of private life; toxic masculinity rips the doors off our homes. In the form of toxic fatherhood, it damages society, and women, and relationships and children—and men.
I am reminded of some of the TV shows of my youth involving single fathers. “Family Affair,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Courtship of Eddie's Father” and “My Three Sons” all presented gentle and even wise comedy but were also all predicated on an act of killing: not a literal murder, of course, but very much a figurative one. The mother must die for the show to be born. Her demise is a narrative necessity, since this is the only way we can force the man into the house without threatening his manhood, thus to tell funny stories driven by such an anomalous situation. Never do we see the man choosing this life or even struggling with grief. But we do see him struggling with, say, the cooking, the laundry and the scheduling of parent-teacher conferences. He just does not belong to the management of the household; that is why it is “storytelling gold.” I remember my own father, no more a stay-at-home dad than anyone else in his generation, nevertheless being chagrined at how TV commercials advertising a fun game for the whole family always showed the father losing, much to the amusement of wife and kids. The father's place is in the office; his presence in the home is by nature funny—and also seemly pathetic.
I mentioned a moment ago that our ideas about gender roles have changed since these shows were on the air, but the change has been nominal at best. Our thinking about the equality of women's lives, while still having a long way to go, has undergone some liberation. Has our thinking about men also seen some liberation? If so, why does the truck commercial feel to me so congruent with past cultural moments of inflated masculinity? Is it possible that as women's lives have opened up, men's have closed further? I wonder if there is a correlation. That is, do we tolerate and even encourage men to fantasize about violence because women's new roles somehow constitute a threat? Notice that the commercial does not specify the neighbor's gender. A possible subtext: What's the one thing worse than a man stealing your tools?
It is troubling enough that the commercial is make-believe—i.e., a testament of desire. But what happens when the man actually does commit violence in the home? We are appalled, but only to a point. We condemn men, but we do appear to condemn women more. A recent study of filicide—parents killing their own children—found that the incidence of assaults is about equally divided between mothers and fathers. A key difference emerges, however, when it comes to attitude: We seem to believe that mothers who kill their children are worse than fathers who kill their children. Perhaps this is because we expect mothers to be nurturers and, thus, castigate them all the more when they fail to fulfill that role. We do not have the same expectation, at least not to the same degree, of fathers; their violence toward their own children, while still heinous, is perhaps just a bit less so (Colloso & Buchanan, 2012). And, again, if our model of manhood can generate a fantasy about a man using a truck to destroy his neighbor's garage in the “heroic” act of recovering his tools, then we have to wonder how much violence is not just tolerated but even encouraged when a man becomes a father.
This is hardly a new question. Narratives centered on fatherly filicide are distressingly easy to find and run distressingly deep in history. We do not have to go down any neo-Jungian road to see that ancient narratives, like modern mass media, can serve as important psychosocial artifacts: a means of expressing and exploring matters of profound concern for both individuals and cultures. More specifically, they can help us to explore the ways in which individuality and culture intersect (Gilligan & Richards, 2009). Four brief examples will provide some evidence. They will also give us grounds for hope.
From the Inuit People of Alaska
Sedna is a young woman who is rescued by her father after being kidnapped by a magical being. Many variants of the story exist, but in all of them a storm comes up, threatening to capsize the boat that Sedna and her father are using to paddle home. He tries to throw her overboard to save himself. But when she clings to the sides, he cuts off her fingers. Sedna then sinks to her death as a mortal woman and becomes a magical being herself, a ruler of the ocean.
From Ancient Ireland
Cu Chulainn (pronounced “Coo Hullin”) is a great warrior who, during battle, transforms into a hideous monster. While he is learning the arts of war, a woman named Aoife ("EE-fuh") trains him in the arts of love. Cu Chulainn marries another woman, not knowing that Aoife is carrying his child. Aoife vows revenge, raising their son, Connla, to be a great warrior like his father. When Connla arrives at adulthood, the two warriors meet. They challenge each other, neither knowing who the other is. Cu Chulainn transforms into his monster self and kills Connla, seeing too late that the young man is wearing a ring that he himself had given to Aoife.
From the Bible
Abraham waits all his life for a son whom the Lord has promised him. When he finally becomes a father, God tests him by ordering him to kill his son. Abraham obeys. But at the moment he raises his arm to strike, an angel stops him and the Lord declares himself pleased. This idea that the death of the son is bound up in a proof of faith later finds expression in a core doctrine of many forms of Christianity: that Jesus had to die to appease a heavenly father who is angry at the sins of humanity.
From Hellenic Greece
Aeschylus wrote in his Oresteia trilogy of Agamemnon, the Mycenaean general, coming home victorious after 1 0 years of war in Troy. His wife, Clytemnestra, has been waiting and plotting all this time, since Agamemnon had sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia in exchange for fair winds to sail off. Clytemnestra welcomes him, lures him into their palace and kills him. The couple's two other children, a son named Orestes and a daughter named Elektra, avenge their father by killing Clytemnestra. Soon the Furies are tormenting Orestes, and the cycle of violence shows no sign of stopping. In fact, as Aeschylus reminds us, this particular round of parents and children killing each other is only the latest iteration of a pattern going back to the very origins of the universe.
These stories almost certainly arose independently of each other: Aeschylus did not know Inuit folklore; the legend of Cu Chulainn existed centuries before Christian missionaries brought the Bible to Ireland. It appears likely, then, that a concern about fatherhood as somehow constituting a threat to masculinity runs deep in the human psyche. Perhaps basic biology plays some role. A woman is tied to motherhood in much more explicit ways than a man is tied to fatherhood. His role in reproduction can be brief and pleasurable, and he can walk away if he chooses, in which case his absence can be construed as an affirmation of his power and autonomy. It is even possible that a woman's power to create life can be seen as a threat to a man's power to do, well, anything. The creation of life is of such fundamental and profound importance across humanity that seemingly the only way for a man to have any power is to destroy the life that a woman has created.
Perhaps sexual difference also plays a role. This is arguably the most basic difference in human life. If relationships based on sexual differences are grounded in power—i.e., one sex is more powerful than the other—then power becomes so associated with sexual relationships that it takes on an erotic charge. The art of war is learned alongside the art of love. Power that feels like sex is also, like sex, not amenable to governance; unregulated, it can turn easily and inexorably to violence. And what better object for the expression of this kind of power than the small and powerless beings who are the result of sexual activity?
Granted, these questions reveal a need for much more research. But if they allow us to get closer to understanding the causes of toxic fatherhood, they are worth pursuing. The Buddha, who lived around the time that Aeschylus was writing his plays and the Hebrew Scriptures were being assembled, taught that if we understand the cause of suffering, we can take steps toward eliminating it. That insight from one of the greatest psychological thinkers who ever lived can lead us to some key insights of our own.
We can begin by noticing that, for all their differences, those four narratives all have certain things in common. First, they share a profound anxiety over the nature of the father-child relationship itself; if a father does not kill his children, then his children will kill him. Sedna's continued presence on her father's boat will ensure that he drowns in the storm; Cu Chulainn engages in a one-on-one combat to the death with his own son; Abraham cannot put faith at the center of his life if he loves his child more than his God; Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter to fulfill his role as king and warrior.
Second, they express a profound anxiety over the killing: Sedna's father and, by extension, all humanity must be forever on guard against the anger of the sea now that Sedna rules it; Cu Chulainn is so overcome by grief that his druids must put him under a spell that makes him engage in an impossible battle with the waves; Abraham's son Isaac never seems to recover, and the only times we see him again involve him being a helpless young man who needs his father to find him a wife and then a blind old man who is duped on his deathbed by his wife and son for their own purposes; Agamemnon's actions take place in the context not just of a war between Greece and Troy but also a series of killings that seem to have neither beginning nor end. It is as if all these tales acknowledge both that fatherhood and violence are somehow equated and that this is not an equation we should be content to live with. Violence against a child becomes indistinguishable from violence against self, insofar as a man has to kill the most positive part of himself in his ability to help create and sustain life.
This leads to the third and, for our purposes, most promising commonality among the tales: They all focus on transformation. Sedna's violently severed fingers become the creatures of the sea, and she herself becomes the being who rules over them; Abraham's actions initiate a new kind of relationship between humanity and God involving not sacrifice but love and devotion; Cu Chulainn becomes a monster when in battle, which means he can un-become a monster when not in battle; and the Furies, the oldest and most powerful force in existence, learn to use their ancient power not to torment transgressors but to uphold the rule of law.
The goal is not a forgetting of masculinity but a transformation of it. This transformation can take place on several levels. Social roles themselves are changing, and a father being meaningfully present for his children and deeply involved in their lives as they grow up becomes the norm. Cognitive functions like planning, problem solving, conflict resolution and moral reasoning develop in rich and nuanced ways when a man has to take care of children. Further, a new model of identity for fatherhood becomes possible because a new model of relationship with child exists and vice versa. This is not talking about our feelings every time we actually volunteer to change a diaper. This is the learning of wisdom, kindness and patience—in terms of dealing with the ceaseless daily needs of young people, in terms of monitoring and guiding their development over the course of a lifetime, in terms of having to wait perhaps years for the results of his efforts to be borne out in their characters, in terms of surrendering to the reality that they will eventually become their own autonomous beings. Nor is mere proximity the issue; just as a man can be physically present but emotionally absent or actively hostile, so a man can be 10,000 miles away for months at a time and still be an active and positive presence in his children's lives. Best of all, he serves as a model to them of what a man looks like, a model that they will carry into their own adult identities and relationships.
The need to transform toxic fatherhood into healthy fatherhood has always been an issue for the human race, but that issue has never been more pressing than it is now. The central question of human life today is arguably not one of violence vs. nonviolence but of violence vs. survival of healthy culture. The stakes are much higher than the planning of dinner or the integrity of a garage door. Power can destroy relationships; transformed by care, it can also create, nurture, guide and protect relationships. And there is no better way for a man to learn how to effect that transformation than by becoming and remaining a father.
Colloso, T., & Buchanan, B. (2012, Spring). Media bias in cases of maternal vs. paternal filicide . Metamorphosis. Available at http://www.coplac.org/publications/metamorphosis/metamorphosis.php?a=Spring2012&p=1&c=ss&s=title&o=ASC
Gilligan, C., & Richards D. (2009). The deepening darkness: Patriarchy, resistance, and democracy's future. New York: Cambridge University Press. An excellent overview is available at http://www.law.harvard.edu/students/orgs/jlg/vol322/505-534.pdf
Schwartz, J. (2004). The effect of father absence and father alternatives on female and male rates of violence (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/206316.pdf