Fathering and Fatherhood

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Fathering and Fatherhood

According to conventional wisdom patriarchal fathers of old were stern authoritarians, fatherly solicitude for one's children is a recent phenomenon, and industrialization removed men from the home and weakened their role. Historical study has added complexity to our understanding of their roles in the past, noted their involvement in their children's lives, exposed the various impacts of the Industrial Revolution, and complicated a linear view of the history of fathering and fatherhood. Historians ask about the extent of fathers' legal and domestic authority, the division of responsibility with their wives, their role in rearing their children, and the differences in the parenting of girls and boys in the past.

Patria Potestas

The Roman concept of familia described the people in a household subject to the authority of the master of the household, the paterfamilias. Members of a household shared a common subjection to the father first and blood or other ties second. Fathers, as patresfamilias, had complete power over the household. This included sexual rights to the slaves and freedmen or women who comprised his household. The ultimate power, in fact, lay in a Roman father's hands: patria potestas, the power of life and death. At the birth of a child fathers both acknowledged paternity and decided the child's future by picking up the newborn son laid at their feet or refusing to do so. Daughters they ordered nursed, or not. No law required fathers to support their biological offspring. Abandonment, common among Romans of all social classes, protected the patrimony or inheritance and was a means of family limitation. While rejection could mean death, abandoned children were often raised as foster children or slaves in a nonrelated household. They could later be reclaimed by their birth fathers, so long as the father reimbursed the foster family for the child's upbringing. Roman fatherhood was volitional, legal, and social, rather than biological, and adoption was common. Adoption also solved problems of inheritance and could be enacted posthumously in a deceased father's will.

The power of fathers in ancient Rome reverberated beyond the family to affect Roman public life in myriad ways. The father-son relationship was a model for political relationships between men of different rank. Fathers represented their entire household politically, including their sons. Members of the Roman senate addressed one another as patres conscripti ("assembled fathers"), indicating that they served as leaders of households and ruled as fathers of Rome. Sons received citizenship through their fathers, albeit a second-class one. Responsible for raising and educating their sons as future full citizens, fathers went about the city and their political duties accompanied by their sons.

Young men were expected to become fathers when they came of age but they only became fully independent upon their own father's death. Citizenship, military service, and fatherhood were men's responsibilities to Rome. Men divorced and remarried if a wife was barren and quickly remarried should their wives die in childbirth. Leaving behind many children was a civic duty, a necessary rite of citizenship.

Under Roman law paternal authority was complete. The law permitted fathers to disinherit sons and theoretically, it also permitted them to kill their sons, although in the few cases where fathers exercised this right it was for high crimes such as treason. Widowed pregnant women were monitored carefully, even sequestered, by their husband's family, for according to statute her child belonged to her husband solely. Fathers retained authority over married daughters, including the right to punish them for adultery or to remove them from one marriage in favor of another more beneficial family alliance.

To escape this paternal control, if only partially, adult sons of the aristocracy left their father's households upon marriage, indicating an appetite for independence that could be satisfied because of wealth. Sons received the means to live independently but ownership of property remained with the father. Stress on the paternal line meant that grandchildren were likely to be raised by paternal grandparents or in the paternal grandparents' home should their families be disrupted by divorce, death, or additional marriages. Marriage was a means of facilitating alliances among men, and first wives might find themselves sent back to their fathers when their husbands arranged a new match. Perhaps because of the long-term responsibilities ascribed to fathers with regard to their adult daughters, Romans placed a high value on the father-daughter relationship. Cicero said, "What has nature wanted to be more pleasurable to us, what has nature wanted to be more dear to us than our daughters" (quoted in Hallett, p. 63).

Roman writers urged against the free expression of anger in the home. While corporal punishment was the right of the father, Seneca distinguished the exercise of this right from any need for anger. This advice likely arose out of the dangers posed by the all-encompassing authority over the household invested in fathers by law.

Christianity introduced a challenge to paternal authority. Individuals became answerable to an authority outside the

head of household when they became Christians, an earthly one in the form of Church and priest and a heavenly one as well.

The Middle Ages

In the period of late antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, German hausvaters could corporally punish, reject, sell, and kill their offspring by law. Village social customs that assigned responsibility for rejected, illegitimate, or abandoned children to the maternal familysuch as maternal uncles serving as guardians to the children of their sisters, an example often found in literaturemodulated the starkness of the law.

The conjugal family was the basic family unit quite early in European family historymost certainly by 1000. While this truncated family did not much alter a father's authority in law, it would seem to improve his wife's place in the home slightly, now that marriage was seen as a lifelong bond, and it meant that fathers would expect to see their sons leave their household upon marriage. Hence, authority over the adults of the next generation declined. Population growth in the feudal household gave rise to affective changes in family life: greater parental concern with child rearing and education. Fathers took charge of sons' upbringing as they grew less dependent on their mothers for full-time care, a pattern that would persist in later centuries. Inheritance practices tended to heighten the emotional and economic dynamics of fathers' relationships with their oldest son.

Inheritance and thus fatherhood underwent a revolution in the eleventh century that resulted in a stronger patriarch. Partible inheritance (that is, inheritance that could be split among heirs), bilateral kinship (a system wherein lineage was traced on both maternal and paternal lines), and women's control over property declined sharply. The nobility pioneered the system of primogeniture wherein property passed from the father to the oldest son in its entirety. Fathers designated a single male heir and passed on not only an impartible inheritance, but also a surname that followed the male line. Control of family resources shifted almost entirely to males. Women lost all but the most fleeting control over property as dower became only a lifetime grant and a husband's consent was required to sell any land a wife had inherited prior to her marriage. The emerging system that gave rise to this revolution, feudalism, also made the heads of noble families the founders of dynasties who exercised not only household authority, but because they were responsible for the defense of their lands, in effect ruled in the territory around them.

Yet, medieval Christianity moderated paternal power and altered the view of fatherly responsibility. Children were no longer seen as the property of the fathers; instead they were a responsibility entrusted to their fathers' safekeeping by God. Fathers were now expected to support and protect their offspring, even their illegitimate children.

Ideally, men, as fathers and husbands, ruled with love while children honored their parents. Intergenerational conflict between fathers and sons occurred, however, because a father's longevity could keep a son from inheriting the land needed in order to have the economic wherewithal to marry and set out on their own. Fathers controlled the patrimony, but the Church claimed that the next generation should be launched regardless. Late medieval household size in the fifteenth century indicates that family practice reflected these ideals and multigenerational households were the exception rather than the rule. Significant intergenerational tension erupted over marital choice as fathers sought to make suitable economic arrangements and alliances through their children's marriages. Daughters of the nobility in conflict with their fathers over marital choice had an optiona life in the service of Godalthough their fathers might go to great lengths to prevent or persuade them from exercising it.

The late medieval cult of St. Joseph reveals prescriptions for fatherly deportment. Writers and iconographers celebrated St. Joseph for his ability to support and care for the Holy Family, pointing out that he was both affectionate and a hard worker. The famine and plague of the late medieval period made concerns over the survival of families and lineages, and the protective and loving role of fathers in securing this, paramount.

One duty of the wealthy medieval father was in hiring a wet nurse for his children and proceeding to check up on the care she provided. It was also the father's decision when the child was to be weaned and returned to the natal household. Fathers were responsible for the education of sons, once they reached the age of seven, and focused on guiding them into a suitable occupation. Among the aristocracy, fathers might decide upon the education of their sons, but would not carry out this education themselves. Instead boys were trained for knighthood in another noble house, perhaps that of a maternal or paternal uncle. Urban fathers of means apprenticed their sons, placing them under the authority of another father. Peasant fathers were those fathers most likely in medieval times to rear their children through adolescence in their own households. By the medieval period, all the components of modern fatherhood were present: breadwinner, educator, and at least in imagery, playmate. However the weight and meaning assigned to these roles shifted over time.

Reformation- and Enlightenment-Era Fathers

Close scholarly focus on the emotional quality and affective ties of fatherhood begins with the Protestant Reformation, largely because Protestantism encouraged selfscrutiny and produced the written records that enable a close study. Protestantism also demanded a new role of men in the home: that of religious educator. The Reformation has been described as the "heyday" of the patriarchal nuclear family. The Protestant Reformation and ensuing Counter-Reformation in the Catholic Church resulted in a reform of family life, often in ways that cemented fathers' authority. For example, the laws of marriage were changed across Europe, outlawing the secret marriages of children that the Catholic Church had validated. Statutes now required a public ceremony along with parental consent and parents were expected to take into consideration their children's well being. The goals of reformers may not have been so much to enhance the control of children by their parents as they were to shore up the institution of marriage and clarify the means by which it was entered. In Catholic France and Italy, young people who disagreed with parents over marital alliances could turn to the state (in France) or the Church (in Italy) to find an ally, while in England, canon law allowed elopement to continue unrestrained until reforms were enacted in 1753.

German advice books for fathers indicate that fatherly solicitude began while their offspring were still in the womb. The books prescribed foods and herbs for the health of the fetus and pregnant woman and deputized the father to summon the midwife as the time of the birth neared and to serve as aide during labor. Diary evidence from Protestant fathers records their presence and attentiveness at the births of their children.

Reformation-era Europeans placed great stock in the abilities of parents to shape their children's future nature. Parents, fathers as well as mothers, were responsible for their offspring's physical and, most importantly, moral health. Europeans of this era sang the praises of the well-behaved and pious child, but, if anything, advice literature from the time would indicate that in practice parents were too lax rather than too firm in the application of discipline.

Social order and eternal salvation were the primary rationales behind a strict upbringing. Ideas about the inherent nature of the sexes delegated to fathers the task of physically disciplining the children; mothers were thought too gentle for such a task. Echoing Roman prescriptions regarding corporal punishments, Lutheran advisers preferred that cool heads prevail and children not be spanked in anger. As in medieval times, fathers reared male children after age six. Both fathers and sons expected that fathers would guide the education and career choice of the next generation, but would take into consideration a child's inclinations, talents, and happiness.

Sixteenth-century child mortality rates and Protestant concern over original sin appear not to have shaped a particularly callous style of fathering. The death of a child brought men intense personal grief, despite religious beliefs and sermons (sometimes written by grieving fathers) that exhorted men to show little outward sign of mourning, but rather to rejoice that their children were relieved of earthly suffering. To fathers, Protestantism ascribed the duty of catechizing their children, even though first-generation Protestants themselves had thrown over the faith of their fathers. The texts they taught their children emphasized an individualism likely to produce self-confidence. According to historian Steven Ozment, the challenge of fathering the next generation of Protestants, then, was to inculcate a firm sense of responsibility to society to balance that incipient individualism.

Enlightenment thinkers both affirmed the propriety of the rule of fathers over their households and set limits on its expression. The notion of the contract permeated their family philosophy. The marriage compact was a consensual one, and the task of parenthood shared, according to John Locke. Locke saw in fatherhood an obligation to care for children. Any cessation of care obviated children's need to obey. Jean-Jacques Rousseau saw any father-child bond once children ceased to require the father's aid in order to survive as voluntary.

Fathers in Colonial America

Patriarchy received a boost when English colonists constructed communities in the New World. English colonists expanded on the English laws and practices of family government, creating fathers who were among the most powerful household heads in the Western world, largely because of their control of the labor of subordinate household members, children, servants, and slaves. According to Carole Shammas, no English fathers, or any in Western Europe, had the ability that fathers in the New World had to force marriage, sell servants, or the authority to take a life. Chattel slavery and indentured servitude granted household heads control of their labor force and concentrated tremendous patriarchal power in the hands of wealthy men. In colonial America, 80 percent of the population was legally dependent on a male household head. Colonial fathers assumed power over the lives of adult and juvenile laborers through their servitude, while fulfilling the function of poor relief and correctional systems for their local communities. Control over the lives of dependents, family religious authority in Puritan communities, and distance from obligations to the Crown enhanced fathers' authority even if laws limiting the spectrum of physical correction might have tempered it slightly.

With the full development of plantation slavery, patriarchal power of white male household heads reached its apex in the antebellum slave South. For enslaved African-American men, slavery meant a fatherhood quite different from that of white men. Enslaved children followed the condition of the mother and white masters held authority over the African-American slave family. Sale separated slave parents and children in the internal slave trade from the Atlantic seaboard to the Southwest and residential patterns of the enslaved often meant that fathers lived on separate, although not necessarily distant, plantations from their children. Emancipation during and after the Civil War marked the first time that most African-American men assumed the paternal right to control family labor and the ability to protect their families without automatically risking their lives.

The Victorian Era

The Victorian patriarch, the mythically autocratic and stern father largely removed from the affairs of the household, is more a construction of the present than the past. While it may not have absented fathers from the home completely, the Industrial Revolution changed the days and duties of men and families dramatically, affecting the location and meaning of work, leisure, and parenting.

In preindustrial households, children owed their labor to their fathers for as long as they lived in the same house. The same assumptions governed the master/apprentice relationship and applied to nonrelated young people within the home. Industrialization transformed the family economy from one where household members pooled labor to a family wage economy where they pooled money gained from productive labor outside the home. In working-class homes, young people began to earn wages and the dependence of working-class families on their wages diminished the power of fathers. In middle-class households, industrialization had a different impact, transforming fathers into breadwinners and mothers into primary caretakers within the home. When the location of work shifted to the public sphere, middleclass fathers ceded control of the direct education and guidance of their children. On the one hand, this increased maternal autonomy at fathers' expense, while on the other fathers maintained a continued connection to the resources of power outside the home. Middle-class fathers may not have been true patriarchs in their own home, but they still held the reins of family political, social, and economic capital.

The Victorian father was, contrary to popular belief, quite domestic, and according to historian John Tosh, in England, Victorian fathers were more domestic than fathers either before or since. Home was a place where men ruled, but also a place that ministered to men's emotional needs. The family in the home was to make up for the dramatic social and economic changes of industrialization that threatened to turn men into mere drones. Home life and fatherhood was expected to rejuvenate men and provide meaning in an increasingly "heartless" world. In addition, domestic life was expected to replace the more homosocial leisure distractions outside the home of the English male middle class. In the United States men were similarly urged to eschew the club for the pleasures of the domestic hearth. Yet within the home, fathers had duties as well as respite. As in eras past, male parenting was focused particularly on sons and a successful masculine son was a public symbol of a successful manly father. According to Stephen Frank, in America, this pattern produced more formal relationships between fathers and sons, who were encouraged to be independent and manly; in contrast, fathers developed greater intimacy with daughters, even bestowing expensive educations on them as evidence of their economic success.

Fathers' legal powers were winnowed quite significantly in the Victorian era. In the United States coverture, the common-law system in which males represented the household to the public, diminished with the passage of married women's property acts, laws that gave women control of their earnings, and those that provided custody to mothers in the case of divorce. In addition, public education systems took over the education of youth in nearly every state by 1880. Many of the nineteenth-century reform movements, including temperance and abolition, at heart, dealt with the problem of the corrupt or out-of-control patriarch.

The Twentieth-Century "Decline in Patriarchy"

Assumptions of complete authoritarian patriarchal control in families of the past do not often hold up to scrutiny. Affection, piety, practicality, and allies both within and outside the household often mediated fathers' powers. Nonetheless, historians find a new fatherhood evolving with the democratic or companionate family. The exact timing of this new father's emergence is debated.

Fatherly play took firm root in the nineteenth-century American middle-class family. In the home, fathers refreshed themselves in the joyful company of their brood. Play both carved a specific place for fathers in family life and marginalized their importance. By the turn of the century paternal play became a marker of middle-class identity and a means by which experts imagined the domestic sphere could be injected with masculinity.

During the 1930s when the global economic crisis prevented many men from performing as family breadwinners and as the psychological community embraced the theories of Sigmund Freud, advisors elaborated a new role for fathers beyond that of playful companions. Father was a role model for the proper sex role development of both sons and daughters. This attention reflected anxieties about masculinity in the home as massive unemployment reduced the power of fathers to provide for their families. Men and women saw male authority as derived from their breadwinning role. Work relief programs targeted men with the aim of getting breadwinners back to work. If the Great Depression brought concerns about too many economically emasculated dads hanging around the nation's families, World War II raised concerns over the impact of their complete absence. The stage was set for the re-embrace of the "paterunfamiliar" as Americans experienced a resurgence of domesticity at the war's end.

Father as Equal Participant

Fatherhood's function as a male restorative and as sex-role modeling for the family was achieved largely through companionship and play. Both could spawn intimacy but often did not. Neither required reorganizing gendered childrearing responsibilities greatly. By the mid-twentieth century, American fathers emerged as pals as well as providers. As defined by experts, the role of father involved childcare, but men performed such labor to "spell" mother or to foster relationships with children, not because the work had to be done. These notions reified the gender division of labor even as they assigned men a place in the home. Parenting was fatherplay and motherwork.

Three twentieth-century developments challenged this division of labor which has proven, not surprisingly, quite resistant to change. The postwar baby boom (19461964) ushered the ideal of fatherly participation further into the mainstream. Experts, mothers, and fathers themselves insisted, "Fathers are parents, too!" Women brought expert advice into the home to back up their need for help as they coped with raising the baby boomers. As the baby boom family cycle progressed, men, torn between the demands of home and work, opted for the more familiar rewards of breadwinning, but they, their wives, and their children became increasingly aware that the emotional penalty paid when men failed to engage in the daily care or play of their children was high. Resignation and regret characterized the reflections of empty-nest mothers and fathers in the 1980s and unleashed a spate of literature by male boomers scarred by absent fathers.

The postwar years brought another change to American families and those in Western Europe as well: the increased participation of married women in the labor force. With fathers as primary breadwinners, the occasional child-care chore was all that most families demanded of men, but as women increasingly shared the breadwinning role while shouldering the lions' share of the child-care and household work, their demands and persuasive power escalated. Contemporary studies attest to the ongoing negotiation of gender responsibilities with regard to household work and child care in American homes. Finally, the feminist movement of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s offered a critique of patriarchy, promoted the idea that gender roles were social constructs rather than immutable biological inheritances, and proposed that equality in the public sphere for women would be impossible without lessening the inequality in the private sphere.

Linked to feminism in the popular mind, but enabled by both women's labor force participation and a welfare state, women have increasingly been able to remove themselves and their childreneither through divorce or the choice not to marryfrom fathers they deem abusive or unsatisfactory. This has led to an increase in the number of children living in poverty and calls on both sides of the Atlantic to require popularly dubbed "deadbeat dads" to support their children. These changes provoked cultural anxieties about the decline of male authority and "disappearance" or weakness of the fathers at the end of the twentieth century. The issue reveals the continued economic inequality between men and women and the volitional quality of participatory fatherhood in the new millennium as well as the strong association of fatherhood with power. Breadwinning remains father's principle responsibility and the workplace remains family unfriendly, while more and more, mothers must balance their commitments to work and family. Fathers are no longer patriarchs, but they strive to be more than breadwinners and pals. The twenty-first-century father looks for self-identity, meaning, and satisfaction in his relationships with his children.

See also: Mothering and Motherhood.


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Jessica Weiss