On June 20th, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a press release describing a new “public service campaign…promoting fatherhood.” The press release directs readers to the website www.fatherhood.gov, and breathlessly promises a public service announcement by none other than President Obama himself. Needless to say, that was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
When I went to the site, I discovered it was the home of something called the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse. And, much as I would expect from a site with that name, I found pablum – the shallowest, most out-of-touch-with-reality ideas of fatherhood and the barriers to father involvement imaginable. Obama’s 30-second PSA is skin-deep, essentially an exhortation to fathers to take their children to the zoo and help them with homework. Michelle Obama’s message is no better.
The message is simple; fathers are good for children, therefore, responsible fathers will spend time with them and everyone will be better off. Surrounding this message on every side is the subtext of “responsibility,” i.e. if a father isn’t actively involved in his kid’s life, he’s at fault. He’s just irresponsible and, if he cared about his child, he’d man up and do the right thing. In short, it’s the standard narrative of male perfidy that omits all mention of family laws and court practices that doggedly separate fathers from children. And there’s no mention of maternal gatekeeping that marginalizes fathers, sometimes from the first hours of a child’s life.
Look further on the site. Go to the library of publications and a whole new world opens before you. The publications the site links to aren’t many and they’re not up to date, but they paint an entirely different picture of fatherhood and the many barriers fathers face in trying to establish and maintain relationships with their children. There are scholarly publications on maternal gatekeeping, programs to enhance non-custodial parents’ access to children, an article by Kathryn Edin about young, poor fathers and others.
In short, once a visitor to the site gets past the bumper-sticker phrases about responsible fatherhood, there’s a lot of real information by (dare i say it?) responsible social scientists to be had.
And the juxtaposition of the two is mind-bending. It’s the same thing we see every day. We know the truth; we read the massive amounts of social science that shows us the incontovertible fact that fathers strongly desire close relationships with their children, but are thwarted by a bewildering array of laws, policies and practices that seem to be based on a complete ignorance of well-established facts.
To listen to the president of the United States intone the mantra of responsible fatherhood, cheek-by-jowl with the real information about everything we do to prevent that very thing verges on the surreal. The site neatly, if inadvertently, catches the deeply contradictory nature of our public discourse and our public policies on fatherhood.