Emerging Adult Sons and their Fathers: Race and the Construction of Masculinity

By Michael Enku Ide

Is the United States facing a crisis of fatherlessness, or are men increasingly involved with their children?  The “traditional father” – an emotionally distant disciplinarian and sole breadwinner – has been undermined by economic and cultural trends.  Most nuclear families are dual-earner, and roughly 70% of mothers with dependent children are employed (Waldman et al 1979; Department of Labor Women’s Bureau).   Americans also increasingly endorse gender equity in parenting responsibilities, even though women continue to do more.

“New Fatherhood” – In life and on screen

These changes have unfolded among American families- both real and fictional.  Many of our most popular and highly-awarded sitcoms explore cultural change through intergenerational tensions.  In Modern Family (2009 to present), a “tough,” economically successful family patriarch with “trouble expressing his love for his children” (Jay), is often confounded by his son-in-law Phil’s alleged gender transgressions. Phil rejects masculine norms of stoicism (Phil: “Showing emotion is part of being a modern, sexy man.”), which is reflected in his parenting style.  A self-described “cool dad,” and “peerent,” Phil explicitly blends the roles of parent and peer to his children, undermining traditional paternal authority.

While over-the-top, Phil’s approach personifies newly-popular masculine values and a model of fatherhood now widely-endorsed in popular media, by government and nonprofit organizations.  The Manifesto of the New Fatherhood, published in a recent Esquire magazine, advises men to reject “the old patriarchy” of “his grandfather’s way of life,” asking: “who would want to go back…to be financially responsible for a family and then never see them?” Rather, men should “be there, physically and mentally” for their children (Marche 2014).  Similarly, since 2008, the Department of Health and Human Services has reminded fathers, in 30-second clips, to “take time to be a dad today.”  Stereotypically masculine men – including WWE wrestlers – play card games, practice cheerleading, or sing “I’m a little teapot” with their children. To “be a dad” prioritizes active engagement with children over strict adherence to masculinity. This messaging resonates with many young fathers who are questioning traditional gender roles and say they prioritize close and emotionally available relationships with children over breadwinning (Harrington, Van Deusen and Humberd 2011).

The “Crisis of Fatherlessness”

Many calls for newly-engaged fatherhood simultaneously warn of a “crisis” of fatherlessness (Sanders 2013) or “father deficit” (Kruk 2012) responsible for personal, community, and societal ills.  The Manifesto described above decries a “crisis of fatherhood… reshaping contemporary life,” which is “more of a disaster than anybody could have imagined,” especially for sons (2014).   Are we “rapidly becoming…an absentee father society” as suggested in Psychology Today (Williams 2014)?

While yesteryear’s “deadbeat dads” failed economically, today’s devalued “absentee fathers” adhere to traditional breadwinning norms which deprive their children of attention and emotional support.  In this re-framing of fatherhood success, some men blame personal and interpersonal difficulties on their “traditional” fathers’ distance (Kilmartin 2009).

Emerging Adult Men and their Fathers

Although discussions of “the college experience” often center students’ self-development and autonomy, our data show that family relations remain important.  Parents often play crucial yet overlooked roles in emerging adults’ identity explorations, part of which may entail “gender intensification” (Silva 2012; Kimmel and Messner 2010).

Scholars disagree on fathers’ engagement during this stage: Do fathers “fade out of the picture” (Kimmel and Messner 2010, 132), or do paternal relations “reach new levels of responsive interaction” (Roy 2014, 326)?  Further, how do sons understand their fathers, masculinity, and themselves? These questions carry important implications for intergenerational changes within masculinity, as emerging adult men evaluate their fathers as potential role models of fatherhood and masculinity (Steinmetz 2015).

Our study: Race and the Construction of Masculinity

My research team (Blair Harrington, Yolanda Wiggins, Tanya Whitworth, Dr. Naomi Gerstel, and I) addressed these questions in our recent paper, “Emerging Adult Sons and their Fathers: Race and the Construction of Masculinity.”  In interviews with 76 college men (Asian American, Black, and white) and a national survey (n=1,576) from 24 institutions, we found striking racial variation.  Most sons within each racial group used similar language and evaluations of their fathers, illustrating distinct cultural conceptions of fatherhood and masculinity that complicate the dichotomy of “involved” versus “absentee” fathers (Ide et al. 2018).

Most Asian American sons criticized their dads as distant, authoritarian breadwinners.  These sons, many of whose fathers were born in Asia, attributed distance to cultural divides, fathers’ long work hours, or geographic distance.  In contrast, Black sons valorized their dads, describing them as “cool” and “laid-back.” For these sons, fathers’ distance fostered positive masculine values of self-reliance and independence.   White sons similarly said their fathers fostered independence, but paradoxically, this came through close relationships based in frequent interactions and shared hobbies, interests, and activities – at least in college. Unlike others, for many white sons, paternal relationships vastly improved in college, and described adolescent father/son relationships as strained.  Both Black and white sons, but not Asian Americans, identified with their fathers, often highlighting traits they shared with them.

Sons frame their personal experiences with racialized accounts; these inform strategies for responding to dominant cultural ideals – ideals we found most closely associated with whites’ experiences. This caused or exacerbated strain in father son relationships, especially among Asian Americans who saw few pathways to empathize or identify with their fathers.  Among Black sons, distance sometimes was framed as a benefit and political strategy which they used to contradict or rebut the “father as friend” model.

Judgments of fathers’ involvement, or lack of involvement, are often blind to the values and cultural frames both fathers and their sons bring to their relationship. Dominant narratives may alienate men whose cultural experiences and values diverge from these ideals. Fatherhood initiatives and popular portrayals of engaged fatherhood, then, can be more powerful and avoid negative unintended consequences by valuing the kinds of differences our research uncovered.

Author: Michael Enku Ide is a PhD Student in the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Department of Sociology. He received a sociology MA (2012) from the University of Kentucky, where he studied graduate student-employee unionization. His research focuses on class, gender, sexuality, family, social identity and social movements. Published work has appeared in Labor Notes and Against the Current Magazine. 

Blair Harrington is a PhD student in the University of Massachusetts– Amherst Department of Sociology. Her research focuses on educational and racial inequality, especially among Asian Americans. Her published work includes a teaching activity for the ASA TRAILS.

Yolanda Wiggins is a PhD student in the University of Massachusetts– Amherst Department of Sociology. Her research focuses on inequalities among college students, particularly how financially disadvantaged Black students balance academics with family obligations. Her published work includes an article in the Journal of Black Studies investigating Black students’ experiences at a predominantly white institution.

Tanya Rouleau Whitworth is a PhD student in the University of Massachusetts–Amherst Department of Sociology. Her research explores mental health, well-being, sexuality, gender, family, and education among adolescents and emerging adults. Her published work includes an article in the Journal of Marriage and Family evaluating the link between teen childbearing and depression.

Naomi Gerstel is a Distinguished University Professor and professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. Her recent papers and coauthored book Unequal Time (2014, Russell Sage Foundation) explore how gender and class shape control over work schedules. Additional current research focuses on extended families and organizational compliance with family policies.


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