Shared Parenting Information Group (SPIG) UK

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Life Without Father (book review)

David Popenoe. (1996)

Life Without Father - Compelling new evidence that fatherhood and marriage are indispensable for the good of children and society
Free Press. New York. 16.99

David Popenoe is a professor of Sociology at Rutgers University and co chair of the Council on Families in America, this book is an important and timely contribution to the debate on fatherhood and men and their children. The book is skillfully developed, it's well written and closely annotated with many references to the literature. Popenoe argues that fatherhood as an institution has been marginalised. Not just divorced fathers but all fathers. This much is fairly uncontentious, he cites much evidence and there is an emerging consensus that he is right on this point. He then goes on to suggest much more controversially that a whole raft of social problems flow from, or are at least aggravated by this process of the marginalisation of fathers. The list includes; child poverty, children living in single parent families, the effects of divorce on children, juvenile delinquency and violence, teenage promiscuity , child abuse, violence towards women and many negative consequences of fatherlessness for men.

He then goes on to underpin this analysis with a fascinating history of fatherhood in the USA from the Puritan family of the American Colonial Era to the contemporary crisis in the nuclear family. Along the way he makes the telling point that scholars have neglected the situation of fathers in the modern nuclear family. He quotes historian John Demos; 'Fatherhood has a very long history, but virtually no historians'. He also develops an analysis of the socio - biological literature in an attempt to establish the essential nature of men / fathers and concludes that there is a need for a social reinforcer in the form of marriage in order for men's natures to be civilised , in Popenoe's words this is the difference between the dad and the cad.

Popenoe's prescription is for fatherhood to be redefined and for the reestablishment of marriage. What measures could be taken to reestablish marriage ? He argues that most of all we need a cultural shift of our values away from what he calls the radical individualism of the present, the values of the me generation, to the communitarian individualism of the past, where people behaved as individuals within a community. This shift in values should involve employers, religious leaders, social and welfare professionals, educators, the academic community and the media. In terms of our own morality he argues that marriages should take place later in life, pre marital sex and non marital cohabitation should be accepted as a fact of life but promiscuity should be frowned on. In terms of what the state should do he argues that social policy should provide economic support for married child rearing families, an argument already put in the British context by Patricia Morgan. There should also be root and branch reform of the welfare and social security system which he sees as providing an incentive for fatherlessness. The government should promote pro marriage values. There should be divorce reform; childless marriages should be easy to dissolve but for those marriages with children divorce should be made harder to get. The State should sponsor a new communitarianism by fostering residential stability, upholding community moral standards and by promoting and protecting family oriented neighbourhoods.

How do we assess these arguments ? Is there any real prospect of reestablishing marriage and the nurturing nuclear family or should we accept, as many argue, a diversity of family types and forms ? The debate is currently reflected in the two wings of the fathers movement. On the one hand are those conservatives like the Family Law Action Group, the Cheltenham Group and Dads After Divorce who support 'the case for the renewal of legal marriage' . On the other wing are the liberals , the shared parenting enthusiasts who tend to argue that in pragmatic terms there is no returning to a patriarchal nuclear family even if it were desirable.

Whichever wing we find ourselves on this is an important book . It raises many important issues which deserve to be discussed. In the blurb on the dust jacket Amital Etzione is quoted as saying "Popenoe is courageous without regard to political correctness, calls it as it is - and indicates the way it ought to be". This area has for too long been dominated by what Dennis Erdos has called 'conformist intellectuals' who have inhibited the debate. At the very least Popenoe brings some fresh air to the discussion. In the past a book like this would probably have been regarded as being traditionalist or right wing and peripheral to progressive opinion. In the confusion of contemporary politics it is more difficult to locate it. Certainly there is something here for the so called pro family activists of the right but it will also have a resonance for the new communitarians of the reconstructed centre left.

This is provocative stuff , it should engage us in constructive debate. Popenoe's book should be read.

Arthur Baker. Sept 1996


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