If Clarence Day Jr. were to write his classic memoir of growing up in a family today, he might be tempted to call it Life without Father. About 14 percent of American children (more than 9,000,000) are now growing up with Mother. One in eight families is headed by Mom, and social scientists suspect that Father has abdicated to her in many two-parent families. “Women are enormously disappointed at how little Father does,” complains British journalist Maureen Green, whose new book, Fathering, pictures Dad as a stranger in the modern family on both sides of the Atlantic. Married 16 years to Timothy Green, a British author and former LIFE bureau chief, Maureen, 42, became interested in parenting six years ago when her daughter, Miranda, was born. Green talked with Mary Vespa of PEOPLE.
How has Dad’s position in the family changed over the years?
Most of the changes have been negative ones—a decline, a narrowing of his role in the family. At the turn of the century men really were the only providers, and now Mother is coprovider in many families. Father used to have a monopoly on knowledge about the outside world. He really was this enormously powerful figure. Now this is all gone. Women are well on the way to equal status.
Is Father in danger of being completely supplanted by Mother?
Many social anthropologists now say that the head of the family is Mother. If she is feeling at all malicious toward Father, or if she enjoys the sheer power of being a mother, she can make sure that Father is just a sideline character or, after a divorce, encourage the whole father-child relationship to break down.
Does that mean mothers are becoming despots?
I think mothers can’t avoid it if they have to take all the responsibility and end up with the power.
Are we heading toward a fatherless society?
The decline of two-parent families is ominous. The danger is that children who grow up in a single-parent family will find it very hard to create a two-parent family when they become adults. We are seeing a kind of snowball effect with each generation.
What can we do to alter this trend?
We can try to bring up boys to accept from early on that being an effective father will be part of their responsibility as adults. We give girls very strong hints that no matter what else they do in life they are expected to be responsible mothers.
How can we teach boys to be good fathers?
To take a very simple instance, we can stop discouraging them from playing with dolls. In families with several children, we can ask the boys to go get baby’s diapers, etc. Right now it is the girls who are asked to do these jobs. I think we also have to give much more emphasis and respect to Father within marriage. I think it’s important for Father to be in the delivery room when his children are born.
How does the American father view himself?
I suppose he thinks he is doing a pretty good job if he is sort of a pal to his children. That in itself is distressing, because he isn’t a pal. He’s supposed to be an adult and a leader.
What is the most common mistake a father makes?
I think it is to assume that his job mainly entails providing, and that the day-to-day business of looking after children is a woman’s job. He expects everyone to be grateful, but the family actually feels resentful about the amount of time it takes. After a while they begin to suspect he is not working so hard for them at all, and often he is not.
Ideally, how should a father behave?
He should be affectionately involved with his children. It’s an emotional role which can make him indispensable. He should do things he enjoys with his children and should help them understand his job. I don’t see why society and big business can’t help him in this by setting aside two days a year when he can bring his children to work.
Do you have any tips for fathers?
They should start their relationship with their children when they are very young. There is good scientific evidence that children form their greatest emotional bonds in the first three years. Most men think their job really gets going once the child is 6 or 7.
Is there any correlation between good fathering and successful children?
Yes, particularly for boys. There is a very definite relation between the amount of interest Father takes in a boy’s education and how well he does.
What is the advantage of a two-parent family?
Real life has all sorts of conflicts, tensions and genuine problems. Children see that parents have these differences but that after a fight they still find it possible to cooperate again. This is an enormous instruction in living.
Can Mother be Father to her children?
Not entirely. She can certainly do all the parenting if she has to. But she can’t be a man for her sons. And she can’t show her daughters what the love of a man is like.
What do you think of the recent trend toward single mothers?
It’s a great pity for children to grow up knowing only about women, so I think it’s to be deplored. I think it’s selfish.
What are the dangers for a boy who grows up in a fatherless home?
It may take him longer to find out how to be a competent man. Surveys suggest that such boys may always have an area of uncertainty in their sexual identity. It can mean that they feel uncertain taking what is thought of as a traditional lead in the family, so they marry girls who lead for them.
Are there disadvantages for a girl in a fatherless home?
Yes. They grow up feeling that women do everything, and their confidence can be unassailable. But they don’t know quite how to relate to men later in life. They may look on men as mysterious and more romantic than the girl who has always had a father around the house and knows how perfectly ordinary and unromantic all people are.
Is it better for children to have a bad father than no father?
It depends on how bad is bad. Certainly it is better to be fatherless than to have a brutal father. A husband who is always criticizing his wife and putting her down is really sadistic and can be very malforming for the children.
Who is worse, an ineffectual or a domineering father?
They do different kinds of harm. A domineering father flattens a child’s personality. An ineffectual one may to some extent cause a child to take over and become independent early on. But such a father doesn’t give the child very much ambition or any great ideas about what the adult world can be like.
How can a divorced father maintain a good relationship with his children?
He must somehow try to remain an ally of the mother. If he makes her resentful, and she is determined to come between him and the children, all the little techniques he works out to be close to them can come to nothing.
How should stepfathers act toward their wives’ children?
A stepfather can’t be a substitute for the father. I think he has to take it very easy with the children at first and wait for friendship to develop. He will never have the same hold over those children as the father. But he can at least be a man around the house.
How does society encourage bad fathering?
Young executives are expected to work very long hours, to turn up at weekend conventions and to move around every two years. That may make sense for the company, but it absolutely destroys a family’s home life. It’s important for men to stick up for their right to get time for fathering.
Do men need fatherhood?
Emotionally they need it. Fathering gives them a surer sort of grip on life, and, if they can take on the role, it makes them more responsible.
In terms of fathering, how would you rate your own father and husband?
My own father, who died recently, was very tentative in his approach to his children. He would like to have been closer to his two daughters, but was always uncertain about whether a real man’s man could allow himself to do this. My husband has no such inhibitions. I have no qualms about leaving our daughter in my husband’s care. I don’t think my mother could have allowed herself to trust my father to cope with me at that age.