Being a Man IV: Fatherhood

Petri dish
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One plausible area to look for a role unique to men is that of fatherhood. There is, obviously enough, an intuitive appeal to the idea that only men can be fathers.  Of course, it is quite possible to raise questions about this.

One of the first things that needs to be sorted out is the distinction between being a biological father and a father. While most fathers are biological fathers, not all of them are. For example, the father of an adopted child would still seem to qualify as a father, even if he never impregnated a woman. Defining what it is to be a biological father seems rather easy: that is the male who provide the sperm that fertilized the egg.

Of course, a little science can make this a bit messy. For example, imagine sperm engineered and grown in a petri dish. This sperm could be used to fertilize an egg, but it would seem odd to classify the sperm as the father. Perhaps the creator of the sperm would be the father, even if the scientist was a woman or a team. However, let this matter be laid aside, perhaps to be discussed more in comments.

Turning back to looking at the role of father (apart from the biological role), it could be seen as a man’s role because a father is supposed to provide a manly role model and teach the manly virtues to his sons (and presumably teach his daughters that many men lack these virtues).

Of course, this account runs into a bit of a problem. If a father is one who provides the manly role model and teaches the manly virtues, there is a clear need to define what it is to be a manly role model and which virtues are manly. In short, looking at the role of being a father does not seem to help define what it is to be  a man. Rather, this seems to be a bit of a backwards approach. Instead, what is needed is an account of what it is to be a man and the nature of the manly virtues. Once those are established, then it would be possible to provide an account of what it is to be a father.

There is the possibility that there are no special manly virtues or manly roles that are unique to males. Thus, non-males could occupy those roles and have those virtues. If so, it would be possible that a woman could be a father (in this sense) or even a machine (such as an intelligent robot).  Not to be sexist here, it could also be possible that a male could be a mother (non-biological).

Then again, perhaps there are such roles and virtues. So, as an exercise to the reader, what might these roles and virtues be? Also, which ones would be essential (or at least important) to being a father?

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  1. It’s these big brains of ours that cause all the problems. If we’d had tiny brains, like so many other animals, then we could emerge through the pelvis with fully developed brains and have no need for all this nurturing.

    Once born, with our woefully incomplete brains, it’s that first bonding that establishes the primary source of our learned abilities. This bonding also happens to establish the initial nutrient source. And, as we know, this initial nutrient source is typically attached to the womb from which we emerged.

    This seems to make the man somewhat superfluous, or at least secondary, in that initial nurturing process. That is, man is left to handle those less essential chores.

    So, maybe it’s more appropriate to call man the “help mate”.

    On the other hand, it’s these big brains that makes us so adaptable and allow us to take on a wider variety of roles. I tend to think that these big brains are evolution’s attempt to escape genetic limitations. So, it may be that the purpose of these big brains is to escape the limitations of gender.

  2. Ralph Sabella

    Non-male? What are the possibilities?
    I have 3 children, a 4 year spread between youngest and oldest. I became their sole guardian when the youngest was 5 1/2. I don’t think I ever worried about their getting the proper role models. I remember feeling pretty good that the 2 boys were not seeing a stereotypical father image from me. The three grown kids don’t show any signs of confusion who they are sexually.

  3. I read Ralph Sabella’s contribution with interest. It occurred to me that the people best qualified to reply to this question are adult children, rather than fathers. Perhaps Ralph would care to say something about the fathering capabilities of his father. So far as I am concerned my father I think, was overall good for me. I always knew I could never pull the wool over his eyes. He could be encouraging and derisive if necessary. He could always beat me at things both sporting and intellectual. Even as an adult I could never beat him at chess. It was not until I reached the age of about 14 I discovered I could solve quadratic equations and he could not. I was delighted, I had caught him up, there was something upon which I could inform him. So where did he fail? Through no fault of his own and being a self made business man his educational attainments were insufficient to understand I was more academically inclined than than going into business with him. This was not a problem for him, but at that time I was in great need of good advice as to how my own natural abilities and interests could be best nurtured. This he was unable to do, but he was always supportive.

    So what are the roles and virtues be of fatherhood. 1/ The ability to give good advice and to be firm but not dictatorial about it. My father for no fault of his own, as I have indicated, failed slightly here, but nobody is perfect. 2/ Try to give the child a better start in life than you had. 3/ Know when to encourage and discourage. 4/ Always be approachable and remember respect has to be earned not given. If the child has no respect for you, or its mother, then one or both have surely failed.

    The least important aspects of fatherhood? It is not necessary to be on hand all the time. A child should understand the father has at times a life of his own, the mother also. Avoid the stereotypical approach to fatherhood.

  4. For species were the father doesn’t hang around the male offspring seem adept at not hanging around when their turn at fatherhood occurs. Seems you don’t need a role model, unless, as in our case, we want to buck the trend and determine what this role is for ourselves.

  5. Belonging to any class of things is predicated on the definition of that class. And class definitions are of cognitive origin. They don’t strictly emanate from the things themselves even if they are based on the perceived qualities of particulars. Where we put the boundaries between men and women are arbitrary. There may be two polarities we call male/female but nearly everyone falls somewhere in the gray zone between these two extremes. It’s interesting to explore what it means to be a “man” by asking what it means to be a “father”. But I think it’s more relevant to ask about a child’s needs.

    Traditionally, we have taken some of a child’s needs and assigned the responsibility for fulfilling these needs to a biological entity we call a “man”. But I don’t believe the ability of fulfilling many of these needs is strictly predicated on, say, producing a specific amount of testosterone. Which is why, as suggested, fatherhood could be performed by either a woman or an artificially intelligent machine. Intelligence is largely about our ability to overcome our physical limitations, to adapt to the most extreme of circumstances (like going into outer space). Surely an intelligent woman can nurture her children into well balanced productive humans without the assistance of a testosterone busting “alpha male”.

    Honestly I couldn’t care less whether I am a “man” or a “father”. All I know is that by engaging intimately with another being I love, I have given life to two boys who never asked to be instantiated into existence. The mere act of their births has obligated my wife and I to nurture them into good people. Their needs (and what society will eventually need of them) defines our responsibilities as parents. Through constant negotiations with my wife (and children for that matter), I have taken on those responsibilities that suite the abilities I have been endowed with by nature and through nurturing. The same goes for my wife. For example, I cook in our household because if my wife were to do it we would be eating burnt food every other day. And she does the laundry because otherwise we would all be wearing pink clothes full of stains half the time.

    What matters is whether we live up to our commitments. Not whether we fit into an ill conceived taxon…

  6. Ralph Sabella

    Thanks for your interest. I had a very complicated childhood with my brother, nine years older than me, the male head-of-household, which was fine until he went off to war. My other brother, three years older than me, then stepped in. Not so good, since he was not too stable a person. All in all, I’d say in the above respect my childhood was f**ked. Mostly I brought up my kids oppositely to the way I was brought up.

  7. With technology, the female could be superfluous. Actually, with the right technology, we all could be superfluous.

    In the case of evolution, there is no purpose (by definition-at least if you buy into the received view).

  8. A female could, perhaps, take on the father role. Or an intelligent machine, or an exotic form of life that either lacks gender or has some gender(s) that does not correspond to that of being a male. As always, a little sci-fi goes a long way.

  9. Andreas,
    Switching the focus to the child is an interesting approach. This does make sense-being a father seems to be a relational property and not just a matter of possessing certain non-relational qualities. Perhaps this is a kind of Copernican situation-being a father is not so much about the father, but about the child.

  10. Yeah, the singularity will render our current distinctions between man and woman, father and mother, male and female all obsolete. I suspect some future generation will have to endure the fallacious argument “it’s unacceptable to marry an ULTRA X-SPOUSE MODEL 2510!!! A marriage has always been between two humans born from the precious womb of a real woman! How can a hunk of silicone and plastic raise a balanced child?!?”

  11. Ralph you are probably already familiar with the Philip Larkin Poem. However here it is again. My own parents were overall pretty good but certainly there were F—k up elements, which affected me. I resolved as a child that when I became a parent I would ensure that these were obliterated from my own parenting. Accordingly my son became the scientist which I had hopes of becoming as a young person. I cannot blame my parents for as Larkin says they were fucked up in their turn. As a child My collection of insects all captured and neatly displayed in boxes was virtually ignored as were the perpetual chemical experiments at home which I undertook and the kind of text books I was reading at the time. My mother insisted that what I needed was a good grounding in the the 3 Rs and to learn shorthand and typing. Additionally I was sent to piano lessons for which I had absolutely no aptitude whatsoever. My mother found my scientific interests at school as something of a joke, a useless pastime which would never earn me a penny. I used to wonder why I could not be sent to learn more about Lepidoptera rather than music. This is all about the nurturing side of parenthood (fatherhood) but of course there is the genetic inheritance factor which in my case so far, seems pretty good. Personally I find it so difficult to say what makes a good father, there seems to be so many uncontrollable variables. Additionally different children seems to entail different approaches Sometimes my parents were derisive of me, which did not seem to bother me other than to feel they were probably right, and I should pull myself together. Whilst I am not in favour of such an approach I think it worked with me to the good; another child may well have been crushed and injured for life.

    “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
    They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

    But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
    Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.

    Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
    Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

    — Philip Larkin

  12. Ralph Sabella

    Don, No, I’ve never seen the poem before. You got to love that last line.
    I read what you said about your childhood with particular interest. If you had been my kid, we would have done science together.

  13. Andreas,

    No doubt that is just a matter of time. After all, folks are already hard at work on sex robots. Husband and wife robots are probably the next step.

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