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Men Can: The Changing Image and Reality of Fatherhood in America Hardcover – May 28, 2010
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"Fatherhood is evolving. In Men CAN, Donald Unger tells the story of that evolution in ways that are warm, personal, and compelling. The picture that emerges is a hopeful one, but it will also be helpful and comforting to men and women struggling with new roles at home."
—Jeremy Adam Smith, author of The Daddy Shift and editor of Shareable.net
Fatherhood is evolving in America. Stay at home dads are becoming more commonplace; men are becoming more visible in domestic, caregiving activities. In Men Can, writer, teacher, and father Donald Unger uses his personal experiences, stories of real-life families, as well as representations of fathers in film, on television, and in advertising, to illuminate the role of men in the increasingly fluid domestic sphere.
In thoughtful interviews, Don Unger tells the stories of a half dozen families—of varied ethnicities, geographical locations, and philosophical orientations—in which fathers are either primary or equally sharing parents, personalizing what is changing in how Americans care for their children. These stories are complemented by a discussion of how the language of parenting has evolved and how media representations of fathers have shifted over several decades.
Men Can shows how real change can take place when families divide up domestic labor on a gender-neutral basis. The families whose stories he tells offer insights into the struggles of—and opportunities for—men caring for children. When it comes to taking up the responsibility of parenting, his argument, ultimately, is in favor of respecting personal choices and individual differences, crediting and supporting functional families, rather than trying to force every household into a one-size-fits-all mold.
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One inconsistency Unger highlights is a resistance to acknowledge the change that has happened to real families. In conservative circles, the message goes that if a man were to publicly admit to sharing domestic labor, it would be an "admission of emasculation on two counts," first a failure to earn sufficient money to allow his wife to stay home, and second for doing "women's work." For a woman in the same circles, admitting she works means she has failed to take care of her home and children and she has "usurped the prerogatives of the '"proper head of household.'" In many real families, especially middle class and blue collar families, Unger points out a strong aversion to daycare, citing a "betrayal of family values." Given that most mothers and fathers in these families need to work, evidence shows that these Moms and Dads are in fact sharing responsibilities at home to some degree.
From liberal circles on the other hand, Unger points to a resistance to acknowledging progress because it might blunt further progress. Basically, men may help more than they used to, but they don't help enough. These thinkers have suggested that portraying family and childcare issues as fathers' issues fails to recognize the struggle that women have felt and still feel as they fight for "equality." Unger suggests that issues around fathers shouldn't be taken as competition for attention, but rather that mothers and fathers share many of the same concerns, and we are "more powerful when we stand together as parents than when we set ourselves up as fathers against mothers or vice versa."
Unger looks to a "much more open definition of family and of caregiving generally, opening up and broadening what is possible, or perhaps more accurately what is acceptable, for a man to do with his life." Another way to look at it, "we may see the home open up to men in the same way that the workplace began to open up to women in the 1970s."
Unger goes on to point out other inconsistencies as well. In our language, for example, Unger asks us to think about the difference between the verbs, "to mother" and "to father." In TV commercials, Unger wonders if portraying fathers as bumbling idiots serves to sell more cellphones or to barricade the domestic sphere. Unger also considers various TV shows and movies and the way that fathers have been portrayed over time. I especially enjoyed Unger's discussion of Mary Poppins, and the realization that the character that changes the most in the movie in the father!
Overall, Unger's book is an enjoyable read and what I like call a "head-nodder," a book that considers different perspectives and distinguishes what makes sense and what serves to hold us back.
Dr. Unger eloquently illustrates how so many fathers past and present have overcome many of the social, cultural, legal and political barriers that often hinder a man's desire to be a good parent. One example he provides is our culture's unwillingness to forgive the sins of past fathers. Another is his astute examination of the movie "Kramer vs Kramer" and it's social relevance.
Dr. Unger also does an excellent job tackling the internal strife a mother and father face due to gender differences, poor language and communication skills. And he doesn't shy away from the uncomfortable issues many mothers and fathers are afraid to address and resolve.
Bravo Dr. Unger for your insightful, invigorating perspective on fatherhood and, more importantly, recognition of today's positive image of fathers that our society should and can be proud of.
Men Can should be read by fathers, mothers as well as family health professionals who want to improve support services for fathers and the parenting landscape for the greater good of the children.
Hogan Hilling, Author of Rattled, Pacifi(her) (Turner Publishing - Release Dates August 2011) & The Modern Mom's Guide to Dads (Turner Publishing, 2010).
Great job, Don!