America needs more stable, intact families. This much is obvious to anyone who is even slightly familiar with the social and demographic trends of the past few decades. Stable, intact families are overwhelmingly the most reliable source of productive, responsible citizens, which are always in short supply.
Both men and women are falling down on the job when it comes to family formation, but their failings are not precisely the same. The men tend to opt out of family life entirely, either by not fathering children or by abandoning them. Women fall into one of two brackets. Some (mostly of little education) get pregnant out of wedlock and find themselves facing an overwhelming task for which they are not remotely prepared. Others (mostly educated) marry late, forego childbearing for even longer, and then plunge themselves into an agonized world of “work-life balance” in which they try to divide their time between career and children. Both have their disadvantages; the latter model works better for such offspring as it produces -- but it doesn’t produce many.
To improve family life, we may need a better “game plan” for women, but we definitely need more marriageable males. Unless men are willing to be responsible husbands and fathers, we will inevitably face a litany of social ills.
What would it take to persuade men that family life is worth it? The female side of the question is altogether more puzzling. Women are generally needed as caretakers for at least some significant portion of their lives, but their financial contributions are often needed as well. As the blue state model continues to crumble, I suspect that financial instability is increasingly going to be the norm for single-income families. That puts women in a quandary, but for men the tensions seem less severe.
To be sure, family will still create obstacles to their career development, and negotiating the current labor market is difficult under any circumstances. Unemployment can, I believe, be particularly devastating to men. But, at least in outline, the ideal for men hasn’t changed so terribly much. Most can expect to be working full-time through their adult lives, while hopefully devoting their evenings and weekends to family. Is that such a bad life? Almost none of us nowadays get the clarity and stability of a 1950s household, but it seems to me we have at least a reasonably clear idea of what men need to do within the family, and, to my mind at least, it doesn't seem so unattractive.
Why, then, do so many reject the model? Some of the problems with today's young men are surely developmental, stemming from fatherlessness, and our failure to steep boys in properly masculine models of virtue. Some of the problems may also relate to the messages put forward by popular culture about family men, who are too often portrayed as boobs and saps. Workplaces have also become less satisfying to men, insofar as it has become less acceptable for them to display their natural competitive instincts. In principle, workplace issues aren’t “fixed” by the flight from family life, but I sometimes wonder whether the refusal to assume responsible masculine roles is in large part just a passive-aggressive male response to a culture that fails to value masculinity properly.
If these are the problems at the root of unmarriageable men, they seem solvable. Stop waging war on masculinity and we may find that more men are willing to step up to the plate and embrace their manly responsibilities.
But is there more to it than that? Are there actual reasons why family life has become less satisfying to men? Unmarried women agonize endlessly over these questions; I'm happily married but I still don't quite know what to tell them. If it were just a question of expressing appreciation more often, and not forcing men to sit on flower-patterned cushions, I think that's a compromise most women would happily accept. But would that be enough? I think a lot comes down to the title question: what makes family life satisfying for men?
One suggestion that has sometimes been made to me is that men need to be needed, and with women working, they feel superfluous within the family. The first part seems definitely true, but the second just seems preposterous. Fathers are desperately needed. Not just for their paychecks (although those are important), but also for their presence within the household. How could any sensible person think otherwise? As the mother of little boys, I can already see how important paternal attention is for my sons. Moms are great when you’re sleepy or sick or have a skinned knee, but if you want to throw a football or play soldier or build a model airplane, Dad is definitely the preferred parent. Happily, my sons get lots of time with their dad, and he loves to do "boy" things with them. But it just makes me sad to think of all the little boys in the world who don't have that. Do men really need primary earning power before they can feel confident in their masculinity? Can they truly believe, just because they aren’t the sole breadwinner, that they aren’t important to their wives (or girlfriends) and, more importantly, to their children?
I’d be happy for any insight that our Ricochet men (or women, for that matter) can offer on these questions.