What's Tony Thinking

The Good Provider


Recently, I re-read a not new yet still provocative, essay titled “The Eclipse of Fatherhood” by the ethicist Gilbert Meilander. He argues that our society no longer has any real script for what fatherhood means.

“We no longer have a distinctive ‘cultural script’ for fatherhood. When I become a father, what have I become?”

Quoting from the work of David Blankenhorn he adds, “The socialization of males into fatherhood is a necessary ‘precondition for the rise of successful human societies.’”

I became a father at age 26, long before Meilander wrote “The Eclipse of Fatherhood.” Nevertheless, things were changing even then, in the mid-70’s. Still, one script was still pretty strong at least with me.

To be a father was to be a good provider.

I grew up with that notion of father as provider as part of my DNA, though I wasn’t much aware of that until we started to have children. It was like a switch flipped.

When our first child was on the way I hastened to end a period of vocational indecision. Time to get on with it. The next fall I was in seminary.

When Linda became pregnant with our second child and then our third, I felt a need, one that felt almost instinctual, to produce more income. Not particularly easy to do in ministry.

But the good provider thing was also complicated and confusing.

For in that same time period when we were having children, the feminist movement was pressing, justly, to open work and professions to women. So, men were no longer the sole or primary “provider.” What now?

There was another, more subtle but arguably more significant, shift. A shift in what we prioritized as a society. Self-realization and self-fulfillment came to eclipse things like duty and service — and the needs of children. And work, and how we thought about it, reflected this. Work was less about providing for a family and more about realizing my dreams and potential.

This change in the way we thought about life and work was part of the changing script for fathers. I felt the tension, as I suspect many in my generation did. Going off to work once meant going off to support your family, like your own father had. You could feel good about it and like you were doing your job as a father.

But the in the shifting landscape, going off to work came to mean something more like going off to do your own thing. Work was no longer in service to your family. Increasingly, it was viewed as being at the expense of your family.

The good provider script needed to change. Change but not be thrown out entirely. It needed to be broadened to include men and women. And men who thought they had done their job simply by providing financially needed to be encouraged to be present to their children as guides and nurturers of their children.

But the good provider role had some upsides that we miss today. It lent dignity and meaning to work that might not be all that meaningful or exciting in itself. It emphasized service more than self-fulfillment. It priortized the needs of children.

But we mostly threw out the baby with the bathwater, leaving us without any real script for what fatherhood means today.

Of course, there’s another dimension to this entirely. Far too many jobs today, in the world of late-stage capitalism, do not allow a person, male or female, to be a good provider because they the pay is crappy and they lack the benefits that might support family stability.

As I look at my own sons, each with three children, they are good providers. But more. They are present in their children’s lives to nurture, protect and guide. Their kids, our grandkids, are very fortunate. Many children are not so fortunate. Many men are missing out on a role and experience that gives meaning to life. Worse, too many children lack fathers and so miss a presence that is crucial in the life of a child.

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