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Fatherhood Requires Fidelity
Contra Reeves on dads who don't marry
The splashiest proposal from’s Of Boys and Men is that we redshirt the boys. But the most controversial proposal is tucked near the end of the book: Reeves believes we need to decouple fatherhood from marriage.
As he explains at his substack, he thinks this decoupling is partially a concession to reality:
Forty percent of children, and 70% of black children, are now born outside of marriage. Only a minority of children will spend their whole childhood with both biological parents.
But it’s one thing to ask what’s the best way for a man to approach fatherhood, once he has fathered children with multiple women and can’t be a fully faithful husband to all of them. It’s another thing to argue that we should start telling different stories to young boys to offer them a different, lower ideal.
Reeves’s advice seems more backward looking—how to do best by the men who have already fathered children they won’t be a full family with—rather than forward looking about how to form boys to be prepared to make and keep a promise.
He is particularly worried with not leading men who have not married their children’s mothers into despair.
The insistence that good fatherhood requires marriage sends a chilling message to the Dads who are not married to the mother of their children. If you have to be a husband to be a good Dad, what does that mean for the tens of millions of fathers who are not married, or who were and are not anymore? What’s the message we’re sending to them? If we’re not careful, the message is: You failed. You’re benched. You don’t matter anymore.
I don’t want any man to think he’s beyond hope or that he doesn’t have something worth giving to his children, even if he’s passed beyond the possibility of marriage. But I think Reeves is neglecting a different kind of harm, when we tell someone that a real wrong they’ve done is not wrong because it is not fixable.
The musical Merrily We Roll Along tells the story of a failed friendship in reverse. It opens at the end, when a trio of friends have fallen away from each other and lost hold of their hope. The musical rolls back the years, scene by scene, until we see them in school at their first meeting and pledge of faith in each other.
A show like that invites speculation about how things fell apart (explicitly in this case, with the echoing lyrics “Where did you let things slip out of gear? / How did you ever get to be here?”
For my money, that moment comes in “Now You Know” when Frank’s friends try to jolly him out of his grief over his divorce and his lost relationship with his son. They promise him, in increasing tempo, intensity, and harmonic intensity that losing his son is the best thing that ever could have happened. Eventually, he assents.
As I’ve written previously:
When he comes back from his trip, he doesn’t have a way to differentiate between the higher love he felt for his son and the coarser attachments offered to him by his mistress — not without repudiating the reassurance offered to him by his friends. Frank’s friends had no way to address suffering except by erasing it — either by denying the gravity of loss or by arguing there’s nothing in our world that really hard to lose.
Men who father children without making a family for them, even if they remain involved, have genuinely shortchanged their children, the women they made love to, and themselves. Denying the wound doesn’t fill it.
As my husband wrote for Plough, fatherhood requires a habit of fidelity. That habit begins with a man’s wife, the woman he chooses, so that he can be prepared to be steadfast for the children who arrive unchosen, as surprising strangers, even when hoped for.
Perhaps it’s better to think of a man’s vows not as a shackle but as an anchor, an anchor that attaches him to something solid so he does not drift off into callow dissolution. [...] The proper use of vows of fidelity is to bind oneself to particular loves: committing to love another person not only with a general charitable disposition but with the specificity of deliberately weaving your lives together. We are finite beings, and there are infinite things in the universe worthy of affection, attention, and care. Instead of trying to embrace, say, every woman in the world (the approach of Zeus and other mythical men on the make), the husband embraces the world in the person of one woman.
For the men: how did habits of patience and fidelity in marriage prepare you to be a dad?
For everyone: which are the stories of promise-keeping that stuck with you as a child? Which stories (or songs) have you passed on to your children?
How do you meet people in grief about a past wrong or broken promise without dismissing the weight of what they lost?
As Alexi writes in his Plough piece, one of the songs of fidelity we return to with our daughters is Stan Rodger’s “Lock Keeper.”
But which of these has given us more love of life,
You, your tropic maids, or me, my wife.
"Then come with me" you say, "to where the southern cross
Rides high upon your shoulder."
"Ah come with me!" you cry,
"Each day you tend this lock, you're one day older,
While your blood runs colder."
But that anchor chain's a fetter
And with it you are tethered to the foam,
And i wouldn't trade your life for one hour of home.