Virtual Voices

Life without Father

Family

By now everybody knows about Amy Chua's essay in The Wall Street Journal that generated a record number of comments on the Journal's website and started a media grassfire. (If not, check out Amy Henry's column to get up to speed.) I clicked on the original article because of the provocative title ("Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior"). I found it interesting but couldn't think of anything to add to the discussion. But after the sound and fury, there may be one more point to make.

Perhaps the main story is not so much what Chua said, or what the responders said, but the fact that so many people had to say something.

Chua's essay might be seen as part of an ongoing dialogue about motherhood in the modern age. Just a few months ago, Erica Jong's "Mother Madness" also appeared in the WSJ and attracted its own voluminous response. Her argument took on "attachment parenting" as advocated by William and Martha Sears. In Jong's view, "we have endured an orgy of motherphilia for at least the last two decades." Even though a nation that still tolerates over a million abortions per year can hardly be in the grips of "motherphilia," she might have a point about babies becoming a fashion accessory.

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But if motherhood has been exalted, it comes at the expense of the traditional family. Never in our history, and perhaps in the history of western civilization, have so many adults remained unmarried; never have fathers been so disposable. The idea of "mother" still hits us where we live, but "wife," "husband," and "father" have slipped into the wayside ditch. We've discovered the importance of fatherhood by missing it. And this proposition may hold: Generally speaking, a father harms his children most by his absence, and a mother by too much presence.

Chua's WSJ piece was an excerpt from her memoir, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Though her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, doesn't play a large part in the book, he was around, and that's probably a good thing, too. She writes about an argument during which she accused him of caring only about his own career: "What dreams do you have for Sophia or Lulu? Do you ever think about that? What dreams do you have for Coco?" At that point, Rubenfeld burst out laughing-which was the only sensible response, because Coco was their dog.

"Mother" is a more complex relationship than "father"-not only emotionally but also organically. Her child started out attached to her body in its most intimate parts, and if she nurses the baby, that attachment lasts a year or more. Mothers have invested hugely in their children before they're even born. There's no love like it, and no conflict like it either. I sensed that when raising my own children. Their father didn't always respond wisely (what father does?) but he was there, and often a word from him helped put things in perspective.

And without him? Here's a little vignette to show what it must be like. Last spring I spent a few days with a young woman-let's call her Alice-who was hoping to start a small business. Alice is a single mom, so she wants to support herself at home while raising her daughter. The prospects are reasonably good: Alice is very bright and hard working, a convicted Christian who has the full support of her church. I could help her make some business contacts during an event we both attended. Since no one was available to care for her 3-year-old for that length of time, the little one came along, and Alice hoped to distract her during crucial periods with books and DVDs.

It didn't work. Alice had a mental list of things she wanted to accomplish in a limited time, and her daughter seemed determined to thwart every single one. They were at odds for the first day and a half, frustrated mother and manipulative child. By 4 p.m. on the second day, I returned to our motel room to find Alice in the semi-darkness, in tears, with a puzzled, frightened, but still-willful little girl on her lap. Alice was not only angry and exhausted; she was hurt. But so was her daughter. They were too close; they needed a separation before things could get better.

That's one reason why a father is so important: a deeply interested, but not quite so attached buffer in all that organic turmoil. Not all family constellations are alike, of course; sometimes it's the father who pushes and the mother who pampers, and the tension between them can be painful for the child. And we all know families with one or more toxic parents. But stable, two-parent families are still the best indicator of success, and Amy Chua's husband probably deserves more credit than he's getting.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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