Dear Michelle Obama: Divorced Dads Aren’t Bad Parents
The bad dad stereotype has its origins in the 19th century, but it's time for it to go.
Speaking in London on April 14, Michelle Obama said, “Sometimes you spend the weekends with divorced dad and that feels like it’s fun, but then you get sick.” The former first lady was criticizing Donald Trump. “That’s what America’s going through. We’re kind of living with divorced dad right now.” Her decision to perpetuate the divorced dad stigma is unfortunate. It not only undermines millions of unmarried fathers who are trying to do what’s best for their children, but also reinforces a way of conceptualizing family life that does more harm than good.
As an unapologetic divorced father of two boys, I’ve experienced this stereotype firsthand. People often assume that I live in some sort of velvet-upholstered playboy bachelor pad, where lounge music blasts from audiophile loudspeakers, and children have no boundaries. It doesn’t matter that I hold a doctorate in psychology, conduct research on early childhood development, and write about 21st century family life.
Early this year, when I published a book arguing that parents and teachers shouldn’t set strict limits on their kids’ digital technology use, but rather offer guidance and mentorship—play video games as a family—some reviewers dismissed it outright. It seems some people assume that a divorced dad is always a bad dad.
“When Jordan Shapiro and his wife separated several years ago,” Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote for the Wall Street Journal, “he was all too happy to indulge his sons, even if their mother, apparently, was not.” She mentioned my divorce in the first sentence. The commenters embraced the deadbeat-dad narrative wholeheartedly. “Sounds like Shapiro does not want to ‘waste’ his time on his children and wrote the book to rationalize his failure,” wrote one reader. “I suspect Mrs. Shapiro got tired of raising a third child who refused to grow up and only wanted to lead and be accepted by his ‘lost boys,’” wrote another. Never read the comments!
According to the Pew Research Center, “the share of unmarried parents who are fathers has more than doubled over the past 50 years. Now, 29% of all unmarried parents who reside with their children are fathers, compared with just 12% in 1968.” And research about how the gender of solo parents impacts children remains inconclusive, mostly because it’s too difficult to establish comprehensive criteria. For example, when it comes to academic performance, children of solo fathers tend to get better grades and have higher high-school graduation rates. But solo moms tend to adhere to more so-called traditional routines, such as family dinner. Nevertheless, a stigma persists.
Americans take “family values” very seriously. According to historian Stephanie Coontz, Teddy Roosevelt was probably the first to warn American citizens that “the nation’s future rested on ‘the right kind of home life.’” Almost a century later, Ronald Reagan added his voice to a slew of others, saying that “strong families are the foundation of society.” But the nuclear family, as we’ve come to imagine it, is neither essential nor traditional. It’s a product of the Industrial Age.
In the late 19th century, middle-class men—specifically, those who were living in parts of the world that rapidly embraced factory manufacturing, the office building, and new kinds of work—began spending most of their day away from the places where they slept. Businesses moved to cities. The communal farms on which every member of the household worked together were vanishing, and the residential communities that would eventually become “the suburbs” began to pop up in their stead. As a result, people redefined men’s and women’s roles in ways that responded to a new technological and economic context.
For the first time ever, work was considered a place: the location to which men commuted by train to earn a living. The term “commute” literally refers to the discounted railroad fares men were charged when traveling between cities and suburbs in the 1840s. Commuting is a concept that did not exist before the locomotive. Likewise, the Oxford English Dictionary reports that the first written example of the word “work” as used to describe “one’s employer or place of employment” did not appear until 1966! Certainly, before that, it was normal to name early industrial factories “Works.” Think of London’s famous Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company. But it was not until the train and the telegraph jumpstarted a commuter economy that people started “going to work.” Work life and home life became separate realms.
Similarly, it wasn’t until around the mid-19th century that the family dinner ritual became popular. Why? Because it emphasized the Industrial Age division between home and work. Dinner happened at home. And home was no longer the primary location in which all of life was lived by all members of the household—as it had been in the age of the family dairy, neighborhood blacksmith, or local tailor. Home was now a specific place now managed by Mom. Home became women’s territory: the bosom to which men returned after a hard day of earning wages, the healthy nest to which children returned after studying in school. As such, it took on new significance. Home became a sanctuary in which families were protected from the machinery, profit, dis-ease, and immorality of the industrial world.
Stephanie Coontz explains, “Emotion and compassion could be disregarded in the political and economic realms” precisely because these traits were celebrated and ritualized in the home. The separation worked because “the cult of the Self-Made Man required the cult of the True Woman.” The True Woman, or the perfect mother, was representative not only of a place called “home,” but also of a whole slew of nurturing, caring behaviors that had been intentionally excluded from urban factories and industrial office buildings.
Industrial Age gender roles eventually came to be considered “natural” and “biological.” All the sentimental, emotional, and empathetic qualities that make home comfortable, safe, and nurturing became associated with the women who managed the households. And this is probably why folks now imagine that all divorced dads must have made an intentional decision to forsake the healthy compassion of the child-friendly feminine household in favor of a Hugh Hefner lifestyle. But it’s not true.
Surely, Mrs. Obama knows that gender inequity is structural and systemic. It’s not only about the jobs we hold, but also about cultural narratives that perpetuate existing power dynamics. Today, the dominant labor, economic, and gender paradigms are all in transition, yet most of our assumptions about family values—which were established to reinforce the worldview of a bygone technological era—remain the same. Ultimately, it is unrealistic to expect one realm of our lives to change without completely disrupting the others. If we really want to break through all the glass ceilings, we’ll also need to let go of the divorced dad stigma.
Jordan Shapiro, PhD is currently a senior fellow for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, and Nonresident Fellow in the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is The New Childhood: Raising Kids To Thrive in a Connected World (Little, Brown Spark).
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