Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City during winter storm Nemo, February 2013
Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City during winter storm Nemo, February 2013 © Michael Christopher Brown/Magnum Photos

Do Fathers Matter? What Science is Telling us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked, by Paul Raeburn, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, RRP$26/£17.99, 288 pages

When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood, edited by Brian Gresko, Berkley, RRP$15, 304 pages

The Fall: A Father’s Memoir in 424 Steps, by Diogo Mainardi, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, Harvill, RRP£12.99, 156 pages

What’s all the fuss about?” snaps Father, in Dorothy Edwards’ 1952 story My Naughty Little Sister and the Ring. Father, as those of us brought up on these children’s classics will remember, has no truck with fuss of any kind, not least when he comes back from a hard day at work to find the house in uproar because his younger daughter has apparently swallowed some jewellery.

Celebrated for her pitch-perfect mimicry of middle-class speech and manners, Edwards also understood that – whatever Father might think – “fuss” for the homebound mother of that time, and for very young children of all times, is the stuff of life itself. Wasp stings and milk spillages and new haircuts and accidental ingestion: all dramas no less significant for their domesticity.

Feminism, and equalising (if not yet equal) parenting, has, of course, transformed fatherhood since the days of My Naughty Little Sister. New figures from the Pew Research Center reveal that US stay-at-home dads (or SAHDs, in the jargon) now make up 16 per cent of all at-home parents, while in the UK they make up nearly 10 per cent, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Joblessness, it is true, has helped fuel the generally upward trend of SAHDs on both sides of the Atlantic, and although 16 per cent can hardly be described as a gender revolution, few could seriously deny that a major social shift has taken place. Mirroring this shake-up, books about fatherhood have proliferated: more men than ever before now know something about those food-stained, lonely, occasionally epiphanic hours spent caring for the very young. More than ever before, these experiences are being written up, and read, by men.

Aside from reams of fatherhood self-help guides, recent years have also seen the “fatherhood memoir”, a useful publishing category, though in practice a broad church. While fatherhood runs through A Man in Love, the lauded second volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, his meditations on Dostoevsky do not sit easily with, say, Drew Magary’s Someone Could Get Hurt (2013), with its jokes about farting. Even so, they tread common ground: the self-consciousness of male writers finding themselves in what had been, until recently, female territory.

Very different writers are now confronting a variation on the problem we began with: not what all the fuss is about but what fatherhood means, and what the most effective way to explore and express its meaning might be.

At first sight Do Fathers Matter? seems to delve less into the semantics than the pure science of fatherhood. Paul Raeburn, former science editor of BusinessWeek, addresses the question of his title in a prologue under whose mild tone beats a message of urgency. Better consideration of the role of fathers, Raeburn insists, “will promote equality, and will create a brighter future for our children. Nothing is more important than that.”

Fatherhood is currently a hot-button issue in the US. For all the rise of the stay-at-home dad, by other metrics fathers are becoming less present in American society as a whole. In 1960, Raeburn points out, only 11 per cent of US children lived apart from their fathers. “By 2010, that figure had climbed to 27 per cent.” Careful to give credit to supportive single-mother families, Raeburn nevertheless insists on the general undesirability of fatherlessness, and its links to crime, educational failure and depression, among much else.

Adopting a carefully reasonable tone, Raeburn seems to have positioned himself over the conservative-progressive chasm. He cites research showing how fathers, in areas including play, vocabulary and risk-taking, generally contribute in a different way to their children than mothers, which is partly why children are better off in two-parent families.

Much of the book takes the form of summaries of studies across psychology, evolutionary biology, genetics and neuroscience intended for the lay reader. Advances in biology have undermined long-accepted psychological beliefs. For years, women were told schizophrenia was down to “domineering” mothering; now, Raeburn explains, the condition is believed to be linked to an older father.

The most striking aspect of nearly all the studies is the social context in which they were carried out. Until recently, research on how a baby develops in utero focused on mothers’ activities; how a father’s habits and genes also affect it is still not entirely understood, although now believed to be significant: “No one had seen the importance of fathers because investigators had never looked for it.”

As might be expected in discussions of the interplay between genes and environment, Raeburn’s story also introduces knotty questions about free will. How far is biology destiny? What about social pressures and desires?

Such questions haunt the contentious social issues Raeburn touches on, such as “maternal gatekeeping” – the notion that some women block men’s participation in housework and childcare. Division of labour along gender lines is a very ancient human custom, Raeburn later writes, yet he insists “there is no evolutionary argument” that men or women must be trapped in certain roles. By understanding the science behind the way family work has come to be divided, we might work out a way of changing what many assume are unalterably “natural” roles.

The feminist writer Dorothy Dinnerstein, an early advocate of 50-50 parenting, took a radical position against the notion of human “naturalness” in The Mermaid and the Minotaur (1976), stating simply: “We are what we have made ourselves.” As fatherhood changes, its chroniclers are now wrestling with a similar puzzle: what, in that jumble of genetic, evolutionary and social pressures, ought fatherhood to mean? As Raeburn himself confides: “I’m glad to know my involvement is a good thing. But that’s not why I spend time with my kids. I do it because I like it.”

Genes and environment, biology and social activism – such binaries, it turns out, do not just preoccupy father-scientists. Protectiveness towards one’s children might signify “nothing more than a bit of well-engineered firmware to guarantee the perpetuation of the species,” writes novelist Justin Cronin. “Version two assumes that life, with all of its vicissitudes, possesses an organized pattern of meaning.”

A reflection on the aftermath of a car crash involving his 12-year-old daughter, Cronin’s essay is one of 22 comprising When I First Held You, a new collection in which US writers probe the mixed fortunes and, inevitably, the semantics of fatherhood.

It is an eclectic collection and the quality varies. In an opening that reads more like a self-help guide than a literary preface, editor Brian Gresko excitedly recalls his own desire to get “deep in the muck of daddy-hood”. Several of the newer fathers dutifully take us round the same, ritualised Stations of the Birth: the dash to hospital, the machines that go ping, the sleep deprivation, rounded off with the discovery of the paternal love that makes it all worth it.

The many recent, high-profile panegyrics to Knausgaard’s My Struggle centre on the Norwegian’s ability to render domestic detail interesting, offset with discomfortingly honest reflections on the way he feels fatherhood has eroded his masculinity and freedom. Given the range of shared themes, Knausgaard’s shadow inevitably falls over this collection. A few of the domestic vignettes do possess something of that power, such as Chris Bachelder’s study of his garrulous daughters: his house, after they have left for school, “feels like a flattened cornfield”. In other contributions, however, there is rather too much stolid cataloguing of snacks and transport arrangements.

Writing on the feelings of miraculousness that accompanied the birth of his child, Stephen O’Connor notes that “every one of my realizations at that moment was entirely banal” – an insight that pinpoints a major pitfall of parenthood literature. Domestic details cannot just be written up as the blur in which they are lived. There has to be some pattern in the carpet.

“There is something marginal about being a single dad,” writes Matthew Specktor on his experience of this lonely office, “and equally so about being a writer, and also . . . in an undiscussable way, about being relatively poor.” “Undiscussable” here might sum up a wider tendency in fatherhood writing to shy from public or political issues, though there are some exceptions. Garth Stein lays into vaccines and excessive medicalisation, while at the other pole, Stephen O’Connor attacks the unreasonable expectations of “natural” parenting. These, though, are sporadic arguments in a collection in which most fathers seem reticent to leave the realm of the personal.

Reticence is not a trait one could level at Brazilian writer and journalist Diogo Mainardi. In his 2012 memoir The Fall, newly translated into English, Mainardi does not delicately unpick meaning from the world around him; rather, like some Ayn Rand individualist hero, he picks the world up and erects it as a monument of meaning to his own son.

If this all sounds a touch narcissistic, it is partly because Mainardi is a somewhat singular writer, recounting a tragedy all the more terrible for being avoidable. Born in Venice in 2000, his son Tito was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, directly caused by errors committed by the obstetrician. Subtitled “A Father’s Memoir in 424 Steps”, The Fall consists of short sections, each representing the maximum number of steps Tito has managed to take in one go before falling.

Dante, Mainardi observes, counts out steps as a means of depicting distance in the Divine Comedy. The “Fall” of the title is further related to Venetian architecture, an Xbox game, Ruskin, Proust and Ezra Pound. These, and many more, references form an ever-accumulating web of allusions, a universalising of Tito’s condition that appears to have begun as a means of coming to terms with it, but which has flowered here into an unabashed hymn of paternal pride.

In the style of WG Sebald, photos of relevant buildings and art objects orientate the reader. One is captioned: “Marcel Proust by the Grand Canal in Venice, looking at my window.” As such a caption suggests, Mainardi’s style is not cramped by self-doubt. Only a very confident writer, and an even more confident father, could possibly write: “Tito was my Richard III. Tito was my bunch-backed toad. He seized my throne. He conquered my kingdom. After his birth, I became a ghost haunting him.”

(Mercifully) short though this memoir is, Mainardi’s bravura palls towards the close. It surely counts among the oddest father memoirs ever – though perhaps, in time, it will be surpassed. As paternal roles change, and as fathers write the domesticity out of their systems, we might look forward to work that in attitude and tone is more like the literature of modern motherhood: combative, outraged, and willing to get into public scraps.

Julius Purcell is a critic based in Barcelona

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