Lee Essig-Thunell’s mind flashes through time as he holds his newborn son, Grayson.
For an instant the BYU alumnus sees his past self at his lowest moments — desperate, hopeless, in need of someone to talk to, someone to lean on, someone to be there for him.
Then his mind catches a glimpse of the tiny future he’s holding in his arms. He sees his son — acknowledges he’ll make mistakes, fall down, maybe even lose his way at times, just as he himself has done and still does on occasion.
Though he’ll readily admit he’s no perfect parent, Lee commits to be that someone for Grayson as well as his 5 year-old stepson, Rafe. He commits to be there for his children as their father.
Almost a fourth of children in the United States aren’t so lucky.
The changing role of fathers
Twenty-three percent of U.S. children lived in father-absent homes in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Despite changing public opinion about the usefulness of the family structure, data overwhelmingly proves there is a “father factor” in almost all societal issues in the U.S., according to the non-profit organization National Father Initiative.
The rates of poverty, child abuse, crime, drug use and even obesity multiply in father-absent homes, according to National Fatherhood Initiative’s data.
BYU professor Justin Dyer focuses much of his research on fatherhood and its changing role throughout time.
Dyer said before the 1980s, fathers were often seen as the breadwinner, disciplinarian and role model, whereas now the role of a father is being challenged, his role becoming vague.
“Particularly with same-sex marriage, the question is do you actually need a father in the home? Is that something that’s even important? Do fathers provide something unique to children? There’s a lot ambivalence,” Dyer said.
The uncertainty of fatherhood in public opinion especially affects fathers who lack positive fathering role models, Dyer said. According to Dyer, when these fathers turn to society for social cues, they’re often left with inaccurate media portrayals.
Fathers in the media
Current politics and the media both contribute to the ambiguity of fatherhood, Dyer said. In his view, more and more often the father is portrayed in TV shows and movies as the wife’s “other child” rather than as a participating parent.
A 2016 BYU study found fathers were positively portrayed by the media less than half the time they were on screen. Fathers were portrayed as “buffoons” — making dad jokes and silly faces, acting stupid, being clumsy — 39.9 percent of the time, in a negative light 6.7 percent of the time, and neutrally during 11.5 percent of their on-screen time.
The study, headed by graduate students in the School of Family Life, examined two of Disney Channel’s most popular tween shows and analyzed the fathers’ behavior, as well as their children’s on-screen reactions. Of those reactions, 48 percent of the responses to their father’s “buffoonery” were negative.
Savannah Kroff, who worked on the study last year, is a second-year graduate student in BYU’s School of Family Life. She said social science research suggests people’s attitudes and behaviors are affected by the media they consume.
“If children are watching a lot of TV that portrays fathers as bumbling idiots, they might be more likely to believe that fathers actually are bumbling idiots, even though fathers are not,” Kroff said.
Kroff said parents are less likely to buy into these portrayals, but the portrayals can lead to underestimating the importance of fatherhood in general.
BYU family life professor Sarah Coyne said the media can have positive and negative potential for families. It can bring a family together during shared interactions or create a barrier if used as a distraction.
Coyne supervised the study done by Kroff and her peers. Coyne said while many of the depictions of fatherhood in the media are exaggerations, they play into larger stereotypes contributing to uninvolved or incompetent fathers.
Advocating for fatherhood
Utah has the lowest rate of father absence in the U.S. at 11.5 percent, but advocating for fatherhood is still a concern for many, said Dallin Belt, Utah County’s Fatherhood Educating Coordinator for Healthy Relationships Utah.
Healthy Relationships Utah offers free fatherhood classes to help fathers create better relationships with their wives and children and equip fathers with the financial skills necessary to provide for a family.
The Family Support Center of Orem also offers parenting classes and family therapy. Treatment coordinator Stuart Harper said he hopes men in particular can utilize their resources and get past the stereotype that it’s weak for men to seek emotional support.
“That’s the age-old (opinion) we’ve carried for generations — never show emotions, toughen up, man up and be a man,” Harper said. “Those things are really detrimental in the long term and carry potentially severe consequences for male mental health and emotional health.”
Lee said fatherhood is much more than just breadwinning — it’s everything. It’s being that someone for his children, come what may.
“Fatherhood means nurturing, loving, supporting and helping to raise emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically strong children,” Lee said. “Being a dad is the role I’m most proud of.”