“Congratulations on your wife’s pregnancy,” I said to an acquaintance I ran into in the parking lot at the grocery store.
“Oh, we’re getting a divorce. The baby is her thing, not mine. Doesn’t have anything to do with me,” he replied.
“I don’t understand,” I said to him. “Your child is going to need you whether or not you love his mom.”
“Look. I didn’t ask to be a father so it’s all on her,” he said as casually as if he were talking about the price of bread.
There was nothing more I could say, especially to someone who was so matter-of-fact and distanced from what he was telling me. But it certainly got me thinking about the consequences of that kind of attitude.
It’s not new information. For almost two decades, father absence has been growing to crisis levels in America. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one out of three children in the U.S. are not living with their biological father. That’s over 24 million kids.
Research also suggests that around 40 percent of American kids are now born to single mothers — some to teenagers but also to an increasing number of women who have become discouraged about ever finding Mr. Right. They are heading to the sperm bank or are settling for pregnancy by a good friend or a one-night stand. The fellow I was talking to doesn’t see his behavior as abnormal because it isn’t. But it’s a sad and disheartening trend.
As a society, father absence is not something that we should get inured to. Study after study concludes that children in father-absent homes are likely to be poorer than their peers and even poorer than the father. They are more likely to use and abuse alcohol, tobacco, and street drugs, fail at school, have an early pregnancy, and be abused. Adolescent boys are more at risk of becoming involved with the law. Girls don’t do much better. Approximately half of the imprisoned women in one study grew up without a dad. Girls whose fathers distanced from them post-divorce often search to reclaim the intimacy of the father-daughter bond well into their adult years, often resulting in a series of unhealthy relationships with men who are older or who seem to be more powerful than they are.
Since children usually model after the same-sex parent, sons who are abandoned by their dads may grow up to be men who don’t bond with their children either.
The kids’ mothers, too, are under stress. Women without partners are less likely to take care of themselves during pregnancy and are more likely to have a baby with a low birthweight. They are less likely to breastfeed, and more likely to suffer from depression. Often, the strain of doing all the parenting means she becomes increasingly isolated, with no time to develop friendships or to cultivate the supports that sustain people in hard times. Without a partner to share in the struggles and with whom to celebrate successes, single moms often explode in anger or implode into depression, taking the stress out on others or on themselves.
This is not to say that mothers can’t successfully raise their children alone. They can and do. But it is much, much harder on everyone. This is not to say that women should stay with an abusive spouse for the sake of the kids. They shouldn’t. There are huge costs to everyone’s safety and sanity when mom and kids live under siege. This is not to devalue households with two mommies. Lesbian couples can and do raise healthy, happy kids, especially when they plan for male presence in their kids’ lives.
Regardless of the success of many families where Dad either was never there or abandoned his role mid-stream, a father’s regular involvement with his children makes things easier all around. The flip side of all those discouraging studies are the ones that show that having a father present in his kids’ lives results in more emotional and financial stability, better performance at school, fewer behavioral problems, and more success in life in general. Mothers with partners are generally less personally stressed, more relaxed with their kids, and more able to develop their own interests and talents. Fathers who actively partner with their kids’ mother to parent their children feel better about themselves and are generally happier.
Men are not simply sperm donors. Regardless of some misguided movies and misplaced jokes, their importance to their children’s welfare can’t and shouldn’t be dismissed. Whether or not a man marries or stays married to a child’s mother, his involvement makes a significant difference in the physical, emotional, and psychological health of his children and builds his own character and strength.