About forty years ago, as divorce was becoming commonplace, America began waking up to the importance of fatherhood. Up until then, the literature on child rearing was almost exclusively mother-oriented. Fathers didn’t count for much. After all, Freud had pretty much ignored them, hadn’t he?
That changed with the 1974 publication of psychologist Fitzhugh Dodson’s “How to Father.” (Factoid: Dodson is credited with being the first to turn the noun “parent” into a verb with “How to Parent,” his 1970 bestseller.) Since then, it has become increasingly apparent that whether present, only sometimes present, or not present at all, fathers exert great influence on their children’s lives — for better or worse.
By now, nearly everyone knows that kids in father-absent homes are at risk for all manner of difficulties, but the scope of the problem is worth reviewing. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 24 million children (one in three) live in father-absent households. Children in such homes are five times more likely to be living in poverty. The infant mortality rate for children born to unwed mothers is nearly twice that of children born to married moms. Just having a father’s name on the birth certificate — even if he’s not living in the home — is associated with a lower risk of dying in the first year of life.
Compared with kids who live with their dads, kids in father-absent homes are more likely to be injured in home accidents. Their mothers are more likely to be depressed. They’re at higher risk for asthma. They’re much more likely to eventually abuse drugs and/or alcohol, become obese, and smoke. (Their moms are more likely to smoke too, even during their pregnancies.) They’re more likely to be abused physically and/or sexually. They don’t do as well in school and they’re much more likely to drop out. As teens, they’re more likely to become delinquent. By the time they are young adults, they’re more likely to be in jail. As adults, they don’t earn as much.
Girls who grow up in father-absent homes are more likely, as teenagers, to become pregnant. In that case, they’re likely to be single mothers who raise their children in father-absent homes, perpetuating and compounding the original problem. And the wheel keeps on turnin’.
Name the problem and it’s almost a certainty that kids from father-absent homes are significantly more at risk for it. Even though the above litany was meant to be mind-boggling, consider that I had to be selective. Newspapers don’t give me enough space to do more than scratch the surface.
But here’s something that’s not often talked about. Children of unmarried, cohabiting parents are at higher risk for most of these same problems as well. That means the real problem isn’t so much the absence of a father in the life of a child; it’s the absence of a husband. More specifically, it’s the absence of a marriage.
That makes sense. After all, nothing contributes more to a child’s sense of well-being than knowing his parents are in a vibrant, committed relationship with one another. Under those circumstances, he doesn’t even need a lot of attention. More important is the fact that his parents give a lot of attention to each other.
In light of this, I propose that we start calling the “father” problem for what it really is: the marriage-absent home. For a child to grow up with a father is good, but for a child to grow up with a father who is first and foremost a husband is even better.