A generation or so ago there was a very popular book and play entitled, Life with Father. The father depicted was a gruff and blustery “I am the boss” character who, down deep, was loving and tolerant, easily managed and controlled by his wife and children. Then in the early days of TV we had Father Knows Best, which basically was a continuing update of the same themes. But, in both media examples, the fathers loved their wives and children and provided adequate financial and emotional support.
Unfortunately, life with father isn’t always that way, any more than life with mother is. But what about life without father? Is it better to have no father in the home than to have one who is withdrawn, punitive, or abusing? Obviously there is no simple answer to those questions. All literature on father-absence, and most research conducted on the subject, has a point of view. One that might be called the feminist position implies that mothers should not put up with an unpleasant marriage or relationship and offers reassurance that mothers can do as well by themselves as they can with a marital partner. A powerful counterpart to that assertion comes from individuals and groups that stress the importance of fathers for wholesome child development and take the position that such development is seriously compromised when children are raised only by their mothers.
Types of Father-Absence
There is more than one type of father absence, and effects on the children probably vary according to the type. One way it can be divided is in terms of whether the father was ever present in the life of the child and then disappeared or whether he was never really part of the family. Likewise, it can be classified in terms of whether the absence was wanted by or forced upon the mother. These two major categories—“Ever” versus “Never” present and “Chosen” versus “Non-chosen”—vary at the same time. I have made up a little table to describe this:
|Chosen||Mother-initiated divorce or separation||Movie stars
Wealthy, ardent feminists
Death of father
I hope my table doesn’t look too much like something out of a book on population statistics from the Bureau of the Census. I drew it to help make the point that it is difficult to generalize about the effects of father-absence on children; it occurs in so many forms. From the point of view of children, whichever of these boxes that represents their situation probably makes a big difference. Technically, the two boxes on the left should be thought of as “father loss”; those on the right are more aptly considered “father-absence.” In spite of the fact that it intends to clarify, the table cannot depict the amount of variation that occurs within each box of the table. For example, in the column headed “Never”—true father-absence—the daily experiences of the children may well have involved contact with several different father figures who were on the scene for varying lengths of time. Likewise, in the “Ever” column, children from both mother-initiated and father-initiated divorce situations may or may not have significant amounts of continuing contact with their fathers and may or may not have subsequent relationships with new father-figures. The situation is by no means a simple one. Research on this topic rarely takes all these variations into consideration.
What about the children?
I am going to organize my comments about the role of fathers in the lives of their children in terms of my table. In doing so, I am going to group the rows and divide only on the basis of the columns—father-loss or father-absence.
Divorce was fairly uncommon in America until about 50 years ago. Since then it has risen at a steady, galloping rate, though seemingly tapering off slightly around 1995. Even so, about 50% of first marriages end in divorce. In the last quarter of the last century, clinical recommendations tended to take the position that divorce was less harmful to children than daily life in a conflict-ridden household. More recent research, however, by several different groups has tended to show that divorce has untoward consequences on children which may last for years. Skimming across many studies, one could say that father loss through divorce is associated with more behavior problems, poor school performance, and higher drop-out rates. Again, it is important to state that many children of divorce do reasonably well and do not demonstrate these negative consequences. In spite of custody arrangements, most children see little of their fathers after divorce, which indicates that divorce does indeed signal father-loss. In relation to the other cause of father-loss—death of the father—there is little research from which to draw inferences. Undoubtedly the fact that America is currently engaged in a military conflict resulting in the death of young fathers will generate more attention to this pattern of father loss.
The circumstances of the women in the lower and upper boxes of Column 2 are often dramatically different, and it is difficult to group them for discussion. If we take the first item in upper right box, we find here primarily the rich and famous. Such people usually manage to escape researchers’ attempts to draw them into a “random sample” of families. Thus what we know about these situations we get largely from the check-out lines at the grocery store. Whatever else, the children in these situations are born to women who “want to make a statement” about their right to parent. Often their children are born after artificial insemination, so there is never a father in the picture. With respect to lesbian parentage, there is now a modest amount of research available that deals with the adjustment of their children. In what may come as a surprise to some readers, the findings in general have not identified any greater tendency toward emotional problems in these children than in their school peers. However, much of the research has been sponsored by lesbian groups, and one cannot be entirely confident that the conclusions are free of bias (just as we can never be sure in most research endeavors).
It is with the large group in the lower right hand corner of the table that most people are concerned and most social policy efforts are directed. About one child in four in America is born to a single mother, with that number approaching nine out of ten in some subgroups of the population. Almost half of these live below the poverty line. Many have fluctuating “father-figures” who interact with the children for different lengths of time; some have continuing contact with their biological fathers; and some have no knowledge of or contact with their fathers. As a group, the mothers are younger and less educated and thus have to struggle to get and hold even a low-paying job. The child care available to their children is often of poor quality. Now if we look at the development of those children, we typically find a cluster of characteristics: poor health, poor school attendance, poor self-esteem, and an abundance of behavior problems. Are these conditions due to father-absence or to the host of social problems that go with poverty? Although we cannot completely separate these factors, there is no question but that absence of a father makes all the other negative features more likely.
So What Do We Do?
What can a mother do to help her children compensate for father-loss or absence, no matter which of the quadrants in my table might describe her. There are at least three things that I can recommend. First, remain optimistic and positive. Don’t assume that the litany of sad statistics pertaining to father-absence will necessarily be true for your children. Most children make it through divorce and step-parentage OK, and many children who never had a father turn out to be fine and successful individuals. Second, don’t try to do everything alone. Involve the child’s father in every way you can. If this isn’t feasible, try for help from male members of your family (or the father’s family). Grandfathers and brothers can help supply some of the “maleness” that children need and enjoy. And take advantage of whatever your community has to offer in such programs as “Big Brothers.” And, finally, try to avoid allowing the situation to repeat itself. Don’t put yourself in double jeopardy by willingly having additional children without a reasonable guarantee of the continued presence and help of the child’s father. Fathers do matter.
Sometimes all forms of life appear tough. But life without father is a lot tougher.
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.