The irony of this Father's Day is that the United States is an increasingly fatherless society. Tonight, more than one-third of our nation's children will go to sleep in homes in which their fathers do not live. Before they reach age eighteen, more than half of our nation's children will spend a significant portion of their childhood living apart from their fathers. Fatherlessness is now approaching a rough parity with fatherhood as a defining feature of American childhood.
This fact is so disturbing that many people prefer to ignore it. Our public debate on the family, for example, focuses almost exclusively on the roles of women and the plight of children, as if the male role in family life were somehow secondary or even irrelevant. We disguise the sex of the problem with prim euphemisms. We say "single parent homes," when we mean mothers raising children without fathers. We speak of "parenting" as if motherhood and fatherhood were a set of gender-neutral "skills", like plumbing. In short, we turn fatherlessness into a problem with no name.
Yet male absence from family life is surely the most socially consequential family trend of our era. Never before in our nation's history have so many children grown up without a father's presence and provision. The scholarly findings on the results of this trend could not be clearer: children who grow up with their fathers do far better – emotionally, educationally, physically, every way we can measure – than children who do not. This conclusion holds true even when differences of race, class, and income are taken into account. The simple truth is that fathers are irreplaceable in shaping the competence and character of their children.
Moreover, fatherlessness is the engine that drives our most pressing social problems. Consider crime. Fatherlessness is the most important predictor of juvenile crime – a greater predictor than race or income. Over 70 percent of juveniles in long-term correctional facilities grew up without their fathers. Consider teen pregnancy. One recent study finds that, compared to females who grow up with fathers, females from fatherless homes are 111 percent more likely to have children as teenagers and 164 percent more likely to have a premarital birth. Consider child sexual abuse. If you are a child who has been sexually abused in your home, the chances of the abuser being someone other than your biological father are about 40 to one. Consider domestic violence. If you have physically abused a woman in her home, you are many times more likely to be a boyfriend or stepfather than a married father.
But these factors, while certainly alarming, still fail to reveal the heart of the matter. For our society is not only losing fathers. It is also losing the idea of fatherhood. What we face, therefore, is not simply a physical loss, affecting some homes. We face a cultural loss, affecting every home.
As a cultural ideal, our inherited understandings of fatherhood are under siege. Men in general, and fathers in particular, are increasingly viewed as superfluous to family life – either expendable or part of the problem. Masculinity, understood as anything other than a rejection of traditional masculinity, is widely viewed with hostility, blamed by experts as the cause of everything from nuclear weapons to the destruction of the rain forests. As a result, we are simply changing our minds about the role of men in family life. The core question is simple: do children need fathers? Increasingly, our answer is "no," or at least "not necessarily."
Consider our current cultural story of fatherhood as you would a movie script – a set of cues that help tell the actor what to do. The central character in today's fatherhood script is a fellow whom we might call the Superfluous Father. At best, he is desirable but expendable. At worst, he is a villain, a problem to be overcome.
This character is versatile enough to play several different roles without losing his basic identity. Sometimes, for example, he plays the role of sperm bank. It's a small part. He impregnates, then exits. Fatherhood in this case is reduced to biology. At other times, our character appears in the guise of the Deadbeat Dad – the runaway father who refuses to mail in his child support payments. Everybody dislikes him, and for good reason, but the central lesson he teaches is that fatherhood is mostly a matter of economics. As a social role, fatherhood is reduced to the size of a wallet.
At other times he appears in the guise of the New Father – an altogether more likeable guy. He is nurturing. He expresses his emotions. He changes diapers. He shares equally in the responsibilities of domestic life. He is a favorite of the media, a required guest on every television show that does a special segment on Father's Day.
Yet despite his virtues, there is very little maleness to be found in the New Father. In fact, this role advises men to suppress many historically masculine traits (such as competitiveness, aggression, and protection and provision for wife and children) and cultivate historically feminine traits (such as emotional sensitivity and the nurturance of young children). In short, the New Father teaches that there is no basic difference between a father and a parent – that there is nothing specifically male about fatherhood as a social role. He is the Superfluous Father with a humane face.
In an important sense, the New Father is the modem, improved version of the Old Father – that dutiful but disappointing fellow from an earlier generation who did not talk about his feelings, changed tires rather than diapers, and expected someone else to do the dishes. In today's script, the Old Father is part nostalgia figure and part straw man – someone who can make today's baby boomer fathers feel good by comparison.
Yet on this Father's Day, we might do well to remember that the central character of an earlier fatherhood script was a fellow called the Good Family Man. Ponder the three words. Good: moral values. Family: purposes larger than the self. Man: a norm of masculinity. This phrase was once widely heard in our culture, bestowed as a badge of honor to those deserving it. Rough translation: he puts his family first. Yet today, especially within elite culture, who hears the phrase? It sounds antiquated, almost embarrassing. Today we mostly hear it at funerals.
Certainly, the good family man still exists. But he is losing ground. He lives in increasingly hostile territory. He is no longer a star in our cultural script. Indeed, his role has become less important than many of the anti-family male roles now prevalent in that script: the sexual adventurer, the careerist, the individualist concerned with self-expression, and the romantic loner with little need for the entanglements of family life.
In short, when it comes to marital commitment and family obligation, many of us new fathers – fathers in an increasingly fatherless society – could do worse than remember our old fathers, the good family men. No, we cannot relive an earlier era. No, we will not, and ought not, return to patriarchy, the subordination of women by men. But the central challenge of our generation is to revise and revive, for modern conditions, a widely shared conception of the good family man, the man who puts his family first. If we do not, we must not be surprised by the continuing decline of fatherhood in our society.