Several years ago, BET.com, a web annex of the popular television network, invited web readers to celebrate Father’s Day by sending in their greetings for dear old dad. Let’s just say that the results weren’t exactly Hallmark-ready. Instead of a love-in, the startled organizers found themselves in the midst of a “venting session.” “That bastard!,” “I hate you!” were the sort of comments men and women wrote in honor of their paternal units.
Really, the people at BET shouldn’t have been surprised. The breakdown of marriage—specifically, the dramatic rise in divorce and nonmarital births—over the past 40 years has not been very kind to fatherhood. Fifty percent of American children—a disproportionate number of them low income and/or black—will spend time without their fathers in the house, and despite the expectations of many experts who had assumed otherwise, out-of-house fathers tend to disappoint. And yes, a lot of kids get mad about that.
At the most basic level, fathers who’re divorced from their children’s mother, or who never married them in the first place, simply aren’t around much. According to most surveys, though about one-third of nonresident fathers visit with their kids on a weekly basis, a majority of them see them once a month, or less. And as the years go by, they tend to fade from the family picture even more. The Fragile Families study, which has followed close to 5,000 low-income couples with new children, has made the eye-opening discovery that 80 percent of unmarried fathers are either cohabiting or romantically involved with their child’s mother at birth. But the good news stops there. By the time the child is five, most couples have broken up and father involvement has steadily declined. In fact, 40 percent of dads have little or no contact with their children.
One of the explanations for this disappearing father act is what social scientists refer to as “multiple partner fertility.” In many cases, either a man already has children by another woman, or will go on to do so, which for logistical and financial reasons limits his ability to be the sort of father his kids will celebrate the third Sunday of every June. In the Fragile Families study, 42 percent of unmarried fathers already had at least one other child by at least one other woman. Divorced fathers, too, often go on to start another family and lose interest in their older kids. Little wonder that the U.S. now has a child-support system whose client base (about 17 million) and payment arrears rival the population and GDP of a small Third World country.
Still, it would be wrong simply to blame the absent father problem on men. Family courts overflow these days with cases of fathers trying to stop ex-wives and girlfriends from moving out of state with their children, whether because they have promising jobs or new men waiting for them, or just because they want to. In many states, mothers will win those cases, and fathers will suddenly be living hundreds or even thousands of miles away from their kids. Some mothers block fathers’ access to their children simply out of bitterness or suspicion. The courts are now dealing with an increasing numbers of charges of “parental alienation,” that is, the attempt by one parent—either mother or father—to turn a child’s affection from the other parent by reciting their darkest flaws, imagined, exaggerated, or real.
Not that divorced or nonmarried fathers who remain close to their kids have found the recipe for a happy Father’s Day. When researchers compare the children whose nonresident fathers visit regularly and provide adequate financial support to those whose fathers are MIA, they find modest benefits at best. In a paper presented last March at the meeting of the Population Association of America, Mindy Scott showed that while the young adult children of divorce with committed dads had higher self-esteem than those without, they were still significantly more likely to have had difficult adolescence—abusing drugs, engaging in problem drinking and committing crimes—than kids living with their married fathers and, of course, mothers.
About four decades ago, when Americans began to imagine that they could separate marriage and childbearing, they didn’t think too hard about how men could be fathers without being husbands. As a result, this Sunday, many families won’t have much to celebrate.