PAULINE SHRIEKED with delight when her father threw her into the air, and she clutched him at night with ferocious strength when terrified by a nightmare. But after her parents divorced and her mother moved with her back to Michigan, she rarely saw her father, and anger gradually replaced love.
As a young adult, she has mostly negative things to say about men. She isn’t quite sure of her father’s address, and she doesn’t call or send a card on Father’s Day. We may be the only society in history that has voluntarily chosen mass fatherlessness. Only about half of our children make it to adulthood living in the same home as their fathers, due to the breakdown of the nuclear family. We have become adept at fooling ourselves about the causes of family destruction. The language we use, from Oprah to wonky policy journals, often treats family breakdown as beyond our control, while obscuring the fact that it is the result of individual and societal choices. In the lexicon of family dissolution, we usually hear something like ”Our marriage struggled and ultimately failed," as if the marriage were an independent creature over which the parties had no control.
Or we read that ”One-third of all births occur out of wedlock," as if this were an act of God. Instead, as a society, we have made policy choices that have produced legions of anguished kids, overworked single mothers, and angry noncustodial fathers. First, we enacted no-fault divorce, creating lower legal barriers for leaving a spouse than for firing an employee or evicting a tenant. This coincided with the explosive growth in the 1960s of the philosophy of personal liberation, including the acceptance of divorce and of bearing children out of wedlock.
Moreover, welfare policy rewarded mothers financially for having children without fathers– the more children, the more money. Both the divorce rate and the out-of-wedlock birth rate immediately skyrocketed. (Out-of-wedlock births among the poor have plummeted since welfare reform.) It might still have been OK for our children, except that simultaneously the courts refused to order shared physical custody of children, and instead ordered only meager ”visitation" for noncustodial parents, typically three or four days per month. The courts declined to enforce even that minimal contact when the mother interfered with it (in about half of cases, according to surveys of single mothers), and routinely allowed distant moveaways with the children. As a result, almost every classroom, athletic team, and school band has several children who have not seen their dads in months.
Since this has been going on now for two generations, the verdict is in: It hasn’t worked. Despite the valiant efforts of millions of single mothers, the rates of all the seriously negative outcomes for children are increased two- to threefold among fatherless kids, including grief, loneliness, substance abuse, failure in school, gang involvement, teenage pregnancy, suicide, and even mortality. We have cooked up all sorts of programs to counteract the symptoms of fatherlessness, but their effectiveness has been marginal because they do not attack the root problem. For drug problems, we have DARE programs.
For gang involvement, we offer midnight basketball, and for teenage pregnancy, we distribute condoms in schools. We celebrate male role models, mentors, coaches, and ”Big Brothers," while the children pine for their fathers. Liberals consider efforts to strengthen marriage a right-wing obsession. And efforts to achieve gender equality in divorce are considered antifeminist, even though voters in Massachusetts and poll respondents in Detroit both favored joint physical custody by a margin of 86 percent. Conservatives see a handful of gays and lesbians getting married and decry the death of marriage, while largely ignoring the elephant in the room of divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing among heterosexuals.
The alpha-males among the conservatives denounce the ”irresponsible fathers" they would never be, ignoring the fact that maternal choice far outweighs paternal choice both in divorce and in the decision to have children outside of marriage. Fortunately, fathers and mothers alike are taking matters into their own hands. They are uniting to form so-called fathers’ rights organizations, although they might better be known as children’s rights organizations, since surveys of adult children of divorce consistently show that what they most grieved was the loss of their fathers.
The central demand of these organizations is for joint physical custody of children if the parents are both fit. But as with any complex social problem, there are related issues of concern, from child support inanities to false charges of abuse. This may be the first time in history that men have had to wrest some power from women for the good of children and society. They will surely succeed, if only because gender roles are converging and the rank and file of both sexes see shared parenting after divorce as natural and fair. And because it is clearly best for the children.
Dr. Ned Holstein is president of Fathers and Families in Boston.