Call it the backlash against the backlash. Over the past decade, Americans have increasingly understood that the divorce revolution, fatherlessness and single parent households are harming our children. Now those who view the traditional family as disadvantageous to women are firing back, defending women who choose single motherhood and depicting fathers as superfluous.
Last fall Stanford University Gender Scholar Peggy Drexler penned the highly-publicized book “Raising Boys Without Men: How Maverick Moms Are Creating the Next Generation of Exceptional Men.” This month Oxford Press released Wellesley College Women’s Studies professor Rosanna Hertz’s “Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice: How Women Are Choosing Parenthood Without Marriage and Creating the New American Family.”
Certainly one can sympathize with those single mothers whose husbands or lovers abandoned or mistreated them, and who soldiered on in the raising of their children without the father those children should have had. However, Drexler and Hertz go well beyond this, openly advocating single motherhood as a lifestyle choice.
Drexler portrays father-absent homes – particularly “single mother by choice” and lesbian homes – as being the best environments for raising boys. Hertz interviewed 65 single mothers and concluded that “intimacy between husbands and wives [is] obsolete as the critical familial bond.” Whereas a family was once defined as two parents and their children, Hertz asserts that today the “core of family life is the mother and her children.” Fathers aren’t necessary – “only the availability of both sets of gametes [egg and sperm] is essential.” In fact, Hertz explains, “what men offer today is obsolete.”
Our children would beg to differ. Studies of children of divorce confirm their powerful desire to retain strong connections to their fathers. For example, an Arizona State University study of college-age children of divorce found that the overwhelming majority believed that after a divorce “living equal amounts of time with each parent is the best arrangement for children.”
Objective measures of child well-being belie Hertz’s and Drexler’s rose-colored image of fatherless families. The rates of the four major youth pathologies – teen pregnancy, teen drug abuse, school dropouts and juvenile crime – are tightly correlated with fatherlessness, often more so than with any other socioeconomic factor.
Hertz and Drexler reached their conclusions by studying families who had volunteered to have their lives intimately examined over a multi-year period – a self-selected sample hardly representative of the average fatherless family. Moreover, Hertz’s and Drexler’s research is largely subjective – they personally conducted interviews of single mothers to examine their family lives and – no surprise – found them to their liking.
To Hertz’s credit, she does concede that the “wish among heterosexual women for a dad for their children remains strong.” Perhaps the single mothers she interviewed understand the value of male parenting? Or maybe as these women’s children grow the mothers see the positive impact male influence could have in their lives? Not according to Hertz. She explains, “It is not that they believe men provide a critical difference in perspective that women cannot supply.” Instead, Hertz asserts that the single mothers she studied included some men in their children’s lives as a way to “connect their children to male privilege.” In fact, those who include men in their daughters’ lives do so because they want “their daughters to know male privilege when they encounter it and to be prepared to combat it.”
Hertz and Drexler fail to understand how powerfully children hunger for their fathers. For example, famed athlete Bo Jackson devoted the first chapter of his autobiography, “Bo Knows Bo,” not to his many achievements, but instead to the father he didn’t have. Jackson’s angry, unhappy childhood was defined by his father hunger. He explained that when he wanted something, “I could beat on other kids and steal … [but] I couldn’t steal a father. I couldn’t steal a father’s hug when I needed one.” Jackson saw his older brother go to a penal institution, feared he would end up there as well, and longed for the discipline and strong hand a father provides.
In “Whatever Happened to Daddy’s Little Girl?” award-winning journalist Jonetta Rose Barras describes her fatherless childhood as “one long, empty night.” After her parents broke up, she explains:
“I missed him desperately. … he made me feel loved; he made me feel wanted. … Sometimes I sat on a bench or on the curb, like a lost, homeless child. I waited for [dad] to drive through, recognize me and take me with him. On the bus, I searched each man’s features; I did not want mistakenly to pass him.”
Hertz and Drexler also greatly underestimate the immense benefits reaped by the children who do have fathers in their lives. MSNBC anchor Tim Russert wrote the book “Big Russ and Me” about his father in 2004, and says he soon received an “avalanche” of letters from men and women who wanted to tell him about their own dads. Russert’s current best seller, “Wisdom of Our Fathers: Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons,” was drawn from those 60,000 letters. The letter writers remembered their fathers as strong, devoted, honorable – and central to their lives. What particularly struck Russert was the overwhelming outpouring of love from women towards their fathers.
These sentiments wouldn’t surprise Nobel-Prize winning novelist Toni Morrison. When asked how she became a great writer – what books she had read and what methods she had used – she replied:
“That is not why I am a great writer. I am a great writer because when I was a little girl and walked into the room where my father was sitting, his eyes would light up. That is why I am a great writer.”
Men are often stereotyped as fearing commitment, and it is they who are usually blamed for the divorce revolution. However, it is mothers, not fathers, who initiate most divorces involving children. In some cases, these mothers have ample justification. In others, however, they simply don’t want to make the compromises and do the hard work required in any relationship, and can’t or won’t recognize that their children need their fathers. In fact, according to research conducted by Joan Berlin Kelly, author of “Surviving the Break-up,” 50 percent of divorced mothers claim to “see no value in the father’s continued contact with his children after a divorce.”
These attitudes are very destructive. At the core of Hertz’s and Drexler’s work is a “you go girl” belief that mothers can do it alone and always know best. Unfortunately, many women are choosing the lifestyle Hertz and Drexler extol – and it’s our children who are suffering for it.
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Jeffery M. Leving is one of America’s most prominent family law attorneys. He is the author of the book “Fathers’ Rights: Hard-hitting and Fair Advice for Every Father Involved in a Custody Dispute.” His website is www.dadsrights.com.
Glenn Sacks’ columns on men’s and fathers’ issues have appeared in dozens of the largest newspapers in the United States. He invites readers to visit his website at www.GlennSacks.com.