I suspected it would happen; I just didn’t think it would happen so quickly. Shortly after the historic achievement of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, and just before the historic nomination of Sen. Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention, a major newspaper ran a full-page story celebrating the news that single moms succeed in raising accomplished sons.
The article cited Mr. Phelps, Mr. Obama and others, including cycling great Lance Armstrong, to make the case that boys raised by single mothers are doing just fine, thank you. It also quoted a number of supportive experts, including Peggy Drexler, author of a book called “Raising Boys Without Men.”
Interestingly, Mrs. Drexler, who has been married for more than 36 years to the father of her son, asserts quite firmly that although boys do need men, they do not need fathers. Her position is essentially that one should not fret about fatherless boys because they have a way of finding the male involvement they need.
Well, yes and no.
Boys certainly will find male involvement, but since boys will be, well, boys, they often do not make the right choices. Case in point is convicted D.C. sniper Lee Malvo, who selected John Muhammad. And there are countless boys who join gangs to find the male involvement they so desperately crave.
That said, my biggest problem was less with the article than with the “straw man” - or rather, “straw father” - argument that it is “news” that single mothers can and do raise successful boys. As one who was raised by a single mother and has undergraduate and master’s degrees from two Ivy League universities, I am a bit of a poster child on this point. (Thanks, Mom.)
However, “Can single mothers do it?” is not the right question. There are more thoughtful ways of viewing the issue.
First, should single mothers have to raise their children alone? Remember, every child has an “involved” father at conception. I do a lot of speaking about the importance of involved fatherhood. No parent has ever come up to me after a speech to say they hope their daughter will become a single mother.
And that is the problem with the article mentioned above. It discounts the fact that most women, like my mother, are single mothers by chance, not by choice. It also does not make the distinction between the worthy and necessary goal of supporting single mothers - and promoting a culture that celebrates single motherhood.
Second, this issue is not about what kind of a man a boy will become but, also, what kind of a father he will become. It’s difficult to be what you don’t see. Accordingly, as a nation, we have to ask this question - how does a culture that promotes and, too often, celebrates father absence, create an environment in which boys develop a desire to become present and involved fathers?
Third, in addition to the well-documented social and emotional costs of father absence for our nation’s children, it is also expensive. Recently, National Fatherhood Initiative released a report called, “The One Hundred Billion Dollar Man - The Annual Public Costs of Father Absence.” The report measured the federal expenditures on child-support enforcement and 13 means-tested benefits programs that support father-absent homes. The $100 billion cost represents nearly 4 percent of the 2006 federal budget. Indeed, in these difficult financial times, we cannot afford father absence.
Finally, I believe the way we look at smoking is the most appropriate and thoughtful way to look at father absence and the resulting single motherhood. Specifically, it is pretty clear the majority of people who smoke do not immediately get lung cancer. This is why it is so difficult to curb teen smoking. Nonetheless, we spend millions of dollars on campaigns and efforts to reduce smoking. Why? Because we know that those who smoke are at a higher risk for cancer, heart disease or worse. Knowing this, would anyone support celebrating the fact that many smokers beat the odds? I doubt it.
Social science data assert overwhelmingly that boys in father-absent homes are more at risk to be poor, fail in school, use drugs or be involved in the criminal justice system. Therefore, we should encourage responsible fatherhood and discourage a culture of single motherhood for the same reason - the increased risk to our sons. In my view, we do not have a fatherless boy to spare.
Roland C. Warren is president of the National Fatherhood Initiative. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.