Sunday, June 21, 2009

For the past three Father’s Days, President Obama has criticized father absence and fathers. In his new Parade magazine article, Mr. Obama writes, “We need fathers to step up, to realize that their job does not end at conception; that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one.”

Mr. Obama marked Father’s Day 2008 in a similar fashion, saying fathers have “abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men” - a view he voiced many times during the presidential campaign.

Mr. Obama is correct that involved fathers - even divorced or separated ones with little income - provide their children with substantial benefits. A recent Boston College study of low-income minority families found that when nonresident fathers are involved in their adolescent children’s lives, the incidence of substance abuse, violence, crime and truancy decreases markedly. The study’s lead author, professor Rebekah Levine Coley, says the study found involved nonresident fathers to be “an important protective factor for adolescents.” Yet Mr. Obama makes a serious error by placing all blame for family breakdown on men. It’s doubtful that many dads say to themselves, “My child loves me and needs me, my wife/girlfriend loves me and needs me - I’m outta here.” Research shows they usually don’t.

Professors Kathryn Edin of Harvard and Timothy Nelson of the University of Pennsylvania recently conducted a study of low-income, unmarried fathers and found that most strive to be good parents but often are thwarted by the children’s mothers’ interference and gate-keeping. Ms. Edin says many of the men she and Mr. Nelson surveyed saw being a father as a noble calling, in part because they lived in dangerous, crime-ridden areas. Some men described their children as “saints” or as their “redeemers.”

Ms. Edin and Mr. Nelson found that low-income dads provide what monetary support they can but focus on the nonfinancial aspects of fatherhood. These include educating their daughters about relationships with males and teaching their sons how to defend themselves.

Ms. Edin’s soon-to-be-published subsequent research analyzes data from the large-scale Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study and reaches similar conclusions. She found that when mothers move on to have new partners (and new children with those partners) their actions are “strongly associated with increases in the probability that the biological father will have no contact with his child.” Contrary to anti-father stereotypes, when fathers move on to have subsequent romantic partners and children, they largely retain their desire to be in their original children’s lives. According to Ms. Edin: “The evidence points more strongly to the role of mothers ‘swapping daddies’ than it does to the role of fathers ‘swapping kids.’ ”

Ms. Edin also found that mothers’ and fathers’ subsequent partners often interfere with father involvement. Dad may be kept away because his presence makes mom’s current boyfriend jealous. Dad’s new partner may pressure him to spend his time and resources on her and the child they have together as opposed to his child with his former partner.

Moreover, according to Ms. Edin, a mother’s new partnership “may provide strong motivation [for her] to put the new partner in the ‘daddy’ role.” The biological father is then less likely to be involved because the mother is more likely to exclude him and/or because he may feel he’s now redundant.

In broken families, when a mother does not want her children’s father around anymore, she usually can push him out. Family courts tilt heavily toward mothers in awarding custody and enforce fathers’ visitation rights indifferently. In most states, mothers are able to move their children hundreds or thousands of miles away from the children’s fathers, often permanently destroying the fathers’ bonds with their children.

Moreover, women are increasingly having children with no intention of ever having a father in their kids’ lives. Newly released data from the National Center for Health Statistics show that 40 percent of children born in the United States are born out of wedlock, a 26 percent increase since just five years ago.

Mr. Obama is correct that children need their fathers and that too many fathers do not come through for their children. However, his narrow “heroic single mom/deadbeat dad” viewpoint fails to acknowledge a crucial truth - it often is mothers, not fathers, who create fatherlessness.

Glenn Sacks is executive director of Fathers & Families. His columns have appeared in dozens of the largest newspapers in the United States. Robert Franklin is a member of the organization’s board. The organization’s Web site is

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