As an active and involved dad, a parent advocate, and author of 12 parenting books, I appreciate that every third Sunday in June is reserved to celebrate fatherhood. However, it frustrates me to watch how, in the succeeding 364 days, conversations about fatherhood revert to misrepresenting fatherhood as well as devaluing a dad’s role as a parent.
Ironically, leading the campaign of how dads fall short of their responsibilities are organizations such as the National Fatherhood Initiative and the National Center for Fathering, both of which debuted in the early 1990s.
Three decades later, I question how the NFI and NCF can continue to place so much focus on father absence and claim that fatherhood is in crisis in America. The following statements appear on the organizations’ websites:
“According to the national surveys conducted by NFI, 9 in 10 parents believe there is a father absence crisis in America.”—NFI
“If it were classified as a disease, fatherlessness would be an epidemic worthy of attention as a national emergency …. In short, fatherlessness is associated with almost every societal ill facing our country’s children.”—NCF
From the observations I’ve made as an active dad over the last three decades and author of 10 books about dads, the facts and images that reflect the true nature of fatherhood has been far different from the one described by the NFI and NCF.
I’ve always questioned their claim that a fatherhood crisis exists in America. In 2014 I began an extensive research into the history of father absence, and more importantly, to find the truth about the state of fatherhood. The most interesting discovery was a 2004 article written by Dr. Stephen Baskerville published in the Independent Review titled, “Is There Really a Fatherhood Crisis?”
One of Baskerville’s conclusions struck a chord with me: “On its surface, the government’s fatherhood campaign seems to make good sense. As currently conceived, however, it may be having precisely the opposite effect of that advertised.”
I agree father absence exists but not to the degree the NFI and NCF claim it does.
I feel if an organization proposes to improve the quality of life for fathers and their children, then the focus should be on the greater number of good, responsible, involved role model dads and not the minority of absent dads. Imagine if a car company advertised its newest model by highlighting how this year’s recalls are rising, so they aim to make better cars!
Another example is professional sports. There are many great ball players who developed good habits to be successful at their craft and perform at a higher level but there are also bad players with bad habits who never improve their skills and achieve fame. To help aspiring athletes, the sports world encourages them to model their game after the good players, not the bad players. I don’t know of one major sports organization who advertises mediocrity or promotes a campaign that highlights athletes with bad habits to encourage young athletes to not be like them. Remember the Gatorade “Be Like Mike” commercial that highlighted Michael Jordan?
After I completed my research I created a list of truths about the state of fatherhood. Here is my top five.
Truth #1: There is no clear definition of ‘father absence.’
In 1995, David Blankenhorn fueled a national father absence campaign with his book “Fatherless America.” While his book did an excellent job cataloguing the problems associated with a father’s absence in the raising of a child, the book didn’t provide a clear definition of father absence.
I did find an explanation by Dr. Lynda Boothroyd, lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Durham: “Father absence is a term that is not well defined and much of the literature does not discriminate between father absence due to death, parental relationship discord, or other causes.”
To my knowledge there still is no clear definition of father absence.
How is it possible to collect the correct data about father absence without a clear definition? The answer is because father absence has been more about perception than fact due to research bias.
Other questions also crossed my mind as I delved further into my research about father absence. Without a clear definition of father absence, how can any person or researcher make a judgment call on whether a father is really emotionally absent?
Without the correct data, how is it possible to measure the true scope of father absence?
Who should have the authority to judge whether a dad is emotionally absent?
Truth No. 2: There has been no research on what causes father absence.
Before one can even establish a definition of father absence, the bigger question I feel researchers need to answer is, “What causes father absence?”
Based on the collection of data referenced by those who have led the father absence campaigns, fathers are solely to blame for the fatherless crisis in America, as though abandoning a child is a natural phenomenon among dads, and only his actions contribute to fatherlessness. I believe this is a false and unfair declaration.
There are other possible factors, which could contribute to and/or cause father absence. One example is include maternal gatekeeping, the legal system, especially in divorce, custody cases and paternity status and rights.
According to most state laws, if a mother is not married at the time a child is born and has not been married any time during the preceding 10 months, no father will be named on the birth certificate unless both parents file sworn statements or unless so ordered by a court of competent jurisdiction.
Even if a mother lists the father on the application, it will not make it onto the actual birth certificate without the father’s signature on a legal acknowledgement of paternity form. Ultimately, the decision of whether to include a baby’s father’s name on the birth certificate is a personal decision made solely by the mother, which is a strangely high degree of power with far-reaching implications:
What about the mom who gave birth to a child but didn’t know the father, or if she did know, chose not to identify the father?
What about the father who didn’t know his child was born?
What about the mom who has full knowledge of the man who helped her conceive the baby, yet still refuses to identify him and place his name on the birth certificate?
Another example that has been written about but ignored by our culture is maternal gatekeeping. In 1999 the National Council on Family relations published “Maternal Gatekeeping: Mothers’ Beliefs and Behaviors That Inhibit Greater Father Involvement in Family Work” by Sarah M. Allen and Alan J. Hawkins in Journal of Marriage and Family.
Truth No. 3: The evolution of fatherhood has made great progress since the early 1990s and there is sufficient evidence to show how much father presence has grown in America.
In 1986 Dr. Bruce Linton founded the Father’s Forum, a program for expectant dads. That is eight years before the debut of the NFI and nine years before Blankenhorn’s book. Linton’s success and valuable work spawned other expectant dads groups to prosper. The most notable is Boot Camp for New Dads founded by Greg Bishop in 1990. BCND started with one program in Irvine, California. Today, BCND is offered in 45 states.
In 1994, I co-founded one of the first Dads Clubs in the USA, which also started in Irvine, California. Today, there are thousands of Dad Club Chapters throughout the USA.
The National At-Home Dad Network founded in 1995, a year after the NFI debuted, has the distinct honor of hosting the second longest consecutive fatherhood convention in the USA. This year will mark their 22nd Annual Convention, in September in Portland, Oregon.
New York City Dads Group was founded in 2008 and now operates and manages other groups in 15 major cities in the USA.
The Dad Blogger industry has grown exponentially. There are more than 1,000 men who belong to a Facebook group called “Dad Bloggers,” and there are thousands more throughout the online world.
What today’s modern dads have achieved in the last 20 years has been remarkable.
Truth No. 4: Our fathers before us have been given a bad rap.
Researchers describe dads of previous generations as less than capable of caring for and nurturing a child and also accused them of not spending enough time with their kids. How is it possible for researchers to measure a dad’s level of involvement at a time when they were not alive to evaluate the dads and, more importantly, also accuse fathers of any generation as being absent without a clear definition of father absence?
Dads in previous generations before the so called 1990 fatherhood movement also played the role of primary caregiver, which dates back to as far as 1971. This is documented in the beginning of the 1971 movie “Duel.” During a scene in the beginning of the movie, while the main character Dennis Weaver is driving his car, a radio interview is heard in the background about an at-home dad.
Dads who serve as the primary caregiver have been around for a long time. Sadly, our culture has not fully embraced dads in this role.
Given the aforementioned truths, our fathers before us deserve an apology.
Truth No. 5: The responsible, active dads far outnumber the irresponsible, absent dads.
I believe the good people in this world far outnumber the bad people. Therefore, I feel it would be fair to make the same statement with respect to fathers — that the number of responsible, engaged, purposeful, and involved fathers far outnumber the irresponsible and absent fathers. Yet, as the NFI claims 9 out of 10 parents believe there is a father absence crisis in America.
While the NFI, NCF, and other fatherhood organizations continue to play the father absence card and claim that fatherhood is in crisis, I proclaim that fatherhood is alive and well!
Hogan Hilling is a nationally recognized author of 12 parenting books. He has appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and is the creator of the “Dadly” book series and first coffee table books to feature 230 dads and moms from 14 countries. Hilling is also the founder of United We Parent and Dad Marketing, LLC. Visit the latter to learn more about how you can celebrate fatherhood the other 364 days of the year.