My young friend and I have been disagreeing about marriage. She thinks marriage is no longer a prerequisite for raising children. If early feminists used to say that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, my Millennial pal believes that a baby needs a daddy like a pacifier needs a fish.
My friend tells me I am old fashioned and judgmental. Maybe — but I am also mindful of the facts.
Depending on which study you read — and there are several — the absence of a father in the home increases by a factor of between three and five the odds that a child will grow up in poverty. Even with a well-educated, working mother, a child with no father at home is at risk for virtually every evil that society can inflict: dropping out of high school, drug addiction, unplanned pregnancy, incarceration — the list goes on.
But aren’t fathers obsolete? Women now comprise over 50 percent of today’s college students. The income gap between men and women is shrinking. Slowly but surely, women are swelling the ranks in male-dominated professions such as law and medicine. In the corporate world, female mentors teach younger women to “lean in.”
Not only are women getting more education and better jobs, but explosions in reproductive technology can reduce men to little more than sperm donors. Women can freeze their eggs until Mr. Right comes along. If he doesn’t show up, they can choose their child’s anonymous father at a sperm bank the way men once chose mail order brides.
With the stigma of unwed motherhood declining and divorce rising, who needs fathers, anyway?
Where is our praise of good dads?
It is far too easy to dismiss today’s fathers, because we all know so many bad ones. The deadbeat dad, the Baby Daddy with three pregnant girlfriends, the workaholic and the alcoholic, the philanderer and the abuser — there are plenty to go around.
But what about the good fathers? If we know so many good mothers, why can’t we give a shout out to good fathers? Unlike mothers, the subtler nature of a father’s contributions is often overlooked until we are grown.
My own father was a stern, unsmiling son of Italian immigrants with exactly zero sense of humor regarding the raising of his only daughter. His two sisters had never married, a fate for which I felt destined as he interrogated the boys who deigned to pass through our home.
There was no honking the horn so I could run out to meet a boy who came to visit. Instead, each suitor had to submit to a relentless interrogation: “Where do you go to school? What are you studying? What do you want to be? What kind of car do you drive? How long have you had your license? Where are you going tonight?” This first round of questioning was followed by “You’ll be home by 11” — an order, not a question — for the lucky few who passed muster.
As my curfew approached, Daddy would pace at the front door, ever vigilant for the slightest hint of teenage romance. The second that poor boy’s car pulled up, the countdown would begin. If I wasn’t in the door within 90 seconds, the porch lights would start to flick on and off.
My father mortified me. But what I realized later in life was the gift he had given me. By making it so difficult to date me, he was showing these boys my value. To my father, I was a pearl beyond price, and if any of those pimply teenagers didn’t see that, they weren’t welcome in his house. I grew up with an intrinsic sense of my own worth — a lasting present from my father.
My husband is also a gifted father. Our strong-willed daughter could have easily threatened a less secure man. Molly was an early walker, an early talker, and early on made clear her strong opinions on almost anything. Whether the topic was waterboarding prisoners at Gitmo or the Phillies’ starting lineup, she had a point of view, loud and clear.
If I had raised Molly as a single mother, we both would have died of exhaustion before she started kindergarten. When two women each want to have the last word, one will always be disappointed. But with her strong yet gentle father as referee and confidante, offering encouragement while setting limits, Molly grew into a remarkable young woman. When she announced that she wanted to be a lawyer, my husband quipped, “That’s perfect: She’s found a career where she’ll get paid to argue.”
In an uncertain world, children deserve the security of a married father and mother. Even the best mother in the world is a bad father.