When Dads Don’t Stay

When Dads Don't Stayrain0975 / Flickr

When Dads Don’t Stay


Confronting the reality of fatherlessness in America.

The first clear memory I have of my father exemplifies every moment after. The lake lapped softly against the posts of weathered, bone-dry dock upon which I stood. I curled my toes into the splintery wood, blinked back the intense, hot Texas sun and leapt blind, for the first time, into waters well over my head. I didn’t have to see my father to know he’d be there, in the water, to catch me. All my life, my father’s presence has been certain as the sun; I’ve never wondered if he’d be there for me when I needed him.

But one out of three children in the United States—more than 15 million—live without the certainty of their father’s presence. Among industrialized countries, the United States is a world leader of fatherless homes, surpassed only by Belgium, Estonia, and the United Kingdom, with single mothers heading up a quarter of all U.S. households. Since the 1960s, the number of single-parent homes have more than tripled, and the bulk of those households (76%) are fatherless homes. Tragically, this number doesn’t include circumstances in which the father technically lives with the family, but is emotionally or physically absent.

Whether through abandonment, incarceration, death, or workaholism, fatherlessness is a root of many of our contemporary social ills. According to a widely cited report from the U.S. Department of Justice, children from fatherless home are 5 times more likely to commit suicide, 32 times more likely to run away, 20 times more likely to have behavioral disorders, 14 times more likely to commit rape, 9 times more likely to drop out of high school, 10 times more likely to abuse chemical substances, 9 times more likely to end up in a state-operated institution, and 20 times more likely to end up in prison than children from homes with a mother and father present.

Since fathers (though not mothers) have a mediating effect on impulse control and risk-taking behaviors of adolescent girls, fatherless females are 53 percent more likely to marry as teenagers, 711 percent more likely to have children as teenagers, 164 percent more likely to have a pre-marital birth, and 92 percent more likely to get divorced themselves.

How did we go, in a short span of 50 years, from “father knows best” to “who knows where father is”?

In a culture such as ours, in which moral virtue is sacrificed at the altar of self-indulgence, there is certainly something to be said about a pervasive lack of moral fiber. Many men lack the character to commit, to follow through self-sacrificially, because they’ve never been told it’s important or it’s never been modeled to them. Fatherlessness is a component of the alarming breakdown of the family; roughly 40-50 percent of marriages end in divorce, and most divorced fathers (83%) only receive limited visitation of 5.5 days a month.

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