Do you recall your mother threatening you with “wait till your father gets home”?
If you’re old enough to remember that line, you were probably born in a time when a woman’s place was in the home, and a man’s place was on the job. Women nurtured and men disciplined. If you were born way back then, you probably also had a father who came home every evening for dinner.
Times have changed. The U.S. Census reported that 24 million children – that’s one out of three – lived apart from their biological father in 2009.We don’t hear moms saying, “Wait till your father gets home” much anymore, partly because she knows that, in many cases, Dad is not coming home.
It’s not news that the effect of absent fathers has been devastating. According to a USA Today (6/29/2010) article, “Research has demonstrated that children raised by single parents don’t do as well as others in school and have more behavior problems. Adolescents who have lived apart from one of their parents at some point in their childhood are twice as likely to drop out of high school, twice as likely to have a child before age 20, and 1.5 times as like to be out of school or work by their late teens or early 20s.” And when you apply the generalizations in that quote to your own experience, you can, in most cases, substitute single mom for single parent.
Now it’s easy to blame men for the absence of strong male figures in the lives of many children. It’s the men, after all, who are the absent fathers, right?
I don’t think that’s fair. Think historically for a minute. It wasn’t all that long ago that Dad was not only home for dinner, but he also worked at home – on the farm with the barn a few steps from the house or at the butcher shop right downstairs from the family apartment. What happened was that the workplace became separated geographically from where people lived, and the term “commuter” came into common usage.
The result of this separation is that men often got marginalized from the intimacies of family life. Dad might still be the disciplinarian, but he often felt like an outsider when he got home from work. “I’m just a meal ticket,” was how many of our fathers felt. And that bifurcation of roles in the family has been institutionalized to a great degree in our legal and welfare systems.
Modern parents often try to share what used to be gender-specific roles. Moms work outside the home and men change diapers and cook meals – that is, until there’s a divorce. Then what usually happens is that mom gets custody of the kids, and dad is responsible for financing two households instead of one. For dad, that means back to living at the margins of the family.
Sure, there are deadbeat dads who don’t take their parenting responsibilities seriously. But many of us fathers who have gone through divorces in which children were involved feel like the “system” is rigged against us. Not only did we lose a spouse, we often got the leftovers when it came to our children. When you’re working two jobs – if you can find them in this economy – it takes a Herculean effort to be a good dad, too. And that’s taking nothing away from the struggles that go with being a single mom.
Dennis Balcom wrote an article for a website called Questia in which he summarizes a great deal of sociological research, noting, “Social and economic institutions do not support fathers who, upon divorce or separation, seek to actively parent. … These disincentives block many fathers from continued involvement with their children after divorce, even those who were involved with their children while married.”
On Father’s Day, some of us will remember the men who helped raise us with affection and gratitude. Some will remember them with ambivalence or even anger. No matter what our individual response will be on June 17, we as a society need to not only acknowledge that we have a problem called absent fathers but stop laying all the blame on men and together figure out ways to move our society in directions that support two-parent families and facilitate fathers being active participants in the raising of their children.
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Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.