Census: Dramatic Rise in Number of Single Fathers

Census data show single fathers with kids are one of the fastest growing household types in the U.S.  This article explains that changing attitudes – on the part of fathers, mothers, courts and society generally, are at the root of the change (Atlanta Journal Constitution, 6/18/11).

In a nutshell, mothers are working more and place less emphasis on parenthood today than they did in 1970.  Fathers are moving in the opposite direction – toward embracing the role of parent.

Experts say the numbers reflect not only a shift in court and societal attitudes about child-rearing but women for whom motherhood has become less important.

It shows that perhaps more men are able and willing to be primary caretakers — and more women are recognizing that they don”t want to or can”t, and are therefore letting their children go, said Julia McQuillan, a sociology professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

McQuillan said that society has this notion that work is very important to men and parenting is very important to women, but fatherhood is very important to many men.

“To me, this trend suggests that not only do men say it”s important, they are doing it,’ she said.

The societal changes that began in the late 60s and early 70s always held the potential for dads to be more involved in children’s lives than before.  That it’s taken so long to see a change stands as mute testimony to the intransigence of family courts, state legislatures and anti-father lobbyists that have resisted greater father-child involvement.  That resistance has always come at the expense of children who lose their fathers, fathers who lose their children and mothers who lose the opportunity to have careers.

Matthew Weinshenker, an assistant professor of sociology at Fordham University, said the state trend (in Georgia) mirrors what”s happening nationally, where the number of single dads has almost doubled from 1.5 million to 2.79 million since 1990. In addition, those same census figures, he said, show single dads are older than single moms on average and have higher incomes.

That last is important.  Countless researchers over many decades have bemoaned single motherhood for its propensity to produce children with poorer outcomes in all areas of life than those of two-parent families.  Why should those outcomes be any better with single fathers than with single mothers?

At first glance, there’s no reason to suggest that they would.  But two things suggest to me that the rise in single fathers shouldn’t cause the same alarm that the rise in single mothers did.

First, when the increase in single mothers began, it was at the expense of two-parent families.  More children raised by single mothers meant fewer raised in dual parent households.  That was due to the dramatic increase in the divorce rate and the shocking increase in out of wedlock childbearing.

Now, the divorce rate is either stable or falling slightly.  Moreover, those single fathers are parenting children who would otherwise be in a single-mother home, not a two-parent one.  That is, instead of living with Mom post-divorce, they’re living with Dad.

So the rise in single fathers doesn’t signal an increase in children in single-parent homes.

The second reason is that single fathers tend to earn more than do single mothers.  This Census Bureau report from 2007 shows that 80% of single fathers with children under 18 in the home were employed versus about 70% of single mothers.

More importantly, only 26.3% of those dads earned less than $30,000 per year while a hefty 50.5% of single mothers did.  We know that single parenthood is bad for kids apart from the fact that single parents have less money than dual parents do.  Still, the greater incomes that single fathers bring in can ameliorate many of the problems single parents face, alternative childcare being one of the most obvious.

The AJC article isn’t long and the dads they interview surely aren’t representative of much.  Still, one other thing got my attention about the article.

The rise in single motherhood over the last 40 years came with a rise of another sort – the rise in articles kvetching about how difficult their lives were.  The theme was essentially unvaried: women with children faced the impossible task of raising the kids and meeting the demands of a job.  These mothers were alternately described as epic heroines or galley slaves, sometimes both.

But compare that with what the dads in the AJC piece say about their circumstances.

For his part, Kuklinski said he”s been the primary caregiver of his son since January, when he and his wife started divorce proceedings after a decade of marriage. “It”s been the best six months of my life,’ he said recently.

Ziad Minkara of Kennesaw became sole caretaker of his children three years ago. He admits the family had to make adjustments.

“When something like this happens, your whole world stops, but you shift gears and go forward with the minimum impact on the daily life of the kids,’ Minkara said. “That”s what”s important.’

Minkara, a real estate investor, is the father of 12-year-old twin boys and a 14-year-old daughter.

“Having to juggle everything I do and still be there for them has been hard but rewarding at the same time,’ he said.

No one claims it’s easy, but these guys aren’t complaining.  They think fatherhood is great and even the hard part is just that – a task that needs doing.

And by the way, remember that a recent study by the Families and Work Institute found that men are experiencing much more work-family conflict than women are.

It’d be interesting to track the attitudes expressed by single fathers and single mothers about juggling the demands of work and childcare.

No one pretends that we’re anywhere near gender equality in parenting.  We’re worlds away from that and policy makers seem to be far behind the rest of us in realizing the need for greater involvement of fathers in their children’s lives.

Still, many people seem to be “voting with their feet,” i.e. taking matters into their own hands.  That means we’re moving toward more complete father-child relationships as the census shows.  That in turn may be producing a fait accompli that, at some point in the future, laws and legislatures will be forced to acknowledge and accommodate.

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