Study: 27% of Dads Live Apart from their Children

This article from the Associated Press has a happy headline (, 6/16/11).  It reads “Study: Dads Spending Much More Time with Children.”  Nice, no?

Ah, but that headline obscures more than it reveals.  The study, done by the Pew Research Center, comes just in time for Fathers Day, so why not accentuate the positive? 

And the positive is that college-educated men tend to only father children when they’re married, and when they do, they’re more involved in their lives than their fathers were with them.

But of course college-educated men are only a small percentage of the overall population of men.  The far less cheerful news is that 27% of fathers live apart from at least one of their children and of those, 27% hadn’t seen or talked to their kids in the past year.  Forty years ago, there were half as many fathers living apart from children as today.

On the other hand, married fathers who live with their children are devoting more time helping their wives with caregiving at home, a task once seen almost exclusively as a woman’s duty. Such fathers on average now spend about 6.5 hours a week on child care, which includes playing, helping kids with homework or taking them to activities. That’s up from 2.6 hours in the 1960s.

So the title of the Pew research, “A Tale of Two Fathers” is really more accurate than the headline of the AP piece.  Fathers who are married to the mother of their children spend a lot more time than ever before doing childcare.  Those who aren’t do less or none at all.

Those findings of course dovetail precisely with the concept of “parenting as a package deal” that’s well known to sociologists and was introduced to readers of this blog by Kathryn Edin’s work on low-income fathers.  Parenting as a package deal means that the mother and the child are considered a package by both the mother and the father.  So when she moves on to a different place or a different partner, the child goes with her and the dad is left behind.

That’s one of the specific findings of the Edin article I’ve referred to many times before.  In relationships in which the parents are poor and/or poorly educated and unmarried, the father begins as an enthusiastic caregiver, but over time becomes more and more marginalized in the child’s life as the mother moves on to different romantic relationships.

It’s a dramatically different understanding of the dynamic of fatherlessness than the one usually peddled by the news media and policy-making elites.  Among them, it’s de rigueur to place the blame for father absence on the father alone when in fact maternal gatekeeping may have more to do with it than anything.

So this Fathers Day we can count on seeing plenty of exhortations to men to be better, more involved dads.  There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but what we won’t read is the suggestion that mothers have anything to do with father absence.

And what we certainly won’t read is the idea that the legal system has anything to do with separating fathers from children.

Here’s President Obama on the subject:

“Father’s Day reminds us parents that we have no more solemn obligation than to care for our children,” President Barack Obama said Wednesday in calling for fathers to be more involved. “But far too many young people in America grow up without their dads, and our families and communities are challenged as a result.”

I couldn’t agree more, but the none-too-subtle suggestion is that dads should just stop being so gosh-darned irresponsible and shoulder their parental load.  But the simple fact is that mothers themselves, the legal system and popular culture’s depictions of fathers as uninterested in and dangerous to children have far more to do with father absence than does the corrupt nature of men so many people are happy to presume.

After all, the “Two Fathers” the Pew Center talks about are largely married ones and unmarried ones.  Married dads are pretty involved with their kids and their kids benefit from it.  Unmarried dads tend not to be.  Hmm.  Now why would that be?  Is it possible that the legal system fails to keep dads connected to their children post-divorce?  Is it possible that the legal system’s differing treatment of single mothers and single fathers has anything to do with father absence?

It’s not only possible, it’s an objective fact.  By law and by custom, the system of divorce and child custody has for decades placed children in the hands of mothers and denied fathers the ability to play a meaningful role in their kids’ lives.  It’s so clear that you’d be tempted to call fatherlessness public policy.

It does that by failing to enforce even the minimal visitation orders it “awards” dads.  It does it by refusing to give equal custody.  It does it by honoring false allegations of abuse.  It does it by allowing mothers to move away to places too distant for dads to keep contact with their children.  Child support law does it; so does adoption law. 

And yet, with Fathers Day approaching, we hear nothing from policy-makers about taking the obvious, fair steps to keep fathers and children together post-divorce for which countless social scientists and advocates have been calling for decades.  We hear nothing about reasonable family court reform.  The calls are there, but the ears are deaf.

It’s hard not to conclude the obvious – that the policy-makers who are ever-ready to inveigh against fatherlessness are in fact content with a system that produces exactly that.

Perhaps second only to the crumbling of the American middle class, I believe that fatherlessness stands as the gravest single problem confronting this country.  Raising generation after generation of children with only one parent is bad for kids, bad for the dads who can’t care for their children and bad for moms who have to spend too much of their time doing so.

As far back as the 1960s, Daniel Patrick Moynihan raised the alarm and was met with ignorant scorn.  Today, mothers work more and fathers parent more, but how much has really changed about our willingness to effectively confront the problem whose name we know so well – fatherlessness?

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