My most recent article about the Parkland school shooting and its connection to fatherlessness prompted a tsunami of emails. In one of those emails, a man named Fritz asked what I considered to be the root of fatherlessness. I decided to write a follow-up article to answer that question.
The subject of “The Desperate Cry of America’s Boys” is a difficult one. To point out that boys need their fathers is to shine a spotlight on divorce and single mothers; and that is, admittedly, uncomfortable. But there’s no way to address fatherlessness comfortably.
The fact is, divorce and family breakdown—which, to answer my emailer’s question, is the root of fatherlessness—is catastrophic for children. There’s more than one reason why, but an obvious one is that in the majority of cases, divorce separates children from their fathers.
This is destructive to both boys and girls, but each sex suffers differently. Girls who grow up deprived of their father are more likely to become depressed, more likely to self-harm, and more likely to be promiscuous. But they still have their mothers, with whom they clearly identify. Boys do not have a comparable identification and thus suffer more from father absence. They also tend to act out in a manner that’s harmful to others, which girls typically do not.
The root of fatherlessness rests in two things: our culture’s dismissal of men as valuable human beings who have something unique to offer, and its dismissal of marriage as an institution that’s crucial to the health and well-being of children.
That’s not to say divorced parents can never make it work. Some do, especially those who work peacefully together to share equal custody of their kids and who either live near one another or get their own apartments and let their kids stay in the house while they, not the kids, go back and forth.
But let’s face it: If most divorced couples could work that well together, they wouldn’t be divorced in the first place. Such circumstances are rare.
More often than not, children lose contact with their fathers—for two reasons. One, mothers remain the default custodial parent in the average American divorce and thus retain most of the control. Second, it is usually women who consider themselves the aggrieved party, as evidenced by the fact that wives initiate 70 percent of divorces.
The unfortunate result is that some divorced mothers use any opportunity to undermine their children’s relationship with their father or, if not that, dismiss the significance of a father’s role. In 2016, when Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt were getting divorced, Jolie actually said it never crossed her that mind her son “Mad” would need a father. That may be an extreme example; but it’s not something anyone, Hollywood star or regular person, would have thought—let alone said—twenty years ago.
It’s not that single mothers can’t be great mothers. They can. But they cannot be fathers. Children need their mother and their father to have the best shot in life. As another emailer named Tom, who’s been coaching basketball to young men ages 12-18, wrote, “Although not a guarantee, the two-parent family improves the chances for a young man to become a well-adjusted grown man. In the current progressive society we live in, the messages for these boys without a father at home to filter or to make sense of it puts these kids in an impossible position.”
I can vouch for this as the mother of a 15-year-old son, who would not be the exceptional young man he is if not for his father. The truth is, I take very little credit for who my son has become. He needed me the most when he was little, but once he became aware of his male identity, it was his father—not me—he looked to for guidance and direction. His father was, and remains, his model for manhood.
When boys don’t have this model, they suffer. And when they suffer, society suffers. A majority of school shooters come from fatherless homes; and a study of older male shooters (think Steven Paddock of the Las Vegas massacre) produces similar results. Indeed, the consequences of fatherlessness are simply staggering.
And the saddest part is most absent fathers aren’t absent by choice. The “deadbeat dad” exists, but not in spades. In many instances, women are divorcing perfectly good husbands in their search for what they believe will be a better match—which is a natural outgrowth of no-fault divorce. Certainly, women who are married to abusive or dangerous men must file for divorce. But such husbands and fathers cannot account for the 70 percent female-led divorce rate.
The root of fatherlessness is deep and wide, but it ultimately rests in two things: our culture’s dismissal of men as valuable human beings who have something unique to offer—on the one hand, we tell them to ‘man up,’ and on the other we tell them manhood is the problem—and its dismissal of marriage as an institution that’s crucial to the health and well-being of children. This long-standing belief has been supplanted by the notion that marriage is about the emotional fulfillment of adults.
It is not. Marriage is about the needs of children, pure and simple. That’s how it began, and that’s how it remains. Children’s needs are the same today as they were one hundred years ago. It is we, not they, who have changed.
Thus, it is we who have failed.