Friday, June 14, 2013

Daddy Issues

W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, opens "The Distinct, Positive Impact of a Good Dad," with the following:

I understand where Jennifer Aniston is coming from. Like many of her peers in Hollywood, not to mention scholars and writers opining on fatherhood these days, she has come to the conclusion that dads are dispensable: "Women are realizing it more and more knowing that they don't have to settle with a man just to have that child," she said at a press conference a few years ago.

Her perspective has a lot of intuitive appeal in an era where millions of women have children outside of marriage, serve as breadwinner moms to their families, or are raising children on their own. Dads certainly seem dispensable in today's world.
Mr. Wilcox then sets out to debunk this alleged liberal "theory of the dispensability of dads." And fails, miserably. He lays out four ways in which fathers are different from mothers, pulled from a book that he himself co-authored. And they certainly seem like "guy" things to do with children. But there is no reason why "physical play that is characterized by arousal, excitement, and unpredictability," encouraging risk, "protecting their children from threats in the larger environment" and confronting their children and enforcing discipline are the exclusive domain of fathers in particular or men in general. Nor is there any reason given as to why these specific things are required for children to grow up healthy and well-adjusted, other than a vague suggestion that "fathers, by dint of their size, strength, or aggressive public presence, appear to be more successful" at keeping horny teenaged boys away from their daughters. (I noted the conspicuous absence of any mention of fathers keeping their sons from skirt-chasing in the first place.)

He then goes on to present some charts, compiled by of National Marriage Project (natch), that purport to show that children who have high-quality relationships with their father have lower rates of delinquency, teen pregnancy and depression than those will lower-quality relationships or an absent father at all (although low-quality relationships with fathers are sometimes worse than none at all). But only in the depression ratings are the results statistically significant. But in no case does having a high-quality relationship with a father drive the numbers to zero, nor does any group appear to crack the 50% mark. So the presence of even a good father is not a panacea, nor is the lack of a father an inescapable doom. So while Wilcox' statement that: "great, and even good-enough dads, appear to make a real difference in their children's lives," the fact of the matter remains that he can't point to any factors that are the exclusive province of such men.

And interestingly, when you follow the link from the story back to some details about the study, you find the following (emphasis mine). "These three questions [which were used to establish the quality of the relationship between teens and their fathers] were asked only of respondents who reported a father (or father figure) resident in the home. For this analysis, only respondents who were living with both biological parents were used." Remember Aniston's point - that a woman need not stay with with a particular man simply to have a child. Since nothing prevents a woman from later marrying a different man, the specific assumption that women who are single at the birth of their child will be single mothers forever (and thus the deliberate culling of other men who may fill the father role) seems unwarranted.

Given these factors, the article takes on the appearance of a reactionary screed against growing acceptance of the idea that "First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage" mustn't always be the order of things. But this isn't a new concept. Men have been running out on the women who bore their children since before the concept of marriage was first created. There are many species that mate monogamously and for life. Humans are not among them. The fact that our current society allows for women to chose to be mothers despite this isn't a disaster. Treating it as such is little more than making a show of clutching metaphorical pearls. So let's stop pretending that women who decide that taking a chance on motherhood now, rather than waiting for Mister Right later, are doing something unconscionable. The conservative impulse to preserve the traditional nuclear family is a worthwhile one. But not so much as to realistically curtail other choices. So the impacts, and implications, of those other choices shouldn't be overstated, simply for dramatic effect.

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