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No Doubt About It – Time to Stop Dissing Dads

As I write I am about to leave for Seoul, South Korea for my son’s wedding. By the time you read this I will be back and a milestone in my son’s life and my journey as a father will have been achieved. I’ve been blessed to be able to do many things in my life; many pathways in my professional life and adventures that continue to unfold. But the single most important chapter has been my life as a father and with Fathers Day near it’s a good time to reflect on the absolute necessity of fathers.

In my work as a counselor I repeatedly see how the role of father is essential in the development of every child. Unfortunately, that is a message that has eroded over the past three decades as the cultural icon of American fatherhood has morphed from the likes of Fred McMurray, Robert Young and Andy Griffith to the current stalwart of TV fatherhood, Homer Simpson. This shift has both followed and led a cultural trend that has doubted, dissed and now dismisses the role of fathers in the lives of their children.

Whether it’s a glittering pop star, a 15 year-old kid on some isolated reservation or a young college student in a suburban enclave of earth-toned McMansions, 38.5 percent of children born in 2006 were to single moms, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Nearly 60 percent of births that year among women 20-24 were to single women. Too often the decision to have a child revolves around the woman’s – or girl’s – belief it would be good for her; that having a child will somehow make life complete. Because of the cultural shift, hardly anyone pauses to consider the difficult life path of the fatherless child.

Even – or should we say, especially – the fathers of these children.

That squishy, sucking sound you hear is the sound of me wading deep into a highly charged emotional swamp. I’ve been a single dad and am familiar on a personal heart level with the emotional thunderbolts single parenting generates and the huge challenge of parenting solo, whether male or female. But prickly as the subject, we do ourselves and children no favors by tip-toeing around the subject.

The reality of single parent children is stark. Whatever the measure – be it academic, economic, social, high risk behavior or future emotional well being – the children of absent fathers do worse. With the disparity in earning power between men and women, the economic disadvantage shouldn’t surprise, but what is shocking is even when adjusted for the economic challenges fatherless children clearly do worse.

Soon after graduate school I worked in one of the best adolescent psychiatric hospitals in the country and it was there I got a crash course in the importance of the father. Though we didn’t realize it at the time, we were in the dwindling days of insurance companies willing to pay for meaningful psychological services for youth. Part of our program featured twice-weekly psychodrama groups led by a gifted therapist. In psychodrama patients draw upon the peers in the group as actors to reconstruct dramatic episodes of the life stories that led to treatment. As the junior therapist I was on hand to play supportive roles. Being the only middle aged male in the room I, of course, was drafted to play the role of every abusive, absent, drunken, philandering and crazy father that had smeared the young lives of the kids who had found their way to the hospital.

These sessions remain some of the most powerful therapeutic experiences of my career. The relentless heat of psychodrama is especially efficient at blistering away the smoky layers of goopy family varnish shielding deep familial secrets. After one particularly intense session, the therapist asked how many of the 21 kids in the room lived with both biological parents. Two hands went up. He then asked how many saw their biological father on a regular, predictable basis. Three hands went up. Over two-thirds of the kids had virtually no meaningful contact with their fathers.

We did eight such groups per month – using the issues the kids raised. On average, six of those eight monthly sessions focused on wounds of the absent or unknown father. Whatever the presenting problems leading to hospitalization – gangs, substance abuse, eating disorders, learning disorders, aggression, depression, suicidal behavior – the number one issue underlying the lives of these kids was the missing dad. This has been consistent in my experience of working with teens ever since.

None of this is to dismiss the work of single moms. There are millions of hardworking single moms across this nation struggling heroically to raise children on their own within an economic and political system that falls far short of its moralizing about family values. I have come to greatly respect their dedication, courage and love for their children.

Often divorce truly is the only option and I have seen how staying together “for the kids” can be a toxic gift.

Most single moms who find their way to my office have tried everything they can to get the fathers engaged with the kids. Sadly, a significant minority of other moms actively sabotage the father’s continued involvement with the children.

The ultimate victim of the drama of the fatherless child is, of course, the child. That’s a message both men and women need to get clear about. Separation of parents may at times be unavoidable but viewing the role of father as a disposable option in a child’s life is as wrong as it is destructive.

So dads, know that June 15 is set aside to recognize the most important – and rewarding – work you will ever do.

SIDEBAR:

The Reality for Kids of Single Parenting

While there are exceptions to every rule and no study can account for every individual circumstance, the research and census data makes it clear fatherless children have a steeper, riskier path in life:


Mark L. Taylor MA LPC SAC is a Wisconsin licensed counselor who works extensively with adolescents and their families. He also founded the RoundRiver Institute LLC, a learning center near Genoa, WI. Permission is granted for personal use of this material. If you pass it on to other individuals please include a link back to this page. If you wish to use it in a newsletter or publication please contact Mark at: http://www.round-river2000.com

© Mark L. Taylor and RoundRiver Institute LLC