This article originally appeared on PSMag.com on June 12, 2014.
By Michele Weldon
The funerals for fathers are always sad—even the Irish ones. Unfortunately, I’ve been to a handful of them over the last few months. Fathers of friends of my sons, my friend’s father, uncles. Heart attack. Alcohol. Cancer. Dementia.
There are the ones where the fathers leave in their wake small children; angry young adults; distanced grown men and women, pock-marked by lifetimes of disappointment. Even if it is widely known that the man who is being eulogized demonstrated a litany of horrors public and private, tears flow, regrets bloom.
There are others where the fathers built legacies of courage and strength; practical, humorous advice; instructions on how to change a tire or reciprocate dutifully in love. If the father was fit for a statue in the town square, all his sincere acts recorded on mobile phones and awkward camcorders throughout the buoyant stretch of time? Then the sting of fatherlessness rings even more brutal. A good man lost; understandably, the chorus wails.
Yes, most agree, it is tragic to lose a father. I lost mine—a very good man, father of six, a sudden stroke 26 years ago—before any of my three children were born.
But the steadfast cultural narrative maintains that fatherlessness by any means—death, divorce, denial—leads unequivocally to hopelessness. The conviction is no family can survive unscathed without a father present. The plot line determines that losing a father is an insurmountable deprivation leading to incarceration, addiction, violence, delinquence.
The well-intentioned edict from the White House to the pulpits is that responsible fatherhood is the goal for all families. But that mission becomes twisted to pronounce that fatherlessness is a scourge bestowed upon the unlucky, selfish, immoral, cursed, or recklessly unforgiving, and that the presence of a father will circumvent all negative outcomes.
Without a father at the helm, shame belongs to the women and children scrambling in their absence, scream the fathers rights advocates. It is the fault of feminism for driving men away, repelling fathers from conception, pretending they are not needed. Shame on the houses missing a patriarch, a plague on their sons and daughters.
Cursed be the women who opt for life fulfillment including children without present fathers. Consider Nina Davenport, a fortysomething documentarian whose First Comes Love film is out later this summer. The film showcases her decision to have a baby on her own, without a husband. What hubris mandates we condemn her child?
Steeped in guilt and regret, our culture is a mother vs. father mine-littered battlefield. The argument goes that a life without a father is a doomed one. Exceptions are conceded begrudgingly for the children of fallen soldiers, firemen, police. But the concessions, donations, and accommodations stop there.
In reality, millions of children—from infants to adults—manage successful, fatherless lives. This is not the same as saying fathers are not needed, but we must stop insisting that if there is no father, it is a life sentence of inadequacy and failure. Raised by single mothers, lesbian mothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, foster parents, or family friends, children can—and do—manage. In cultures across the globe, in centuries across time, from antiquity when paternal early death was quite common to today when daddies disappear, fatherless sons and daughters can thrive.
Flipping the script to honor both fathers and mothers individually or together would respectfully rewrite the story of parents and what creates a formula for successful childhoods. A less strict and judgmental definition of a functioning family is required, a formula that includes a range of models—and not just a comedic nod to gay parenting as in the pairing of Cam and Mitch on Modern Family.
Parent: A genderless, powerful notion of designated driver for the lives of children entrusted to him or her. Not father over mother. Not father against mother.
A neurological study out earlier this year shows that the brains of fathers who served as the primary caregivers to their children were sensitive to structural changes; the brains of fathers changed in ways similar to mothers as a result of caring for children. A mother is not better prepared to safeguard a child’s well-being than a father. They are both parents.
It is ludicrous to ignore the fact that a tradition of a mother and father is unattainable and undesirable for many: same-sex parents; single parents by choice; those affected by death, illness, distance, immigration barriers, or even the call to duty. That intact is a word assigned to a family presumes a unit without one parent is broken, not whole, torn. Celebrating the kaleidoscope of possibilities to parent would not diminish the powers of either father or mother, but strengthen the efficacy of parents, of a parent.
Yes, a life without a father—or a mother—can be difficult. A litany of factors can contribute to a confluence of perilous outcomes stemming from economics, education, and health if there is no father in the family tree. Still, a motherless life does not assign guilt or invite shame the way a fatherless life does. The expectation is that without a father, like pouring dye in a river, you cannot emerge undamaged, unchanged. We do not damn motherless children the same way; we pity them and offer our sympathy, but do not assume they will fail at every turn.
The problem is that with this singular belief in Fatherless Doom, we mandate that those who have lost fathers—or simply never found them—are permanently damaged. And that is not the wholesale truth. Salvation is not reserved only for those children with fathers and mothers at home.
My three grown children have a father who has nothing to do with them—his choice. And they have grown into good men; now 25, 23, and 20. Separate from their father’s inexplicable choice, I am weary of apologizing to the neighbors and the world that the elective absence of a man who did not internalize his paternal responsibility did not rob them of a future; that their individual successes, college diplomas, and master’s degree are not aberrations.
In the best of all possible worlds, yes, everyone would probably have two parents who loved them.—it’s a simple, time-tested formula—if for no other reason than “just to have the available staff,” says David Perry, an associate professor at Dominican University who writes about issues as a working dad.
Life is better with two people holding each set of fingers, bookends monitoring a life, on vigilant watch, creating a safety net so a child cannot fall through the cracks. Certainly the noble efforts to endorse fathers’ responsibility to their children is worth the effort and can improve lives. But for the 24 million children in this country growing up without a father, releasing them from the expectation of damnation may free them to succeed and to understand there is no pre-destiny for the fatherless. It’s a needed message to send families just in time for Father’s Day.
- Michele Weldon is an assistant professor emerita of journalism at Northwestern University.