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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXV, No. 1
Eastertide 2010

An Inconvenient Truth about Absent Fathers

by Collen Carroll Campbell

Back in the heady days of the sexual revolution, when the free-love craze was cresting and no-fault divorce laws were beginning their sweep across America, experts counseled troubled married couples to drop their old-fashioned ideas about staying together for the sake of the kids. Children are happier when their parents are happier, the argument went, so spouses who felt unfulfilled should split without guilt. Mom could take the kids, dad could take off, and as long as he made timely child-support payments and frequent visits, the kids would be fine.

Today, forty years after California became the first state to legalize unilateral divorce and inaugurate America’s divorce revolution, we know better. Decades of social science research now tell us that a father’s sustained, committed involvement with his children and presence in the home matter more than we ever imagined. On nearly every measure available — from health and financial stability to rates of graduation, substance abuse and teen pregnancy — children raised by their married mothers and fathers fare better than those raised in other types of families.

Unfortunately, fewer and fewer American children today experience that ideal. Four in ten are born to unmarried parents and more than a third live without their biological fathers, being raised mostly by single mothers and, in many cases, a revolving panel of their mothers’ live-in partners. Half of all children, and 80 percent of African-American children, can expect to spend at least part of their childhood living apart from their fathers.

The result is a father-absence crisis increasingly acknowledged by Americans across the political spectrum. According to “Mama Says”, a new survey from the non-profit, non-partisan National Fatherhood Initiative, 93 percent of mothers believe America suffers from such a crisis. An earlier survey from the same organization found that 91 percent of fathers agree. And solid majorities of both fathers and mothers say that a man performs best as a father if he is married to his child’s mother.

Yet the “Mama Says” survey revealed a curious contradiction amid all that concern about absentee and unmarried dads: A majority of mothers, like a majority of fathers surveyed before them, believe that a mother or another man can be an adequate substitute for an absent or uninvolved father. In the eyes of most moms and dads, it seems, fathers are fungible after all.

What accounts for this disconnect between our concern about fatherlessness and our resigned acceptance of it? The answer may lie in our desperation to believe the happy fiction of the sexual revolution that child welfare and adult desires need never conflict. In a nation where so many families deviate from the married-mother-and-father model and a powerful gay-rights movement seeks to redefine marriage as an institution with no intrinsic connection to the bearing or raising of children, it’s easier to ignore or stay mum on the link between the fatherhood crisis and the marriage crisis that spawned it.

That’s true for political leaders as well as ordinary folks. In 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama gave a laudable Father’s Day speech about the importance of men taking responsibility for the children they beget. But he dodged direct discussion of the reason so many fathers are missing from their children’s lives: the epidemic of out-of-wedlock childbearing that has made married parents the exception rather than the rule in many communities.

For all we have learned in recent decades about how a child benefits from having his biological father in the home for the long haul, many of us still prefer to tell ourselves that any caring adult can fill a father’s shoes, and a live-in, married-to-mom dad is simply a bonus. Such happy talk may comfort adults, but it does little to ease the pain of the millions of children living with a hole in their hearts that only a father can fill.

Colleen Carroll Campbell, a member of the editorial board of Voices, is an author, columnist, television host, and former White House speechwriter. She is the author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Loyola Press, 2002). She is an op-ed columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a frequent commentator on FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, and PBS, a regular contributor to such national publications as The Weekly Standard, National Review Online, and First Things, and host of “Faith & Culture”, a weekly EWTN television show. She lives in St. Louis with her husband and children. Her web site is

This article above first appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 14, 2010.

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