The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Social Progress without Fathers?

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Among self-styled progressives, few worry much about the decay of American family life. However, precisely because she is a committed advocate of social progress, law professor Helen M. Alvaré of George Mason University views adverse family trends as a matter of urgent concern. She even fears that because such trends take fathers out of the home, they may make such progress utterly impossible.

To be sure, Alvaré understands that, at least among fellow progressives, even speaking of “father absence” is likely “to generate fears about resurrecting gender stereotypes that disadvantage women.” Alvaré further concedes that efforts to bolster fatherhood will likely be “rejected by those who conflate ‘marriage’ with ‘patriarchy’ or fear that children and women in non-marital households will be at least stigmatized and disadvantaged by any pro-marriage effort.” Alvaré even anticipates that some progressives will respond to pro-fatherhood initiatives with “suspicion that their proponents will overlook instances of male irresponsibility, or even violence, in a drive to re-involve men in their children’s lives.”

But Alvaré sees enough of the hard realities emerging in fatherless families to get past such anxieties and suspicions. It is time, she believes, for policymakers to acknowledge the clear implications of research showing “why it is theoretically and practically likely that the presence of two parents would offer advantages to children.” It takes no theoretical sophistication to understand why giving children two parents instead of one means “more income and more monitoring and role specialization, leading possibly to more child-centered time.” 

The difference a father can make is patently evident in statistics for household income: according to 2007 statistics, about four in ten of children in households with annual incomes of less than $50,000 lived in mother-only homes, compared to just one in fourteen in households with incomes above that threshold. It is therefore no mystery that “father-absence is far more prevalent in poor and minority communities” than it is in relatively affluent white communities.

But Alvaré realizes that father presence is about more than just doubling the number of parents in the home and thereby increasing the available financial resources. Children who grow up with a male parent as well as a female parent are “able to model behaviors effective for each gender (versus ‘reworking,’ which means seeking to reflect on and to copy what was not experienced) and to ‘view different personalities, strengths, and weaknesses’” (emphasis added). A two-parent home also benefits children by fostering “division of labor [between parents], vigilance against predators, and the ability of multiple caregivers to ‘buffer the extremes of variation in infant care’ to produce well-cared for infants even if an individual mother’s or father’s skills are not excellent.”

Besides enumerating the benefits of father presence, Alvaré identifies sobering perils incident to father absence. These perils include those of “an earlier onset of sexual activity and childbirth in girls and a greater likelihood of police involvement in adolescent sons.” And because the absent father is very often replaced by an unrelated male, only the naïve can ignore research indicating that the “single best predictor of child abuse is the presence of a stepparent in the home.”

For Alvaré, fatherlessness simply does not look like a formula for social progress. Far otherwise. Alvaré laments that in fatherless homes, mothers must “carry unsustainable parenting loads, with obvious consequences for their education, employment, and mental and physical health.” And on the other side of the gender divide, men who never learn to be fathers will likely “fail to develop the gifts and skills that arise from caring for another unconditionally.” In a fatherless society, Alvaré warns, “men often will live, and even lead, without attention to the long term needs of the vulnerable.” When such callous men occupy positions of social and government leadership, they will do so without “the necessary awareness of the needs of parents and children.” Somewhat surprisingly, Alvaré even fears that an epidemic of fatherlessness will mean “fewer women in positions of authority due to the lack of the kind of assistance that only another motivated parent is likely to provide to children.”

“Finally,” Alvaré warns, “there is the possibility that—due to compounding as a result of intergenerational effects—fatherlessness and its associated income disadvantages will come to define and to widen the social gap between the wealthy and the poor, and between majority and minority racial groups.”

In her concern for the well-being of the poor and of minorities, Alvaré is quite typical of progressives. But the agenda she advocates is remarkably unlike those advanced by most other progressives. Alvaré calls for measures that will “support the relationships in which men are most likely to parent actively—stable marriages”; she also endorses measures through which “out-of-wedlock conceptions [could] be discouraged.” Insisting that “laws directed toward stabilizing marriage should also be a part of any scheme to keep fathers involved,” Alvaré breaks ranks with most progressives by arguing that “the law should firmly distinguish between marriage and cohabitation” and by daring to consider “proposals to reinstate the denial of custody or adoption privileges to cohabiting households.” She even ventures to suggest the need for measures “denying assisted reproductive technologies (ART) to unmarried persons.”

Though she recognizes that “the law is an essential aspect of promoting fathering and coparenting,” Alvaré wisely stresses that “‘culture’ undoubtedly also plays a role.” And even though she must know that she is dramatically separating herself from the generally secular-minded progressive world, Alvaré stresses the importance of religion in shaping a culture that reinforces fatherhood. “Religions,” she writes, “are among the most powerful transmitters of fundamental values, which certainly include the roles that fathers and husbands should play.” Alvaré not only cites research indicating that “men who practice a religion tend to be more involved fathers,” but she also explains that research in the context of the papal pronouncements of John Paul II, particularly “his plentiful social teachings on the crucial roles of parents and families, [which] have resoundingly confirmed that ‘fatherhood’ and ‘motherhood’ are primary vocations, closely tied to the entire meaning of life.”

For decades, policymakers have been listening to activists calling themselves progressives. But it is hard to point to much real progress that has come from such listening. Because she understands the importance of an intact family, Alvaré is that rare progressive who can chart a path that actually does lead to progress.

(Helen M. Alvaré, “Father-Absence, Social Equality and Social Progress,” Quinnipiac Law Review 29.1 [2011]: 123-163.)