Raising Boys Without Men: Lesbian Parents Good, Dads Bad

By Glenn Sacks

It’s one thing to be respectful of gays and gay parents. It’s quite another to engineer a deceptive study and use it to assert that lesbian families are a better environment in which to raise boys than families that include a father. That’s what former Stanford University gender scholar Peggy F. Drexler, Ph.D. does in her new book Raising Boys Without Men: How Maverick Moms Are Creating the Next Generation of Exceptional Men. Unfortunately, the mainstream media is helping her promote her claims.

In the book’s opening pages Drexler’s message is one of tolerance for various family forms, as she notes that lesbian and single mother families "can" effectively raise boys. Fair enough. But Raising Boys soon devolves into outright preference for lesbian parenting. In Drexler’s world, lesbian families—protected from fathers and their toxic masculinity—are the best environments in which to raise boys. Married heterosexual mothers try their best, but the positive influence these hapless moms try to impart to their children is overwhelmed by that of the malevolent family patriarch.

In Drexler’s book, even when the (few) well-intentioned dads interact with their kids, they somehow get it wrong, and lesbian moms always seem to have a better way of handling their sons’ problems than dads do. According to Drexler, dads are too critical, strict, and demanding, and she applauds as boy after boy blows off his dad. In fact, boys without dads "often profit from not having someone who insists they tough something out."

Drexler asserts that lesbian moms are "more sophisticated about how they teach their sons right from wrong" than heterosexual couples, and there are "real advantages for a boy being raised in this new type of family." Heterosexual mothers don’t measure up in "moral attitude," and are less likely than lesbian moms to "create opportunities for their sons to examine moral and values issues." This in turn slows the "moral development in their sons."

Furthermore, Drexler asserts that boys raised by lesbians "grow up emotionally stronger," "have a wider range of interests and friendships," and "appear more at ease in situations of conflict" than boys from "traditional" (i.e., father-present) households. Fatherless boys "exhibit a high degree of emotional savvy…an intuitive grasp of people and situations."

Drexler’s research has obvious flaws. For one, the families she studied were middle to upper class, older women who volunteered to have their lives intimately scrutinized over a multiyear period—an unrepresentative, self-selected sample.

More importantly, her research suffers from confirmatory bias—Drexler saw what she wanted to see. Drexler is not an objective social scientist, but instead a passionate advocate for lesbian mothers. She calls the "maverick mothers" raising sons without men "avatars of a new social movement," and says her book’s "stories, voices, data, and findings will reassure, hearten, and empower" them. Her research did not measure objective indices of child well-being, such as rates of juvenile crime, drop-outs or teen pregnancy. Instead, Drexler personally conducted interviews of mothers and their sons and made subjective judgments about their family lives. It is not surprising that Drexler found lesbian families to her liking. In fact, her dogged determination to see only good in lesbian couples and problems in heterosexual ones at times reaches absurd proportions.

For example, though Drexler doesn’t seem to notice, her lesbian moms, particularly the "social" (i.e., nonbiological moms), cheerfully endure insults and disrespect that no parent should ever tolerate. Carol’s son calls her "stupid." Bianca’s son calls her "lazy." Martha’s son hops into her bed and effectively tells Martha tough luck, sucker—go sleep somewhere else. Thankfully, in each case progressive lesbian mom dealt with the problem through patience and talking. By contrast, dad would probably have had junior pull weeds in the yard for a few hours as he waves goodbye to his PlayStation. He is (sigh) sadly unenlightened.

I recall at age 13 or 14 insulting my father in front of some of my friends. My dad’s reaction? As soon as we were alone he got very much in my face and informed me that it had better never happen again. It never did. My father never once struck me or ever even threatened to, but through his strength and love I always knew who was in charge. By contrast, Drexler’s moms spend an inordinate amount of time either being insulted by or apologizing to their children—and Drexler applauds.

For Drexler, boys raised by lesbians are a better breed than those raised by heterosexual couples. One day when Drexler was struggling to hold on to her briefcase and her bags, 11 year-old Damien saw "that I needed help and immediately offered it." Drexler is taken aback—a boy being helpful and caring? She notes "when I thought about it later, it clicked in my head: This is a boy being raised by two moms."

Lesbian-raised Cody helps clean up the playroom. Lesbian-raised Brad offers Drexler a stool to sit on when she comes to his room to interview her. Both considerations are the product, we are assured, of their special upbringings. Yet if Drexler had been willing to look, she could have found many kind, helpful, empathetic boys raised by heterosexual couples—like my 12 year-old son, who recently told his grandparents, "I want you to move down the street from us, even though it will mean more chores for me."

Drexler refuses to see obvious indications that the boys she interviews need fathers. When one of Brad’s two moms picks him up from the daycare center after work, every day she has to pry the six year-old off of the leg of an after-school worker named Ron to whom Brad is—pun intended—quite attached. A less determined researcher might see this as evidence of Brad’s need for a dad. Not Drexler, who instead tells us that, given Ron’s presence, Brad’s mom "knew she didn’t need to worry about Brad’s lack of an everyday father in his life."

Julia’s little boy says, "I want a daddy." Darlene’s little boy tells his mom, "We could find a daddy and he could move in with us." Three year-old Ian—fatherless by the decision of his "single mother by choice" mom Leslie—watches TV with mom, continually pointing at male figures on the screen and saying, "there’s my daddy." Leslie explains "no, we don’t have a daddy in our family," but little Ian doesn’t get it and continues to point and ask. A problem? Not according to Drexler, who writes "Will some little boys trail after men they don’t even know, perk up at lower-decibel voices, or hang on to the pant legs of the men who cross their paths? Maybe." But whatever it is, she assures us, it isn’t father hunger.

She enthuses that "sons of lesbians went to great efforts to define the terms of the bonds and relationships in their lives that the boys from straight families seemed to take for granted. All terms in their lives were complex." Is this a good thing?

Drexler does allow that some male figures can be positive for boys. Who? "Grandfathers, godfathers, uncles, family friends, coaches"—in short, anybody but dad. In fact, boys being raised without fathers benefit because they enjoy "more male figures in their lives than boys from traditional families." But more does not mean better, and a group of men with little stake in a boy’s life are a poor substitute for a father’s love and devotion to his children. Nor can they provide the modeling that boys need—the best way for a boy to learn how to become a good husband and father is to watch his dad do it.

Drexler believes that boys in heterosexual families are worse off because they are "stuck with a single male role model"—dad—whereas in lesbian families, boys are free to choose their own. Yet a child does not have the judgment to properly select his own role models, even with a parent’s input. The fact that fatherless boys usually choose older, rebellious, thuggish boys as their role models—and are often led by them to their perdition—eludes Drexler.

Drexler informs us that the best role model for a boy is sometimes a sports figure he’s never even met. Of an interaction with Quentin, one of the lesbian-raised boys she’s studying, she tells us she gave him "a present, a videotape called Yankee Sluggers…a gift I gave to all the boys I had come to know." After Quentin says, "I’m going to know more about Babe Ruth [than my friends] and I’m going to teach them about Babe Ruth," Drexler enthuses "This is a boy finding his own role model."

In other words, a sports figure who’s been dead for over 50 years can provide a good role model and male influence but having a dad wouldn’t help. What would our opinion be of a father who abandoned his young son, leaving in his stead Yankee Sluggers?

In case a family consisting of two lesbian moms and a long-dead, drinking and womanizing sports figure is somehow insufficient, Drexler holds up a variety of other family forms and "nonofficial parenting figures" as solutions, including Hillary Clinton’s village, "communal living," and "seed daddies." She approvingly quotes a columnist who writes "with so many single mothers around, and double mothers becoming less of a novelty, it is the children of traditional couples who are going to be asked ‘who is that man in your house?’"

Drexler’s anti-father bias manifests itself in several other ways. For one, Drexler, like many feminists, has a double standard about divorce. When men divorce women, they’re rats and deserters. When women divorce men, they’re independent and liberated. Raising Boys makes numerous critical references to fathers who’ve divorced their wives: Martha’s husband "left her high and dry"; Beverly’s husband abandoned her "abruptly" when their children were small; and Pam’s marriage ended because of her ex-husband’s alleged "lack of family commitment." In fact, in the entire book, the only father who departed from his family against the mother’s wishes and isn’t vilified for it is a guy who died.

Yet not one of the many divorced mothers and divorced-turned-lesbian mothers in Raising Boys is ever criticized or even chided for breaking up her family by divorcing her children’s father. The vast majority of divorces involving children are initiated by women, and research shows that the primary reason is not abuse or adultery, but instead emotional reasons such as a perceived lack of closeness or of not feeling loved and appreciated. Legitimate concerns, but were they proffered by a man who decided to divorce his wife they would engender little sympathy.

The harm that divorce can cause children—formerly used to having a father and now having only a "visitor" in their lives a few days a month—draws no comment from Drexler. Nor does she once mention the emotional pain such events cause loving dads.

Like most feminists, Drexler believes that heterosexual family life is a raw deal for women. Drexler claims that fathers do almost no parenting, and laments "mothers who expected a partnership" and "wound up carrying most of the load." One married mother admires the lesbian couple raising one of her son’s friends, saying "In some ways I’m jealous of your relationship because you tackle this thing [raising children] 50-50."

Yet according to the Families and Work Institute in New York City, fathers now provide three-fourths of the childcare mothers do, up from one-half 30 years ago. Only 40% of married mothers with children work full-time, and over a quarter do not hold a job outside the home. By contrast, according to the International Labor Organization, the average American father works a 51 hour work week. Given this burden, the fact that fathers still manage to still do 75% as much childcare as mothers do is quite an accomplishment.

According to a 2002 survey conducted by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (ISR), the world’s largest academic survey and research organization, men are doing at least as much overall household work as women. Women do an average of 27 hours of housework a week, compared to 16 hours a week for men. Balanced against this, however, is the study’s less-publicized finding that the average man spends 14 hours a week more on the job than the average woman. Thus, according to the survey, men’s overall contribution to the household is actually slightly higher than women’s. But for Drexler it’s not enough.

Drexler warns us about male influence, writing "fathers can be destructive and a boy may be better off without his father. Sometimes a father can be an aggressor who berates the mother, is hypercritical of his children or—in less dire circumstances—is simply not a good role model." Apparently, moms never berate dads or over-criticize their children, and are always good role models. Yet according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, the vast majority of child abuse, parental murder of children, child neglect, and child endangerment are committed by mothers, not fathers.

It is certainly true that the old, tough dad had his drawbacks, just as all parents—including mothers—do. The best parent is one who mixes affection and discipline, who loves and is lovable but at the same time is respected and, when necessary, feared. But not all parents can do all these things, and while we might have wished that the old dad were more sensitive, he was very important, and his virtues much underappreciated.

According to Drexler, the boys she studied don’t need their dads, but instead benefit because their absence helps create what one might call the "maternal dictatorship." For Ursula, the single mother of two boys, Drexler enthuses that there’s "no discussion about parenting methodologies. No crossed signals…no compromising…the decisions, the choices, the priorities were all hers." Better yet, "Lesbian co-parents ‘achieve a particularly high level of parenting skills…[and] a greater level of agreement than heterosexual couples. A higher degree of consensus cut down on conflict in the home, enabling a clear message of love and support to be heard by the kids."

Drexler has it exactly wrong—conflict over parenting methods and strategies is not a negative but a positive, for two competing and different viewpoints weed out bad ideas and help preserve good ones. This is particularly true in heterosexual couples, where both male and female perspectives are considered in decision-making. By contrast, in single parent homes ideas and parenting strategies are implemented without consultation, and the effect can be harmful. In lesbian homes, parenting strategies are deployed on boys without input from anyone who actually knows what it’s like to be a boy.

Raising Boys is being promoted as a harmless, feel-good affirmation for “maverick moms,” and Drexler encourages women who are thinking of having children without a father to make that “leap of faith.” But the rates of all major youth pathologies, including juvenile crime, teen pregnancy, teen drug abuse, and school dropouts, are tightly correlated with fatherlessness. Drexler waxes poetic about the nebulous benefits of fatherless parenting but makes little attempt to explain why fatherless families produce so many troubled and pathological children.

The boys raised by the well-heeled, educated San Francisco lesbian couples Drexler studied will probably do better than most fatherless boys because their socioeconomic status is higher. But nothing in Drexler’s research indicates that boys don’t need the strength, love and modeling a father gives his son.

Note (11/29/15): Drexler and her book get a tongue-lashing in this piece and in Are Boys Really Better off Without Fathers? (San Francisco Chronicle, 8/31/05) and I can’t say it wasn’t merited. But my mother always taught me "people grow and change" and, to Drexler’s credit, her view of men and fathers, as expressed via her Huffington Post columns, is now far more progressive than what she expressed in this book many years ago.