Are Single Mothers the ‘New American Family?’

By Jeffery M. Leving and Glenn Sacks

Call it the backlash against the backlash. Over the past decade, Americans have increasingly understood that fatherlessness is harming our children. Now those who view the traditional family as disadvantageous to women are firing back, defending women who choose single motherhood and depicting fathers as superfluous.

Last fall Stanford University Gender Scholar Peggy Drexler penned the highly-publicized bookRaising Boys Without Men: How Maverick Moms Are Creating the Next Generation of Exceptional Men. This month Oxford Press released Wellesley College Women’s Studies Professor Rosanna Hertz’s Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice: How Women Are Choosing Parenthood Without Marriage and Creating the New American Family.

Certainly one can sympathize with those single mothers whose husbands or lovers abandoned or mistreated them, and who soldiered on in the raising of their children without the father those children should have had. However, Drexler and Hertz go well beyond this, openly advocating single motherhood as a lifestyle choice.

Drexler portrays father-absent homes–particularly "single mother by choice" and lesbian homes–as being the best environments for raising boys. Hertz interviewed 65 single mothers and concluded that "intimacy between husbands and wives [is] obsolete as the critical familial bond." Whereas a family was once defined as two parents and their children, Hertz asserts that today the "core of family life is the mother and her children." Fathers aren’t necessary–"only the availability of both sets of gametes [egg and sperm] is essential." In fact, Hertz explains, "what men offer today is obsolete."

Our children would beg to differ. Studies of children of divorce confirm their powerful desire to retain strong connections to their fathers. For example, an Arizona State University study of college-age children of divorce found that the overwhelming majority believed that after a divorce "living equal amounts of time with each parent is the best arrangement for children."

Objective measures of child well-being belie Hertz’s and Drexler’s rose-colored image of fatherless families. The rates of the four major youth pathologies–teen pregnancy, teen drug abuse, school dropouts and juvenile crime–are tightly correlated with fatherlessness, often more so than with any other socioeconomic factor.

For example, a long-term study of teen pregnancy rates was conducted in the United States and in New Zealand and published in the Society for Research in Child Development’s journal Child Development. The study concluded that a father’s absence greatly increases the risk of teen pregnancy. The researchers found that it mattered little whether the child was rich or poor, black or white, born to a teen mother or an adult mother, or raised by parents with functional or dysfunctional marriages. What mattered was dad.

Part of the problem is that Hertz and Drexler have reached their conclusions through flawed methodology. Both studied families who volunteered to have their lives intimately examined over a multi-year period–a self-selected sample hardly representative of the average fatherless family. Moreover, Hertz’s and Drexler’s research is largely subjective and suffers from confirmatory bias. Both are passionate advocates for single mothers. They personally conducted interviews of single mothers to examine their family lives and–no surprise–found them to their liking.

To Hertz’s credit, she does concede that the "wish among heterosexual women for a dad for their children remains strong." Perhaps the single mothers she interviewed understand the value of male parenting? Or as these women’s children grow the mothers see the positive impact male influence could have in their lives? Not according to Hertz. She explains, "it is not that they believe men provide a critical difference in perspective that women cannot supply." Instead, Hertz asserts that the single mothers she studied included some men in their children’s lives as a way to "connect their children to male privilege." In fact, those who include men in their daughters’ lives do so because they want "their daughters to know male privilege when they encounter it and to be prepared to combat it."

Both Hertz and Drexler assert that there are plenty of replacements for fathers and a married, two-parent family. Hertz says single mothers happily substitute "social nesting" for fathers. She explains:

"The women I studied celebrated motherhood by including their close friends and families in the early milestones of parenthood. They were not mother and child against the world but part of a broader group of people chosen–and willing–to support them."

Drexler holds up a wide collection of males–"grandfathers, godfathers, uncles, family friends, coaches"–who can stand in as fathers for the boys of single mother households. Yet while those serving in social nests or as father figures can certainly be positives for children, they usually have little real stake in a child’s life, and are a poor substitute for a father’s love and devotion to his children.

One of Hertz’s interviewees, Melissa, had kids via a sperm donor. She says that when her kids ask where their father is, she’ll "just tell them the basics, which is ‘your father is in California.’" Another interviewee, Joy, wanted a known donor to be the "father" of her fatherless baby, but was reminded that this could create legal complications. “I could not imagine having a known donor who was not also a dad to my child,” she told Hertz. Her solution? “I decided to use an anonymous donor,” she explains.

Hertz, Drexler and mothers like Melissa and Joy fail to understand how powerfully children hunger for their fathers. For example, famed athlete Bo Jackson devoted the first chapter of his autobiography Bo Knows Bo not to his many achievements, but instead to the father he didn’t have. Jackson’s angry, unhappy childhood was defined by his father hunger. He explained that when he wanted something, "I could beat on other kids and steal…[but] I couldn’t steal a father. I couldn’t steal a father’s hug when I needed one." Jackson saw his older brother go to a penal institution, feared he would end up there as well, and longed for the strong hand a father provides.

In Whatever Happened to Daddy’s Little Girl?, award-winning journalist Jonetta Rose Barras describes her fatherless childhood as "one long, empty night." After her parents broke up, she explains:

"I missed him desperately…he made me feel loved; he made me feel wanted… sometimes I sat on a bench or on the curb, like a lost, homeless child. I waited for [dad] to drive through, recognize me, and take me with him. On the bus, I searched each man’s features; I did not want mistakenly to pass him."

Hertz, Drexler and the mothers they interviewed are equally in the dark as to the immense benefits reaped by the children who do have fathers in their lives. MSNBC anchor Tim Russert wrote the book Big Russ and Me about his father in 2004, and says he soon received an "avalanche" of letters from men and women who wanted to tell him about their own dads. Russert’s current bestseller Wisdom of Our Fathers: Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons was drawn from those 60,000 letters. The letter writers remembered their fathers as strong, devoted, honorable–and central to their lives. What particularly struck Russert was the overwhelming outpouring of love from women towards their fathers.

These sentiments wouldn’t surprise Nobel-Prize winning novelist Toni Morrison. When asked how she became a great writer–what books she had read and what methods she had used–she replied:

"That is not why I am a great writer. I am a great writer because when I was a little girl and walked into the room where my father was sitting, his eyes would light up. That is why I am a great writer. That is why. There isn’t any other reason."

Men are often stereotyped as fearing commitment, and it is they who are usually blamed for the divorce revolution. However, it is mothers, not fathers, who initiate most divorces involving children. In some cases, these mothers have ample justification. In others, however, they hesitate to make the compromises and do the hard work to make the relationship work, and can’t or won’t recognize that their children need their fathers in their lives. In fact, according to research conducted by Joan Berlin Kelly, author of Surviving the Break-up, 50 percent of divorced mothers claim to "see no value in the father’s continued contact with his children after a divorce."

These attitudes can be very destructive. At the core of Hertz’s and Drexler’s work is a “you go girl” belief that mothers can do it alone and always know best. That’s not what’s best for children.