It is no secret that in the United States today, single motherhood has become increasingly common. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 12 million single-parent households in 2014 —over 80 percent of which were headed by single mothers. This phenomenon has already sparked widespread discussion centered on the economic hardships of these mothers, who must work full-time jobs and singlehandedly raise children who are more likely to become involved in crime, live in poverty, and struggle to achieve educational success.
Of course, what highly correlates with the prevalence of single motherhood is a seemingly obvious but often-lesser discussed occurrence—the prevalence of absent fathers. According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, 24 million children in the United States live in homes without their biological father. Sadly, the absence of fathers deprives children of an influential teacher and role model and deprives mothers of a parental and economic partner. Though there have been some efforts to reverse this trend, including the commendable Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative launched by President Obama in 2013, talk of the consequences of being raised by a single parent has dominated the search for the social forces that might have led to this predicament in the first place.
The Theory of Fatherhood
According to conservative satirist P. J. O’Rourke, “Each child is biologically required to have a mother. Fatherhood is a well-regarded theory, but motherhood is a fact.” O’Rourke, in establishing motherhood as a fact, attributes to it an indispensable nature and a seemingly higher degree of importance than fatherhood, which is merely a theory. This way of thinking about parental roles is problematic. While we should certainly not underestimate the power and importance of a mother’s dignified and irreplaceable role in her child’s life, neither should we underestimate the tremendous impact of a father—or his absence. Mothers are indispensable in the life of a child as O’Rourke explains, but so are fathers. That is to say, thinking about fatherhood as a “well-regarded theory” is not enough. Fatherhood, like motherhood, should be a fact.
However, based on the prevalence of absent fathers, it seems that fatherhood is not currently regarded as such. In order to reverse this trend, it is important to understand and then address the causes for why many do not view fatherhood as indispensable. Here, I will highlight two current mindsets that have neglected, if not undermined, the role of fathers in family and society and show that altering these mindsets will lessen the trend of absent fathers in the future. Each has arisen from the often well-intentioned ideologies of people across the political spectrum. Though they by no means encompass the entirety of the issue, the current thinking about fatherhood is notable because an understanding of it could help to reinvigorate fatherhood in the future.
The Axiom of Autonomy
Long held as one of the core principles of feminism is the laudable idea that women should not be neither subjugated to nor totally reliant on men. After all, women and men are both of equal worth and are demanding of the same respect and opportunity. Without a doubt, women should be encouraged to pursue their own interests and callings and have the ability to make decisions about their lives, just as men do.
This core principle of autonomy is certainly well intentioned, generally empowering of women, and largely grounded in truth. Despite these factors, the desire for autonomy has been over-extended to the detriment of mothers.
Consider an argument made in the case of abortion. As writer Sarah Ditum puts it, “Abortion rights must be fought for from first principles, and the first principle is this: my body, my choice.” The line of reasoning is that because pregnancy and motherhood are unique to women, only the individual woman involved should have the choice of whether to keep the child when faced with an unwanted pregnancy. Neither government nor the father of the child nor anyone else should have the authority to make a decision so closely connected to the woman. In other words, the woman should ultimately be given autonomy in her choice to abort or go through with the pregnancy.
This line of reasoning is satisfying for many. However, the framing of the issue as centered on the woman’s body in this way has unfortunate implications for mothers in the long run. The choice of becoming a parent becomes only a women’s issue, and fathers need not and should not have a say in the matter at all. The role of the father becomes blurred, and it seems questionable whether he is a necessary part of the parenting equation in the first place. Sure, he is required for there to even be a pregnancy at all, but if women have sole authority, why should he stick around if his voice is unwanted? Eventually, the responsibility over these matters is placed in the hands of women. The result: men are freed from parental responsibility, and women have full autonomy.
Unfortunately, full autonomy in the case of parenting is less than desirable for women and their children. The “my body, my choice” principle may seem attractive at first glance, but should having children be just a women’s issue? Certainly raising children isn’t merely a women’s issue! But men, rather than living up to their responsibilities as half of the parental equation, too often gladly write children off as a “women’s issue” and leave women to pick up the slack. Fathers are largely absent from their children’s lives, leaving single mothers to do the work of two people. Rather than empowering women, this parental autonomy subjugates single mothers to a life of perpetual economic strain and a juggling of being the sole breadwinner and raising a family.
Indeed, when autonomy is extending into the realm of parenting, the absence of fathers subjugates mothers.
The Mantra of Motherhood
Another factor that has not necessarily helped the cause of fatherhood comes not from the feminist angle but from a conservative response to certain feminists who devalue motherhood by looking negatively upon women who choose to put their careers on hold in order to have children. For example, writer Elizabeth Wurtzel argues against the importance of being a mother and asserts, “A job that anyone can have is not a job, it’s a part of life, no matter how important people insist it is.” For many, viewing motherhood as a job of great dignity and long lasting influence goes against the main tenets of feminism. As Wurtzel notes, “Being a mother isn’t a real job—and the men who run the world know it.”
Many conservatives, in an effort to combat this anti-maternal message, stress the need for present and self-giving mothers in children’s lives. Further, they have taken great measures to insist that motherhood is a role of the utmost value in society—and rightfully so. Mothers pour their lives into those of their children and selflessly invest in the future. They are willing to do whatever it takes for the well being of their children. Yes, mothers are invaluable, and we should continue to stress this fact.
But feminists have a point, too. Many ask why there is more emphasis placed on the role of women, rather than men, as parents. In their stalwart defense of motherhood, many conservatives often neglect to stress another fact—the importance of fathers. In the words of feminist writer Catherine Deveny, “After all, I never hear ‘being a father is the most important job in the world.’”
This continuous praising of motherhood leaves little room for emphasis on the importance of fatherhood. In a way, this unintentional neglect puts fatherhood in the backseat and makes it appear secondary and of less need and value.
This conveys to men the idea that the challenge of balancing work and family life is not something that they should be concerned about. As writers Erin Rehel and Emily Baxter note, “Work-family fit has largely been framed as a women’s issue; most often, it is framed as a mother’s issue specifically.” Hence, this emphasis on women achieving a balance between work and the rearing of children results in this challenge being ever-present in the minds of many mothers. But it also results in this challenge being ignored by or deemed less important for fathers. Active parenting is largely considered to be more specific to women, and men in turn feel less responsibility to have an active role in children’s lives.
Facing the Facts
It seems that, in O’Rourke’s terms, we are indeed living in a time in which motherhood is a fact and fatherhood is merely a well-regarded theory. Parenting, however, is not just a women’s issue. Children need both parents to serve as educators, nurturers, and role models in their lives. However, with so many absent fathers, this need is unfortunately not being met.
To reinvigorate the role of fathers in this country, we—liberals, conservatives, feminists, and traditionalists—need to examine the framework through which we view parenting. Neither having nor raising children should be a choice or responsibility placed solely on mothers. After all, parents are not meant to act autonomously in any stage of parenting during a child’s life. Just as we remind women about the importance of work-life balance, so too should we remind men so that they are held to the same standard of responsibility. Clearly, solving the problem of absent fathers is complicated and will not happen overnight, but changing how we think about fatherhood is an important first step. In the words of President Obama, who himself was raised without his father, “The work of raising our children is the most important job in this country, and it’s all of our responsibilities—mothers and fathers.”
And that’s a fact.
Elly Brown is a freshman from LaGrange, Georgia. She is tentatively majoring in the Philosophy Department and can be reached at email@example.com.