Some experts like to debunk the idea of a dad’s importance and talk about the “myth of the perfect family.” Such thinking, however, merely sets up a straw man and is erroneous. There is a voluminous body of research that is clear and unambiguous: The very best family for a child’s positive development and good outcome is a married mom and dad. As Time magazine put it: “Growing up in a home in which different men cycle in and out is not good for a child’s health or well being. Think of these families as having ‘domino dads,’ with each one’s departure putting pressure on the next.”
This is no small problem. The negative consequences for both the mother and the child are so well documented they have almost ceased to register on the public’s radar. The number of young women who are cohabitating instead of getting married is increasing; the number who have children before getting married is increasing; and the number of children who live in blended households as a result of divorce or prior cohabitation is increasing, as my research and writing reveals.
Single moms of children from multiple fathers are far more likely to be “under-employed, to have lower incomes, and to be less educated.” The children in these households live with enormous stress: “Everyday decisions are more complex and family rules are more ambiguous.” Just figuring out logistics, such as “whose turn it is to spend time with the kids and who gets more attention,” and dividing up time, responsibilities, and finances — who lives with whom when, who is responsible for what when, and who pays for food, clothing, and incidentals, as well as who pays child support for what child — is daunting and sometimes impossible. Sadly, and most damaging to the children, is that the conflicts that lead the parents to separate in the first place tend to go on and on, with the kids often caught in the middle.
Cassandra Dorius, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, presented her findings from a recent study at the Population Association of America. She studied data from up to 20 interviews with each of 4,000 women over a 27-year-period. The data for the study came from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. Dorius called the trend an “intergeneratic transmission of disadvantage.” She said, “Juggling all the different needs and demands of fathers in at least two households, four or more pairs of grandparents, and two or more children creates a huge set of chronic stressors that families have to deal with for decades.”
While opposition to the findings was immediate, others believe the situation is not “inherently bad or good” and, in a flight from reality, they argue that any group of people can successfully parent. They contend that the larger problem is whether the dad plays a role in his child’s life, whether married or not. Yet research is clear and unsurprising: When a mother finds a new man or has a child by another man, fathers typically become less involved financially and emotionally, and they are far less likely to be a physical presence in their children’s lives.
Only by facing facts and addressing problems realistically can we hope to see a brighter future and the inherent potential of the next generation realized.