The Death of the Father

‘What will happen to God?’ Naomi Goldenburg famously asked herself during the course of a women’s consciousness-raising meeting in Westchester, New York in 1971.

In 1984 William Oddie, almost as famously, asked the same question in a book which raised the wrath of the sisters.

It is an important question – at the very heart of the debate about the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate. But it is, after all, a secondary question. The primary question is: what will happen to fatherhood? And that is a question which, though inviting statistical analysis, remains difficult to answer.

There can be no doubt, however that the indications are alarming. They are well summarized in a new book (Taking Sex Differences Seriously, Steven E. Rhoads, Encounter 2004). It is an American book. The statistics are for the US. But in most European countries, including the UK, things are the same or worse.

In the last fifty years the family has changed dramatically. From 1960 to 1998, the percentage of women ages 35 to 44 who were married dropped from 87 to 72. Declining and less stable marriages have meant more fatherless families. At the same time, evidence has accumulated that two-parent families produce healthier children than alternative arrangements.

The research on the effects of father-absence on children almost universally shows it to be deleterious in a host of important areas. Children raised in single-parent households are, on average, more likely to be poor, to have health problems and psychological disorders, to commit crimes and exhibit other conduct disorders, have somewhat poorer relationships with both family and peers, and as adults eventually get fewer years of education and enjoy less stable marriages and lower occupational statuses than children whose parents got and stayed married. This ‘marriage gap’ in children’s wellbeing remains true even after researchers control for important family characteristics, including parents’ race, income, and socio-economic status.

Daughters growing up in divorced households are fully three times as likely to become unwed mothers, which dramatically increases their chances of being poor. In addition, because children of divorced parents are themselves twice as likely to divorce in adulthood, fatherlessness resulting from divorce will often be perpetuated in the next generation.

Children living in families without the biological father are less healthy than those living with intact biological families, and in the last half-century suicide rates among teens and young adults have tripled, with two-thirds of this increase occurring among people living in homes with divorced parents.

Though father-absence hurts both girls and boys, the latter are particularly at risk. Boys raised in families without a biological father are more likely to exhibit delinquent and criminal behaviour. Boys raised in single-parent families are twice as likely to have committed a crime, and boys raised in stepfamilies are three times as likely to have done so.

The greatest impact of single parenthood is on children’s psychological distress. There is only a modest increase in serious mental health problems, but ‘despite their competent functioning, children from divorced families report a number of painful feelings, unhappy memories, and ongoing distress.’ One study comparing college students from divorced and two-parent families found that 49 percent from the divorced families, compared with 14 percent from the married families, ‘reported that they had a ‘harder childhood than most people’.

What do fathers do that is so important? In part, they do what mothers do: provide food, shelter, comfort, discipline, instruction. But there is more, not merely because there are two parents! Fathers are twice as likely as mothers to help their child build or repair something. They play more sports with their children than mothers do. They find it easier to control unruly boys.

Fathers have special expertise in teaching young children how to deal with novelty and frustration, perhaps because they are more likely than mothers to encourage children to work out problems and address challenges themselves – from putting on their shoes to operating a new toy. Fathers are especially important to children as guides to the outside world. They introduce their children to work, sports and civil society. In general, fathers more than mothers help their children ‘to develop confidence in their ability to explore and excel in the world around them’ and give them ‘the knowledge and the skills they need to make a mark in the world’.

In all this I have omitted the endless citations of the extensive academic research on which these statements are based. (The endnotes and bibliography of this book occupy 120 pages.)

What is clear is that there is building up an impressive dossier of data demonstrating beyond doubt that the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies, fuelled as it was by the ideological concerns of left-wing feminists, was both wrong in its premises (there are basic, hard-wired differences between the sexes which result in quite different – though complementary – contributions to parenthood) and disastrous in its results (wider ‘life-style choices’ for adults result in angst and disadvantage for their children).

It is not, Rhoads points out, that modern parents are less concerned about the well-being of their children. It is that they are ideologically programmed to ignore certain important factors. ‘Whilst the chances that a middle-class child will drop out of high school or become a teen parent are still low, they are far higher than the likelihood that he or she will be killed or injured in a car crash. Yet parents take the latter risk very seriously.’

There can be no doubt that the invisible father is the significant statistic in the achievement levels of children in our inner city schools (St Stephen’s School, Lewisham among them). And yet the public policy of both main political parties is inimical to the family and supportive of ‘alternatives’; the Church of England is widely perceived to have abandoned its stance on the indissolubility of the marriage; and modish feminists are still hard at work expunging every last reference to fatherhood from the liturgy.

The priority in Church and State ought rationally (if only half of what Rhoads asserts proved to be true) to be the attempt to offer reinforced sound role models of fatherhood for boys and girls denied them elsewhere. Christianity is here at a supreme advantage. The gracious or kenotic patriarchy which is the biblical model (‘Philip, he who has seen me as seen the Father’; ‘the pater after whom all patria is named’) is what the world needs. And yet that is, both in word and icon, what the feminized Church is strangling.

When will they ever learn?

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham, and Chair of Governors of St Stephen’s Primary School.