The First Man in Every Girl's Life

David Blankenhorn, Headway, 9/1/1996

Who is the first man in every girl's life? The first man she wants to love and be loved by? The answer is: her father. For many reasons, then, lucky is the girl who has a father to love and protect her. Yet tragically, for a steadily growing number of girls in our society, the first men in their lives are shadow men, missing in action, separated from their daughters and estranged from the mothers of their daughters. Tonight, about 40 percent of all girls in our society under the age of 18 will go to sleep in homes in which their fathers do not live.

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Subjects: Family, Fatherhood

More by: David Blankenhorn

Who is the first man in every girl's life? The first man she wants to love and be loved by? The answer is: her father. For many reasons, then, lucky is the girl who has a father to love and protect her. Yet tragically, for a steadily growing number of girls in our society, the first men in their lives are shadow men, missing in action, separated from their daughters and estranged from the mothers of their daughters. Tonight, about 40 percent of all girls in our society under the age of 18 will go to sleep in homes in which their fathers do not live.

This rapid spread of fatherlessness is the most dangerous social trend of our generation. It is the main cause of declining child wellbeing and the engine driving our worst social problems, from crime to child poverty to child sexual abuse to domestic violence against women. The trend of fatherlessness is especially damaging to our daughters.

Consider the growing problem of adolescent childbearing. In 1994, unmarried teen mothers accounted for a remarkable 10 percent of all childbirths in the nation. (Among African Americans, unmarried teenage girls accounted for 22 percent of all babies born that year.) Adolescent childbearing is inextricably linked to the decline of fatherhood-not only because more and more boys and men are willing to impregnate adolescent girls without the slightest intention of becoming an effective father, but also because more and more adolescent girls are growing up without a father in the home.

A father plays a distinctive role in shaping a daughter's sexual style and her understanding of the male-female bond. A father's love and involvement builds a daughter's confidence in her own femininity and contributes to her sense that she is worth loving.

This sense of love-worthiness gives young women a greater sense of autonomy and independence in later relationships with men. Consequently, women who have had good relationships with their lathers are less likely to engage in an anxious quest for male approval or to seek male affection through promiscuous sexual behavior.

Many studies confirm that girls who grow up without fathers are at much greater risk for early sexual activity, adolescent childbearing, divorce, and lack of sexual confidence. These problems do not stem primarily from economic status. Scholars have studied this issue carefully, documenting the effects on girls of fatherless homes while controlling for income-that is, eliminating income as a dependent variable in the studies. They have concluded that father absence, not money absence, is the core issue.

For many girls, the effects of fatherlessness emerge most visibly during adolescence, frequently in the form of precocious sexuality. For example, daughters who seemed to have "gotten over" their parents' divorce may suddenly exhibit problems in forming intimate relationships of their own.

One study of teenage daughters in father-absent families identifies differences between girls who lose their fathers through divorce and girls who lose their fathers through death. Compared to daughters who live with both parents, girls from both widowed and divorced families are less able to interact successfully with men. But while daughters of widows tend toward shyness and inhibition with men, daughters of divorce tend to be overly responsive.

More broadly, because they are deprived of a stable relationship with a nonexploitative adult male who loves them, these girls can remain developmental "stuck," struggling with issues of security and trust that well-fathered girls have already successfully resolved.

These unresolved issues pose serious obstacles to meeting what Erik Erikson famously described as the central challenge of adolescence: establishing a sense of competence and of industry. Precisely because these issues are so intimate and important, paternal disinvestment in daughters cannot really be remedied.

When a girl cannot trust and love the first man in her life, her father, what she is missing cannot be replaced by her mother. Nor can it be replaced by money, friends, teachers, social workers, or well-designed public policies aimed at helping her. She simply loses. Moreover, as more and more girls grow up without fathers, society loses.

That's the bad news. But there is also some good news. In six cities this year, the National Institute for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Revitalization, led by Charles Ballard, is achieving impressive results in helping young men discover the meaning of fatherhood. MAD DADS, headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, and led by Eddie F. Staton, is another important organization of responsible fathers who are reaching out to young people and helping to improve their communities.

I am proud to serve on the board of the National Fatherhood Initiative, founded in 1994 and dedicated to reversing the trend of father absence. Across the country, hundreds of churches and thousands of men are joining the Promise Keepers, a rapidly growing men's movement aimed at spiritual renewal, racial reconciliation, and higher standards of husbandhood and fatherhood.

These and other similar efforts suggest that we may be witnessing the emergence of a fatherhood movement in the United States, a diverse and expanding group of leaders, organizations, and grass-roots initiatives, cutting across ideological, political, and racial lines, all aimed at reconnecting men to their children. The slogan for this movement should be: a father for every child.

The most important challenge of our generation is reversing the trend of fatherlessness-not only for the sake of our sons, but also, and especially, for the sake of our daughters.

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