The fatherless family of the U.S. in the late 20th century is a social invention of the most daring and untested design. It represents a radical departure from virtually all of human history and experience. To understand the novelty of our present condition, let us compare today's fatherlessness to the fatherhood crisis of the 1940s.
During World War II, the U.S. conscripted millions of fathers into military service. Yet even as these fathers put on uniforms and left their children, their society, unlike ours, was in little doubt about what fathers do or about the consequences of father absence. The consensus was unambiguous: To separate millions of fathers from their children, even temporarily, would present a clear and present danger to child and societal well-being.
Indeed, when the war began, fathers were considered too important to be conscripted. By 1943, however, it had became clear that draft quotas could not be filled solely from the ranks of single men and married men without children. Yet the military's proposal to draft fathers produced widespread alarm and protest. Popular opinion remained decisively opposed to drafting fathers. A Gallup Poll during the fall of 1943 found that 68% of Americans believed that, compared to drafting fathers, it was preferable to draft single men employed in industries essential to the war effort. Public opinion also favored drafting single women for noncombat military service in order to avoid drafting fathers.
'Bring Daddy Home'
As the end of the war approached, there was much public pressure to bring the fathers home first. Late in the war, the military polled soldiers to help determine priorities for early discharge. Most servicemen believed that the first criterion should be combat service and the second should be fatherhood. These opinions served as the basis for a weighted point system devised by the I military.
Yet even this pro-father point system did not satisfy the families waiting at home. Across the country, mothers formed clubs to organize lobbying campaigns, presenting members of Congress with baby shoes with tags reading "Bring Daddy Home." Many members of Congress urged a change in the existing policy. As one congressman from New Jersey put it: "a generation of fatherless children would make our country a second-rate power and everything should be done to prevent such a tragedy."
During the mid-1940s, numerous prestigious academic organizations, including the Social Science Research Council, the U.S. Children's Bureau, the National Conference on Family Relations, the American Orthopsychiatric Association, and the American Academy of Political and Social Science, published special reports on how the war was affecting family life. They agreed on the central point: War and its aftermath had unleashed powerful destabilizing influences that seriously threatened child and family well-being. Most important, the war had created one family phenomenon without historical antecedent: a prolonged, mass separation of fathers from their families.
Particularly worrisome to many scholars was the impact of fatherlessness on boys. Boys growing up without fathers might develop a "mother fixation," or fail to achieve a healthy separation from their mothers, leading to either over-dependence on mothers or rebellious anger against them. Single mothers might be unable to discipline unruly boys. More generally, child-raising during wartime might become too permissive and too feminized.
Social scientists in the 1940s also explored the war's impact on paternal competence. A Stanford University study of fathers who returned from the war found they had a hard time establishing good relationships with first-born children. In many ways, military service had diminished these men in their roles as fathers and family men. Indeed, undergirding the entire scholarly discussion was the conviction that, for fathers, family attachments are not only vital to family and child well-being, but also relatively weak and vulnerable to disruption, especially when men live apart from their children for long periods.
During and after the war, rates of family desertion increased. Unwed childbearing also increased. Military service gave more fathers the chance to deny paternity. During and immediately following the war, divorce in the U.S. also increased dramatically.
Only five decades-less than two generations-separate the 1940s crisis of fatherlessness from the one we face today. In some ways, the two crises are quite similar. Both are defined by the mass separation of fathers from children. During the war years, approximately three million to four million families with children experienced fatherlessness, including about 183,000 homefront children whose fathers died in battle. It seems fair to estimate that, during any one of the war years, about 20% to 25% of the nation's families with children experienced fatherlessness. In 1992, by comparison, about 21.5% of the nation's families with children were headed by mothers only. Today, about 40% of all children in the U.S. live apart from their biological fathers.
In crude demographic terms, the two crises might be described as roughly the same size. But one important difference, of course, is that most of the wartime absent fathers returned home. Moreover, the trend of wartime fatherlessness came to a fairly abrupt halt soon after the war ended. Today's trend toward fatherlessness shows no sign of ending.
Yet the real difference between the two crises is cultural. For the wartime father-absence of the 1940s occurred within, and was constrained by, what might be termed a culture of fatherhood. Father-absence in the 1990s is occurring in, and fueled by, a culture of fatherlessness.
Wartime fatherlessness was largely involuntary. Today's fatherlessness is almost wholly volitional. The father-absence of the 1940s can be viewed as a version of male sacrifice: a result of service to family and society. Today's father-absence is about the freedom to do whatever, a lifestyle choice. The earlier father-absence was viewed as an emergency measure, a necessary but temporary evil, to be reversed as soon as the emergency passed. Today, fatherlessness is viewed as normal-regrettable perhaps, but acceptable.
When the father went off to war-and even if he died in combat overseas-much of his fatherhood remained behind, sustained by memory, working in the lives of his children. Today's fatherlessness leaves very little behind. The 1940s child could say: My father had to leave for a while to do something important. The 1990s child must say: My father left me permanently because he wanted to.
A Different Assumption
American society in the 1940s, even as it waged a war, spoke and acted on the basis of an idea, the fatherhood idea: For every child, a legally and morally responsible father. As a result, while many families lost fathers during the war, society did not lose the idea of fatherhood. Today, society is fundamentally divided and ambivalent about the fatherhood idea. Some people do not even remember it. Others are offended by it. Others, including more than a few family scholars, neglect it or disdain it. Many people wish we could act on it, but believe that our society no longer can or will.
Because the fatherhood assumption has largely vanished from contemporary scholarly discourse, family experts today pursue a different set of questions. Are fathers truly important? (Some say yes, some say no, others are not sure.) Is being a good father different from being a good parent? (Here the most common answer is no.) Do never-married fathers have rights? Can we improve the divorce process? Can stepfathers replace fathers? What is the minimum social requirement from fathers? That they sign paternity papers? That they pay child support? Or is there no minimum requirement at all?
When the author Richard Bach left his family in the 1970s, his wife told their five-year-old son: "His Daddy-part died." When we lose the fatherhood idea, the Daddy-part of society shrinks and eventually dies.
This article originally appeared here.