A Michigan high school senior, Kara Hewes, enters a crowded conference room to face cameras and reporters. She is about to make a public appeal to her 73-year-old father. She asks him to admit his paternity.
"I'd just like him to be a father," she says. "I want very much to develop a relationship with him."
Her biological father, identified through a reliable blood test, is Bruce Sundlun, World War II Air Force captain, Harvard Law School graduate, and second-term governor of Rhode Island.
Kara Hewes gets her wish. Shortly after the press conference in June 1993, Sundlun acknowledges his paternity and agrees to pay Kara's college tuition. She withdraws her paternity suit. Father and daughter dine together in the governor's mansion, and he invites her to visit him and his other children at his Newport estate.
The governor's supporters are confident that the publicity will not damage his political career. After all, this is a complicated case. The thrice-divorced governor was single at the time he fathered Kara. He had already paid $30,000 to Kara's mother to settle an earlier suit, and Kara had been adopted by her stepfather, who later vanished.
As for the governor, he is reluctant to dwell on the past: "I think the important thing is not to look back," he later tells reporters in a joint press conference with his daughter. "We're here to look forward and try to create a relationship. You can't wave a magic wand and have a storybook life."
Sundlun's unstorybook story, though a bit more public than most, has become increasingly common. It is a story unfolding in countless courtrooms, lawyers' suites and welfare offices across the nation. Like the governor, more and more men are fathering children outside of marriage. More and more men are failing to support or even acknowledge their children. More and more men are simply vanishing from their children's lives.
Kara Hewes' story is also familiar. A growing number of American children have no relationship with their fathers. Court and school officials report that many children do not even know what to put in the "Father's Name" blank on printed forms. An even larger proportion of children have only the slightest acquaintance with their fathers. In its 1991 survey of children in the United States, the National Commission on Children described the spreading phenomenon of father-child relationships that "are frequently tenuous and all too often nonexistent."
Fathers are vanishing legally as well as physically. About one-third of all childbirths in the nation now occur outside of marriage. In most of these cases, the place for the father's name on the birth certificate is simply left blank. In at least two of every three cases of unwed parenthood, the father is never legally identified. Not surprisingly, paternity suits are on the rise.
When Sundlun says that we "can't wave a magic wand and have a storybook life," he implies that the storybooks may be unrealistic. The governor need not worry: Even storybooks for children now reflect his kind of fatherhood.
"There are different kinds of daddies," one book for preschoolers states, and "sometimes a daddy goes away like yours did. He may not see his children at all." Another children's book is equally candid: "Some kids know both their mom and dad, and some kids don't." One child in this book says: "I never met my dad, but I know that he lives in a big city." Another says: "I'll bet my dad is really big and strong."
So Kara Hewes and Sundlun are, after all, something of a storybook story. It is one we all know. It is becoming our society's story. We see it everywhere around us. We tell it to our children. It is the story of an increasingly fatherless society. The moral of this new narrative is that fathers, at bottom, are unnecessary. The action of the story centers on what can be best understood as the fragmentation of fatherhood.
Parenting experts question whether there is anything truly gendered about fatherhood. Scholars win research grants to investigate whether a father's absence harms children. Social workers debate whether it helps children, especially poor children, to press for fathers' names on birth certificates. Judges try to sort out tangled custody conflicts, often pitting unmarried biological fathers against "father figures" such as the mother's boyfriend or even former boyfriend. Journalists write stories alternately condemning "deadbeat dads" and sympathizing with the plight of teenage fathers.
Fatherhood has lost, in full or in part, each of its four traditional roles: irreplaceable care-giver, moral educator, head of family and family breadwinner. The result is that fatherhood as a social role has been radically diminished in three ways.
First, it has become, in the most literal sense, smaller: There are simply fewer things that remain socially defined as a father's distinctive work. The script has been shortened to only a few pages.
Second, fatherhood has been devalued. Within the home, fathers have been losing authority; within the wider society, fatherhood has been losing esteem. Many influential people in today's public debate argue that, when all is said and done, fathers are simply not very important.
Third, and most important, fatherhood has been diminished as paternity has become decultured – denuded of any authoritative social content or definition. A decultured paternity is a minimalist paternity. It is biology without society. As an extreme example, consider the phenomenon of the sperm bank: fatherhood as anonymous insemination. No definition of fatherhood could be tinier.
A decultured paternity necessarily fractures any coherent social understanding of fatherhood. As fewer children live with their biological fathers, and more live with or near stepfathers, mothers' boyfriends, or other male "role models," biological fatherhood is being separated from social fatherhood.
It is a wise child, the proverb goes, that knows its own father. To the degree that this teaching is true, a decultured paternity brings forth fewer wise children.
Many voices today, including many expert voices, urge us to accept the decline of fatherhood with equanimity. Be realistic, they tell us. Divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing are here to stay. Growing numbers of children will not have fathers. Nothing can be done to reverse the trend itself. The only solution is to remediate some of its consequences. More help for poor children. More sympathy for single mothers. Better divorce. More child support payments. More prisons. More programs aimed at substituting for fathers.
Yet what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature have always guided us in the opposite direction. Passivity in the face of crisis is inconsistent with the American tradition. Managing decline has never been the hallmark of American expertise. In the inevitable and valuable tension between conditions and aspirations – between the social "is" and the moral "ought" – our birthright as Americans has always been our confidence that we can change for the better.
Does every child deserve a father? Our current answer hovers between "no" and "not necessarily." But we need not make permanent the lowering of our standards. We can change our minds. Moreover, we can change our minds without passing new laws, spending more tax dollars, or empaneling more expert commissions. Once we change our philosophy, we may well decide to pass laws, create programs, or commission research. But the first and most important thing to change is not our policies but our ideas.
Our essential goal must be the rediscovery in modem society of the fatherhood idea: for every child, a legally and morally responsible adult male. Others have described this idea as the imperative of paternal investment, achieved through a parental alliance with the mother. A more familiar name for such activity is married fatherhood.
Embracing the fatherhood idea would require a fundamental shift in cultural values and in parental behavior. No other change in U.S. family life could produce such dramatic improvement in child and societal well-being.
To recover the fatherhood idea, we must fashion a new cultural story of fatherhood. The new story will be simultaneously more positive and more negative, more celebratory and more reproachful, than today's anemic account of unimportant men.
The good news, largely ignored in today's script, is that married fatherhood is a man's most important pathway to happiness. Being a loving husband and committed father is the best part of being a man.
The bad news, similarly missing from today's watered-down narrative, is that high rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing, the twin generators of paternity without fatherhood, are incompatible with male happiness and societal success.
At the intellectual center of the new story, defining and sustaining the fatherhood idea, must be two propositions about men. The first is that marriage constitutes an irreplaceable life-support system for effective fatherhood. The second is that being a real man means being a good father.
In a large sense, the new story must help us change from a divorce culture to a marriage culture. In a divorce culture, divorce overshadows marriage as a defining metaphor for the male-female relationship. Divorce comes to be seen as modem, cutting-edge, a representative generational experience. The institution of marriage and marital permanence come to be seen as comparatively old-fashioned, beleaguered, even quaint – a way of life primarily suitable for older or boring people.
We are a society in the midst of a widespread collapse of confidence in marriage as an institution, in the ideal of marital permanence, and in the preeminence and necessity of marriage as a child-rearing environment.
As a result, we are simultaneously institutionalizing divorce and deinstitutionalizing marriage. For divorce, our goals are to regularize it, destigmatize it, and improve its procedures. For marriage, our goals are the opposite. Deregulate and privatize it. Make it more flexible. Reduce its privileged legal status and cultural influence. Describe it in high school textbooks not as an ideal but as one of many options. In a divorce culture, marriage is increasingly viewed as a problem, divorce as a viable solution.
This view of marriage destroys fatherhood for millions of men. By normalizing the rupture of the parental alliance and the departure of men from their children's homes, the norms of a divorce culture decimate the foundations of fatherhood. To recover the fatherhood idea, we must re-create a marriage culture. The alternative is the continuing decline of fatherhood.
A stronger story of fatherhood must also reclaim and revise the connection between fatherhood and masculinity. Tragically, the weakening of fatherhood in our generation has produced a large and dangerous chasm between fatherhood and masculinity. Over here is the manhood test. Over there is fatherhood. Consequently, to "be a man" increasingly has very little to do with being a father.
The idea of "being a man" is increasingly identified with violence, materialism, and predatory sexual behavior. I am a man because I will hurt you if you disrespect me. I am a man because I have sex with lots of women and my girlfriends have my babies. I am a man because I have more money and more things than you do. Norms of fatherhood – I am a man because I cherish my wife and nurture my children – are simply not part of this manhood equation.
The challenge for a new story of fatherhood is to resocialize masculinity by reuniting it with fatherhood, recognizing that these two ideas for men stand best when they stand together. Fatherhood cannot destroy or oppose masculinity. But fatherhood must domesticate masculinity.
In a good society, men prove their manhood by being good fathers.
This article originally appeared here.