Historically, the principal cause of fatherlessness has been paternal death. For example, about 15 percent of American children born in 1870 would experience the death of their fathers before they turned 15. Only slightly more than half would reach 15 with both parents still alive. At the turn of the century, middle-aged widowed men outnumbered middle-aged divorced men by more than 20 to 1.
But one of the great medical and social achievements of our century has been the steady conquest of parental death. Only about 3 per cent of all American children born in 1950 would lose their fathers through death before they were 15. More than 90 per cent would reach 15 with both parents still alive.
Today, the principal cause of fatherlessness is parental choice. Over the course of this century the declining rate of paternal death has been matched, and rapidly surpassed, by the rising rate of paternal abandonment By 1960, about 9 percent of all children in the United States lived in single-parent homes – not much difference from the 8.5 per cent who lived in single-parent homes in 1900.
Yet in 1900, three of every four single parents were widowed. Only about 5 per cent of all children in one-parent homes in 1900 lived with a parent who was divorced or never married. In 1960, by contrast, the great majority of single-parent homes, almost all headed by women, stemmed not from the death of a parent, but from divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing.
Since 1960, even as paternal death continues to decline, rates of paternal abandonment have skyrocketed. In the 1970s, the number of middle-aged divorced men surpassed the number of middle-aged widowed men. By the 1990s, only about 5 per cent of all female-headed households with children had experienced the death of the father. About 37 per cent had experienced parental divorce.
In 36 per cent of these homes, the parents had never married. In sum, for the first time in US history, millions of living men are now abdicating their fatherhood.
Though paternal death and paternal abandonment are frequently treated as equivalents, these two phenomena could hardly be more different in their impact upon children and upon society. To put it simply, death puts an end to fathers; abandonment puts an end to fatherhood.
Yet among social scientists who study fatherhood, the equivalency argument is quite popular. Many seek to disprove the notion that contemporary father-absence is unique and deviant.
In The Way We Never Were, the historian Stephanie Coontz emphasises the same point. To Coontz, people who worry about fatherlessness today are historically illiterate, afflicted by a mental disability called "nostalgia", defined by Coontz as the tendency to believe in a past that never existed.
Coontz reminds us: "Even though marriages today are more likely to be interrupted by divorce than in former times, they are much less likely to be interrupted by death, so that about the same number of children spend their youth in single-parent households today as at the turn of the century, and far fewer live with neither parent."
Leave aside the facts showing that fewer than 10 per cent of children lived in one-parent homes in 1900, compared with nearly 30 per cent today. Instead, focus on Coontz's larger thesis that parental death and parental abandonment are social equivalents. Before, we had one. Now we have the other. Same net result. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
This thesis, commonly asserted by scholars and widely repeated by journalists and commentators, is a sophism. Like all sophisms, it depends upon a superficial correctness of form to disguise an invalid assertion. The equivalency is only formal. Where it counts, death and abandonment are much closer to opposites.
When a father dies, a child grieves (I have lost someone I love). When a father leaves, a child feels anxiety and self-blame (What did I do wrong? Why doesn't my father love me?). Death is final (He won't come back). Abandonment is indeterminate (What would make him come back?).
When a father dies, his fatherhood lives on, inside the head and heart of his child. In this sense, the child is still fathered. When a father leaves, his fatherhood leaves with him to wither away. The child is unfathered. When a father dies, the mother typically sustains his fatherhood by keeping his memory alive. When a father leaves, the mother typically diminishes his fatherhood by either forgetting him or keeping her resentments alive.
In days gone by, when a father died our society affirmed the importance of fatherhood by comforting and aiding his family. Today, when a father leaves, our society disconfirms the importance of fatherhood by accepting his departure with reasoned impartiality. Historically, we have viewed the death of a father as one of the greatest tragedies possible in the life of a child. Today, we increasingly view the departure of a father as one of those things that we must simply get used to.
For these reasons, death killed men but sustained fatherhood. Abandonment sustains men but kills fatherhood. Death is more personally final, but departure is more culturally lethal. From a societal perspective, the former is an individual tragedy. The latter is a cultural failure.
The rise of volitional fatherlessness constitutes the ultimate diminution of fatherhood in our time. The fact that we discuss death and abandonment as social equivalents speaks volumes about what is happening to our idea of fatherhood. The fact that paternal death caused such pain and social concern, while paternal departure is now accepted with relative equanimity, tells us with great precision what is truly new about contemporary fatherhood.
This article originally appeared here.