We were watching episodes of The Voice on DVR the other night when one of the profiled contestants began discussing his childhood by saying “I grew up with divorced parents, like most kids.”
Is it really true that most American children grow up in single parent families today? The old chestnut about newlyweds having a 50/50 chance of their marriage succeeding is supposed to be woefully out of date. I found one article that cites the divorce rate in my home state of California to be 8 out of every thousand residents, with the highest divorce rate in the United States being Alaska’s, with 14 out of every thousand residents having called it quits. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that, nationally, the divorce rate has decreased over the past decade from 4 to 3.6 out of every thousand Americans. These statistics, of course, are subject to interpretation. One of the many problems with them is that they refer to the number of people who are divorced in a particular state or nationally, not the number of marriages that fail annually. However you look at it, though, the anecdotal 50% figure appears to be much higher than reality.
In popular culture, children of divorced parents are painted as pawns in a chess game between battling parents or shuttlecocks swatted back and forth from father’s house to mother’s house. Examples include such movies as Kramer vs. Kramer, Table for Five, Shoot the Moon, Mrs. Doubtfire, and the list goes on and on.
Of course, not all divorcing parents are awarded joint custody of their children and not all fathers stick around. Then there are the millions of children who, while not reflected in the divorce statistics, are raised by their mothers exclusively because their parents were never married to begin with.
On one side, I think of my niece, whose father faded out of the picture when she was three years old and her parents divorced. On the other side, I think of her daughter, my grandniece, whose parents were never married and who is growing up without a father in her life. It’s hard not to think that the former may have helped to produce the latter.
Leslie Grimard, a researcher for The Heritage Foundation, points out that 60% of kids in Richmond, Virginia have no father in the home. Whether their parents were divorced or never married at all, that is a lot of children growing up with only one parent and, in most cases, no regular male influence. Nationally, Grimard reports, about one out of every four children lives with his or her mother only.
While some may view these statistics as a cause for condemnation of a social or moral breakdown, the real problem is that more than half of children of single mothers live in dire poverty. Of the one trillion dollars we spend on welfare programs for low-income families with children, over three-quarters goes to families headed by single mothers.
Despite federal and state efforts to keep these families above water, children growing up without fathers have a high incidence of battling depression, abusing drugs and getting in trouble with the law at an early age, according to Grimard.
Grimard posits that the answer to these social ills is not throwing more money at the problem (which our broke government cannot afford in any event). The answer is fathers.
“When fathers play an active role in the lives of their children, they make a tangible difference,” writes Grimard. “Children whose fathers spent time with them doing day-to-day activities such as homework, eating dinner or playing sports earned better grades on average than peers who had less access to their fathers.”
Many single mothers wish that the fathers of their children would take an active role in their kids’ lives. It is easy to criticize absentee fathers for what appears to be moral bankruptcy, but the fact remains that no one can force fathers to do right by their children. Then there are those mothers who, regretting ever having become involved with the father of their children, believe that everyone is better off if he stays out of their lives. These fathers may have problems with alcohol or drugs or may be physically or emotionally abusive. I once worked with a woman who, wanting nothing to do with her daughter’s absent father, referred to her ex as “my sperm donor.”
But the problems engendered by fatherlessness persist. The cycle of poor school performance, dropping out of school, committing crime, teen pregnancy and poverty seems like a generational curse that never ends. I have to agree that fathers are the most direct way, and possibly the only way, to break this cycle.
It is sad that the single, impoverished mother has become a fixture in American society. In his widely heralded book, The Working Poor, David Shipler pointed out a decade ago that this entire sector of society has become “invisible.” The chambermaid who cleans your hotel room, the cashier at Wal-Mart and the young lady handing you your Big Mac and fries through the McDonald’s drive-through window are all likely to be single mothers (either divorced or never married) silently suffering from grinding poverty. Part of this poverty is the product of one-income minimum wage families. But there is also the poverty of spirit of children of these households who grow up without the influence of a father.
In fatherless families, boys often grow up without significant male role models. As for the girls, the image of a man who is husband and father may be totally foreign to them. Likely as not, their home life experience is shared by many of their schoolmates and neighborhood friends.
The picture is rather depressing, and I can only wonder whether my grandniece will one day perpetuate the cycle by making babies early and struggling along as a single mother. Despite the reduction in divorce rates in recent decades, it is statistically likely that my great-grandniece or great-grandnephew will also grow up without a father.
I was lucky. My parents have been married for nearly 61 years. Not all of those years were happy. As a teenager, I remember my parents having acrimonious shouting matches that lasted half the night, complete with the vilest kind of curses, accusations and threats. My sisters and I were scared to death and horrified. We thought we were witnessing our family being torn asunder before our very eyes.
When I was fifteen, my mother vowed to divorce my father if he failed to concede to her demands. While I am sure that each of my parents had grounds for justification for their positions, I remember wishing that they’d just get divorced already and get it over with. I was sick of the bickering, arguing and foul language. Like the Biblical character Jonah pouting beneath a vine when things didn’t go his way, I was terribly disappointed when my father caved in and stayed. It wasn’t the first time he justified his actions by saying of my mother “if I didn’t love her so much, I’d leave.”
But I think the real reason he stayed, which I couldn’t fully appreciate as a teenager, is because he loved his three children and knew what might happen if he left.