Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem

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9780060926830: Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem

A compelling and controversial exploration of absentee fathers and their impact on the nation.

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The Diminishment of American Fatherhood


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 seventy-three-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. Another important point in Sundlun's favor, say his supporters, is that the governor has always been forthcoming about his personal life. "His frankness and candidness with the people of this state deserve a great deal of respect," says Julius Michaelson, a friend and former Rhode Island state attorney general.

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."

Governor 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's 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.6 Not surprisingly, paternity suits are on the rise.

When Governor 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 Governor 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.

Imagine something big, made out of glass, called fatherhood. First imagine it slowly shrinking. Then imagine it suddenly shattering into pieces. Now look around. Try to identify the shards. Over here is marriage. Over there is procreation. Over here, manhood. Over there, parenthood. Here, rights. There, responsibilities. In this direction, what's best for me. In that direction, what's best for my child.

Off to one side, looking nervous, is an emaciated fellow we must now call a biological father, filling out forms and agreeing to mail in child-support payments. Off to the other side is some guy the experts now call a social father, wondering what to do next and whether he wants to do it. In the middle, poking through the rubble and deciding when to leave, are mothers and children. There is much anger and much talk of "rights." People are phoning their lawyers. People are making excuses. People are exclaiming at how complicated things have become.

Indeed, as fatherhood fragments, things do become complicated. Culturally, the story of fatherhood becomes harder to figure out. For, as we witness the collapse of fatherhood as a social role for men, we become confused and divided about the very nature and meaning of fatherhood.

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