On the 100th anniversary of the first Father’s Day, we’re confronted with a question that probably never occurred to Sonora Dodd of Spokane, Washington, when she pressed the mayor to create a special day for fathers. If lesbians can raise healthy kids, what is dad good for anyway?
Earlier this month, Nanette Gartrell and Henny Bos reported in the journal Pediatrics that the 17-year-old sons and daughters of lesbian mothers were not only doing fine, they were surpassing peers from those musty, too-familiar, traditional heterosexual families. According to mothers’ reports (we might, uh, question their objectivity, but for purposes of the discussion, let’s give ‘em a pass), the teenage kids outdid kids from straight families in social competence and school work, and had demonstrated less aggressive behavior and fewer social problems.
Sounds so good, my wife, Elizabeth, and I have decided to become a lesbian family! Truth is, we can’t afford the surgery, and even if we could, it would be only cosmetic. I’d still be a male inside, if a feckless one.
There’s clearly a serious point here: This study is no joke for lesbian couples who want to adopt a child and need evidence to show that they can do a good job. But the study does raise a question for people like me–that is, fathers. Does anyone still need us?
When Dodd pressed for the creation of the first Father’s Day in Spokane, she had in mind honoring her heroic father, a widower who raised six children in the early 1900s on the windswept fields around Spokane. The mayor, who had evidently heard enough from Sonora about her father, got her off his back by proclaiming June 19, 1910 Father’s Day. Fortunately for most of us, you don’t have to be a heroic, widowed father of six to qualify for the celebration. Even so, the celebration in Spokane failed to excite the nation the way, say, the St. Louis World’s Fair had a few years earlier when one of its vendors invented the ice cream cone. Father’s Day didn’t become official until 1972, more than 60 years later, when President Richard Nixon, who was not famous for his fathering, signed Father’s Day into law.
Comparing fathers to mothers has always been a downer for fathers, who spend less time taking care of the kids, do less housework, and generally fail on any sort of parenting measure. Fathers generally score well on wrestling around with the kids on the floor (the technical term is “rough-and-tumble play”) and maybe baseball and fishing, although I don’t know of a study to support that. Fathers also are known to regularly punch the umpire, kick dirt, or spit on a player during what you might call over-enthusiastic appreciation of their kids’ Little League games, so maybe we can’t give fathers credit for baseball either.
So maybe, you know, two mothers is a better deal for kids.
I’m all for lesbian families, single mothers, and any kind of family people want to construct–especially when contrasted with the kinds of families that often arise by accident–teenage girls with multiple kids by different fathers, teenage boys with kids they never see, and divorced families, whose kids might turn out all right but are going to take a huge emotional hit.
But I can’t help thinking that fathers are worth something, too. And there is plenty of evidence on that score. In March, Daniel Paquette of the University of Montreal reported that fathers, more so than mothers, encourage infants to explore their environment. That’s not a slap at mothers; it’s part of a case for complementarity. “By stimulating exploration, controlled risk-taking and competition, fathers provide something different to the child who will benefit greatly from this singular contribution.” Even if both parents change diapers and give babies bottles, “they don’t do it the same way,” he said.
In another study reported last year, the children of low- and middle-income fathers who attended a 16-week relationship class were less aggressive and depressed, and more socially adept than the children of fathers who didn’t attend–and that was true whether or not the mothers attended the class. If fathers didn’t matter, then their attention to fathering should have made no difference.
There are other studies, and other discussions, and a thousand points of view in the blogs. But not all the evidence comes from science. When I come home from work and my 7-month-old son, Luke, sees me and starts bouncing around like a ping-pong ball until I pick him up, that’s evidence. When my three-and-a-half year-old son, Henry, takes me by the hand to pull me over to a Lego set-up he’s just constructed, in splendid ignorance of what the instructions say he was supposed to build, that’s evidence.
Fathers have existed since the dawn of humanity, several million years ago, and they wouldn’t still be around if Nature didn’t have a reason for them. Evolution is ruthless; it would have swept fathers away eons ago if they weren’t important.
All of this is a little indirect, I know. I don’t have an ironclad case for why fathers are important. But while we respect other kinds of families and parents, let’s give fathers a break. Not just for Father’s Day, but all the time.
They have their faults. Uh, let me rephrase that: I have my faults. I’m not nearly the father I’d like to be. I make mistakes all the time. I spend many evenings wishing I had–or hadn’t–said something to my kids. Despite all that, I like the job. It suits me. And even if I can’t prove that fathers matter, I have to believe it.