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Jun. 19 2010 - 1:41 pm | 220 views | 0 recommendations | 11 comments

If lesbian families can raise healthy kids, who needs dad?

Richard and Pat Nixon in 1990

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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.


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  1. collapse expand

    Mr. Raeburn,

    The question that you have identified, “Do Fathers Matter?”, is framed within a universe of choices, single, straight, biological mother families, two lesbian, adopted, families, father-step-mother blended families, &c ad infinitum. However the simple fact of the matter is that there these are not choices for the most part, they are accidents of fate. Homosexuals are not going to lead traditional male-female families (at least not for very long) although they are commonly born into them. Heterosexuals are not going to lead same-gender marriages. People of whatever sexual orientation in any type of family get widowed, divorced, and abandoned.

    So it is not like people out there are saying “Hmmm – I think I will go with the Two Child Fatherless Family Package but I am still on the fence about Lesbian Lover Option.” Life and Love just happen in all sorts of unplanned and unexpected ways. In stead of fussing and wringing our hands about it we just need to recognize it and deal with it.

    • collapse expand

      While I agree that people don’t choose their sexual orientation, I guess I respectfully disagree that we don’t make choices. Most of us choose our mates, even if we sometimes make disastrous choices. Most of us decide how many children we want, although we sometimes wind up in circumstances we didn’t anticipate. I hope I didn’t sound like I was fussing and wringing my hands; I tried to make a light-hearted point about the value of dads. Thanks for commenting!

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    If lesbian families can raise healthy kids, who needs dad?

    Dad’s kids, presumably.

    Is there any way this question makes sense? It’s like saying that fish exist, so who needs air?

  3. collapse expand

    I am a man, a father, and a role model for my son. They haven’t made the lesbian that can do what I do. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

  4. collapse expand

    Perhaps the reason this study on lesbian mothers proves to be so good is because of the self selecting nature of lesbian families. Heterosexual child-rearing couples are by far the larger group and they draw from a far greater variety of humanity.

    Heterosexual families often happen “by accident” whereas a lesbian family is somewhat more deliberate. That deliberate choice is inherently a self-selecting group. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the children that were planned and nurtured from the start should perform better than those who were the result of a moment of passion.

    I would posit that if one lines up a planned traditional hetero family against a lesbian couple, I would expect these differences to disappear, if not go in the opposite direction.

    But what would I know? I’m a father.

  5. collapse expand

    i don’t know any lesbian family, but I think it’s not about the gender/sex of the parents but about the time spent with the child. two women will probably act more as “mothers” and take care for the child equally. If fathers spend the same amount of time with their children as mothers do, it might have the same effect. Perhaps it’s not about the fact that a child has a male and a female role model but two different individual models and that the child has to create his/her own identity through negotiating these two perspectives (?) In this way it doesn’t matter if the parents are male/female or female/female. But what’s with children adopted by two men?

  6. collapse expand

    Yes, there has been a lot of talk about whether fathers and men in general are needed anymore. But nobody is going to be asking asking questions like that after the great liberal social experiments have finally caused society to collapse (as it already has in some places). There won’t be any latte-sipping feminist lesbians wondering if men are needed for anything. This is all worthless claptrap by short-sighted fools who are enjoying their moment of apparent triumph before plummeting off a cliff.

  7. collapse expand

    When my husband sees studies that question the roles of fathers, he likes to quote one of the Corleone brothers chastising Michael, the family’s only baccalaureate in The Godfather: “What — did you go to college to get stupid?”

    Also, if you’re feeling like you’re only as good as your next sperm-bank donation, here’s something to cheer you: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704324304575306851423563346.html?mod=WSJ_Opinion_LEFTThirdBucket

  8. collapse expand

    While I’m sure it’s flawed, I haven’t read the details of this study closely enough to know for sure.

    I don’t think that it’s always a good idea for lesbian couples to raise boys, because when the time comes for a decision to be made, nobody will be involved in the decision-making process who knows what it’s like to be a boy.

    And if this study is true, I’m pretty sure that the reason for it has little to do with lesbian parenting techniques, and more to do with the fact that lesbians almost never end up with kids by accident, but instead choose to adopt. Better planning makes for healthier families; that’s just common sense.

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    About Me

    Paul Raeburn is a journalist, author and blogger whose stories have appeared recently in The Huffington Post, The New York Times Magazine, Scientific American, and Psychology Today, among others.

    He is the author, most recently, of Acquainted with the Night, a memoir of raising children with depression and bipolar disorder. His next book is Why Fathers Matter, to be published in 2010 by Simon & Schuster. Raeburn is a former science editor at Business Week and The Associated Press.

    See my profile »
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    Contributor Since: October 2009
    Location:New York City