National Edition

Fatherless America? A third of children now live without their dad

Published: Saturday, May 21 2011 11:00 p.m. MDT

Mike DeBoer and his son Lucius, who is 17 months old, enjoy the sunshine in Ogden. "I'm gonna do everything … to make sure he has the best shot at life," DeBoer said.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

OGDEN — Two stints in prison, rehab and a probation officer failed to inspire Mike DeBoer to give up the drugs. Dirty diapers, peanut butter sandwiches, playing "tickle monster" with a giggly redhead who smiles his daddy's smile — that's what did it.

"My dad wasn't there for me," said DeBoer, 30, a thick, muscular man with a shaved head and five o'clock shadow, pausing to coo at his now-17-month-old son. "There's nothing in the world that's gonna keep me from being there for my little man."

One-third of American children are growing up, as DeBoer did, without their biological father, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In the past 50 years, the percentage of children who live with two married parents has dropped 22 points. During that same time, the number of babies born to unwed mothers jumped from 5 percent to 40 percent.

The growing trend of father absence could have grave implications for society, researchers say, because having dad around has been linked to important developments in a child's physical, emotional and behavioral health. At the same time, though, research indicates it's not enough just to have a male figure in the home.

Several leading sociologists have labeled father absence "the most pressing issue facing America today." Alarmed by growing evidence of the importance of fatherhood, President Barack Obama, who was raised by a single mother, has forcefully pleaded with fathers to step up throughout his presidency.

"In many ways, I came to understand the importance of fatherhood through its absence — both in my life and in the lives of others," Obama wrote in a 2009 Father's Day piece in Parade Magazine. "I came to understand that the hole a man leaves when he abandons his responsibility to his children is one that no government can fill. We can do everything possible to provide good jobs and good schools and safe streets for our kids, but it will never be enough to fully make up the difference."

Where did Daddy go?

DeBoer doesn't remember much about his father. His mom and dad divorced shortly after he was born, and since then, DeBoer's only seen him twice. What he does remember is sitting alone in bed at night, covers pulled up around his chin, wondering, "Why didn't my dad want me? Am I not good enough?"

"I've spent a lot of my life hating him," DeBoer said. "It made me angry that he would abandon me like that."

The increase of father absence in America is born of several intertwining trends, said Allen Hawkins, a professor in BYU's School of Family Life. While the divorce rate has dropped in recent years, it's not an indication that more families are staying together. Rather, Hawkins said, more people are choosing not to get married in the first place.

For many years, marriage and children "were a packaged deal," he said, "and society was pretty good at enforcing that with strong cultural norms." Things started shifting during the sexual revolution of the '60s and '70s. Now, polls indicate, a majority of Americans are opposed to the idea of a "shotgun wedding," or getting married just because a woman is pregnant.

The move away from marriage is a result of a bigger shift in American values that Hawkins calls a loss of "child centeredness." At one time, society expected adults to make decisions based largely on what was best for the children.

"Marriage isn't about kids anymore," he said. "It's about my satisfaction as an adult, my emotional well-being, my personal development."

A large percentage of today's young moms and dads are children of divorce and, therefore, wary of marriage. For many, Hawkins said, the logical solution is cohabitation. In 1960, there were only about 197,000 unmarried couples raising children together, the U.S. Census Bureau reported. In 2009, there were more than 2.5 million.

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