I came across an article recently republished in The Alaska Standard that I almost ignored, thinking at first that it was just another ill-informed essay by yet another reporter without a clue... and then noticed that it was written by a law professor, Helen Alvare. Oh. My. Gosh. This is a law professor. Law school is supposed to cultivate the ability to think, and here is an article, "Fathers: in or out", written by a family law professor that not only misrepresents the research, but contains one illogical assertion or specious bit of nonsense after another, strung together as if it's a balanced, and well-thought-through essay. Horrifying. Here's the deconstruct. Prof. Alvare's text is in blue; liznotes are in black.

Fathers: In or Out?
Posted on 17 March 2009
By Helen Alvare

Occasionally, there is a flurry of media attention to the issue of "responsible fatherhood." Promise Keepers will gather thousands of men at a rally or Bill Cosby will call on Black men to get more involved. But there's much more to the modern "fatherhood" issue than these discrete news items. The federal government has its own fatherhood initiative, which sponsors studies and projects intended to encourage men to be stable, involved fathers. States, cities, and churches too, are participating in these efforts. Sociological and other scientific journals -- including the journals Fatherhood and Sex Roles -- are monthly publishing the results of empirical studies about the role of the father, or about the relationships between fathering and child outcomes. Chances are, too, that the sociology or psychology department at your local university is participating in one or more of these.

Why is fathering such a hot topic at the moment? It is largely because of the amount of lone-parenting being performed by women today. Figures from the 2007 Census update show that approximately 25.8% of 74 million U.S. children under 18 (about 19 million), live in lone-parent households. Of these, approximately 16.65 million live with their mothers alone. While some non-residential fathers remain involved with their children, many do not: a 2007 study reported that less than 30% of non-resident, divorced fathers generally have weekly contact with their children. Never-married, non-residential fathers see their children even less often. Furthermore, father-absence is even more prevalent in poor and minority communities. Again, based upon 2007 figures, approximately 40% of children in households earning less than $50,000 annually, live with their mother alone. This is true of only 7% of children in households earning more than $50,000. Approximately 50% of Black children live in mother-only households, versus 17% of White children.

Divorce accounts for a good deal of female lone-parenting, with approximately one million children each year experiencing their parents' divorce. Women retain custody in a large majority of cases. Furthermore, about 38% of all children are born outside of marriage annually in the United States. Use of the new reproductive technologies also accounts for some lone-parenting as well, given that there are no laws in any U.S. jurisdiction restricting the use of such technologies to married couples. Last, but not least, same-sex partner households also account for one-sexed parenting, either by males or females. They pose some different questions, however, than the typical lone-parent household, given that two adults are present, and that their sexual orientation may have its own effects upon the children of the household.

This is propaganda and fear-mongering, appeal to bigotry. If 38% of all children are born outside of marriage, and some percentage more than that will live all or part of their childhoods in divorced families, we're now well in excess of 80 or 90% of children -- without even including widowed households with minor children. So why does Alvare even bother to mention the "use of new reproductive technologies also accounts for some lone-parenting". (Would that rise to even one percent? Could it possibly be important at all?)

Propaganda pieces often commence with a recitation of noncontroversial statements that include miscellaneous statistics in order to appear to be objective and scholarly. But this article is neither objective, nor scholarly. It's also not law, not journalism, not sociology, and not coherent. So what is it. There's a clue in this little bit snuck in at this point: "There are no laws" to prevent these horrible lone-parent-household-making reproductive technologies. And, for good measure, "same-sex parents" (eeek) also are included. Those aren't even "lone parents". So this article is not about lone parenting. Its purpose is to stir up religious-based prejudice. And it's just shameful.

You might have noticed at this point, that the question of the "necessity of fathering" has not arisen at this time due to data suggesting that children's best interests are compromised when fathers are present. Rather, proposals to legitimize father-absence have arisen because adults are making choices about intimate relationships which happen to result in father-absence. When proposals about parenting arise out of a desire to justify adults' choices -- versus any desire to promote children's welfare -- we should react with suspicion at the very least.

We should "react with suspicion" to any litany of arguments that is so transparently designed to promote the agenda of the Catholic Church that it misrepresents the research and contains numerous illogical assertions. Did something change of late that throughout "the millenia" we just didn't hear these complaints about "adults' choices" when they involved men going to war, men leaving to work in faraway places, women and girls rearing children without men's help, men emigrating to the U.S. long before sending for their families, men crossing the frontier to do trapping, or to go fishing, men routinely being absent for months...

The difference: those were men's choices. And they didn't have that (ugh) homo factor, or involve women getting pregnant out of wedlock without suffering dire consequences. When Ben Franklin or John Adams spent years abroad without their families, that was okay. When Daniel Boone left his wife and ten children in a hovel in the woods to disappear on his adventures, that was okay.

(By the way, there is plenty of data about how children's wellbeing is compromised when abusive, dysfunctional, or merely unsupportive fathers are present in the household.)

The "argument against the necessity of fathers" can take different forms. Some suggest that the issue does not deserve sustained attention for the reason suggested immediately above: conceding the need for stable, active fathering would crimp adults' freedom of choice regarding intimate sexual activities.

Contrary to Alvare's breezy "conceding the need for stable, active fathering", that need has not been established by any research. Alvare's assertion is a flat-out lie. Look around through history, and at cultures throughout the world today. Few societies ever have existed in which men consistently hung out with their children doing hands-on caregiving, i.e. "fathering" (as Alvare defines it; not "siring" as it originally means). But there have been many that have not restricted MEN's freedom to leave, or freedom of choice regarding sexual activities. This restriction traditionally has been laid only on women.

Others suggest that all discussions about the good of fathering lead inevitably to stigmatizing children reared without fathers. Some claim that there simply isn't sufficient empirical evidence that fathering is linked with child welfare. Others hold that while there might be empirical evidence indicating children's need for fathers, neither law nor culture should play a role in boosting involved-fathering, because there's nothing either can do. Society should rather throw up its collective hands and ask the government to step in with generous payments for lone-mother-households to compensate for the economic losses associated with father-absence. There are serious flaws in these lines of argument.

Alvare's assumption that lone mothering requires state-paid welfare is called "knocking a straw man". Incorporating the assumption that there are "generous payments for lone-mother-households to compensate for the economic losses associated with father-absence" is specious given that the overwhelming majority of "lone-mother households" -- especially divorced households -- are not collecting welfare, and that welfare in the United States is hardly "generous". It's also a rather outrageous assumption to make that every human with a working penis necessarily contributes more than he costs to a given household.

By the same token, if free taxpayer support is a problem, I suggest that perhaps we need to do something about that First Amendment violation that is government support of religion in this country, about every church that does not pay taxes (which have to be made up by the rest of us) but gets the benefit of government services such as fire and police protection. This is in fact a form of government welfare. Also constituting welfare are the social security payments that every childless elderly person collects that are far in excess of any pension-like contributions plus interest -- and which every law professor should understand actually are paid for out of the tax revenues generated from grown working children who were reared by someone else at great time, effort, expense and sacrifice.

Why don't we hear propagandists such as Ms. Alvare telling people to have children to support them in their old age so that they don't collect welfare in the way of excess social security and government services? Probably because it's only politically safe and acceptable in this country to bash hardworking young mothers -- not men, certainly not elderly childless wives who collect social security and yet neither they nor their husbands ever paid in anything extra for these benefits. And, of course it's never never acceptable to point to church welfare, which is exactly what the rest of the taxpayers involuntarily are providing in support of religion (whether or not they belong to or even like that religion) every time the police or fire fighters or highway department has to provide services to a lot that's exempt from paying its fair share of taxes because a church sits on it.

First, while the sociology of fatherhood is relatively new (and far less developed than the sociology of motherhood) , there are many studies available.

And here are the studies. And more. And some more.

They tend to show that fathers' contributions to children's welfare are not merely attributable to the money they contribute, or to the usefulness of having a "second adult" help out. (See e.g. William Marsiglio, Paul-Amato, Randal D. Day & Michael E. Lamb, Scholarship on Fatherhood in the 1990s and Beyond 62 J. of Marriage & Family 1173, 1184 (2000); David Eggebeen, Do Fathers Matter Uniquely for Adolescent Well-Being? Institute for American Values Center for Marriage and Families, Res. Brief 14 (Oct. 2008)). They also show that fathers' contributions are not just duplicative of the mothers, though some of their contributions are. Rather, it appears that fathers also contribute "uniquely" to child well-being, directly and via their interactions with the mother, including fathers' support for mothers' parenting and other aspirations.

The studies on fatherhood "tend to show" nothing close to Alvare's claims. She makes what is called the father-essentialist argument, which is designed to circumvent the problem inherent in arguing in favor of "two-parent homes" that can too easily be countered by same-sex households, or multi-generational households, where there are multiple adults helping out. It can be nice to have a second supportive person's assist, of course. Unrecognized in the pollyanna pablum, however, is that it's also can be a nightmare to have a hostile, unhelpful second adult underfoot who is interfering, creating discord, drinking the rent money, or merely otherwise draining resources and making more more hassles than help by his presence.

Second, the movement to declare two-sexed-parenting superfluous is somewhat suspicious. Many of its prominent voices are parties with vested interests in the outcome, in particular homosexual activists, and activists for a notion of sexual freedom which insists that absolutely everything related to sex and childbearing is a private matter for personal choice. We've seen this movie before... It was self-interested parties who drove harmful changes in the laws affecting divorce, abortion, and assisted reproductive technologies. Such groups ordinarily give no deference to millennia of human experience, nor to "clues" offered us by the human body.

Alvare says that "self-interested parties drove harmful changes in the laws affecting divorce, abortion, and assisted reproductive technologies." That begs the question: harmful changes for whom? The Church? She says that "clues are offered us by the human body" that presumably should inform us as to what is "good" for people. So: what kind of clue would, say, an obstetric fistula be offering?

Enough with the religious fanaticism. The millennia of human experience contains experiences such as the great Greek civilization, which advanced the world's knowledge (lots of homo sex there too), the polygamous kings of the Bible, the matriarchal societies of the native Americas and China, the ignorance of the Inquisition, good things, bad things, wars, atrocities, woman subjugation, slavery, and both wisdom and dementia of all kinds. How about the clues offered by the human body that led the Israelites to believe that men planted seed into the womansoil (fertile or barren) in order to grow mensprouts (a philosophy of reproduction attributed to cattle-herder Abraham's getting an idea upon seeing agricultural civilisations.) How about the "clues" that have led various peoples to think that they were superior because of their skin color? To go back to the subject of father-nurturing... what kind of "clue" should we take away from the fact that men can father multiple children with multiple women and be multiple miles away 10 months after a woman first conceives a child? Or that only women have breastmilk and arms designed to cradle? If the body is to offer clues, and human beings were meant to "need" father nurture, why then don't human beings have reproductive systems something like seahorses? Why don't men have pouches so that pregnancy can be shared? Alvare should answer these questions, and do so based on facts -- and real research, not ideas about how life should be lived that were thought up by ignorant primitives thousands of years ago.

But even if they refuse to credit studies tending to show children's need for fathers, there are other types of scientific studies that, de facto, point to the wisdom of working to secure greater father- involvement. These include studies indicating that it is easier and better for children to have two adult caretakers than one.

No studies at all actually indicate that it's easier and better for children to have more than one caregiver. There's a reason for the sayings such as "too many cooks spoil the broth", and "one cannot serve two masters." That is not the same as having enriching involvement and contribution from multiple caregivers, teachers, and relatives -- including parents. There is no magic, however, with regard to who that should be.

Children do not mature for a long time. Human brains are relatively large as compared with other mammals, and require years of intense interaction and education in order to develop properly. Modern parenting is very time-intensive given the stepped up demands of education and the number of activities in which children are regularly engaged. Given all of this, and given the fact that almost no one is as interested in a child as his or her natural parents, how can we escape the conclusion that we need to secure the father's involvement?

If Alvare's position were correct, human beings would have evolved such that children without involved fathers wouldn't have survived. And men would have evolved in favor of those with very low sperm counts. But that did not happen. Instead, human beings evolved as herd animals. Moreover, let's not conflate mothers and fathers into the word "parents" (when it's convenient). That obscures the reality. To argue that all men historically have been greatly interested in personally rearing their children would require us to explain why even wealthy men in centuries past (Rousseau, e.g.) were not unknown to send their excess children off to wetnurses and orphanages and apprenticeships. Moreover, if all fathers were that naturally interested (or, alternatively, helpful), there would be no articles now being written on this subject, and no agonizing over "securing their involvement".

The father is the only adult other than the mother who will have a strong, natural inclination to give a child what is needed.

Alvare's article itself stands as testament to the falsity of her position. There is a vast range of inclinations among men, far more diverse among men than among mothers toward their children. (Initially, she exorted the reader to "take clues from the human body" -- but that apparently was only to bolster homophobia.)

To put it differently: does anybody really believe that strangers, or even extended family members, or friends, or government employees, will really invest in a child in the way a parent will?

Similarly, the claim that no one other than a "parent" (conveniently gender-neutral) will invest in a child is false. Such investment is even touted by the Church in connection with urging young pregnant women to give their babies up for adoption!

Conversely, does anybody really believe that there is something about having shot sperm some months before the birth of a child that ipso facto creates a desire to invest in a child? Consider the many societies in which fathers have had no place in the family unit, such as the Iroquois. Consider the close attachment that maternal grandmothers tend to have to children. Revisit the discussion of essentialism with regard to Wade Horn and the Silverstein/Auerbach controversy. It's a bogus idea.

Of course, human beings can talk themselves into anything, even emotions over fiction. We cry at movies, feel joy at happy endings of stories. Head trips. But with regard to reality -- no, there is nothing about having viable sperm per se that creates a desire to nurture a child. Where some men believe they have this, and it's not on account of a joint venture in a loving home with the woman who is bearing the child, it's caused by social training, and religious teachings that lead some people to think of their biological offspring as possessions, creations from pieces of themselves. People who think this way could not do so unless they had a complete lack of appreciation for what DNA actually is (we each share 95% of ours with every chimpanzee on earth) and feelings brought up from being brainwashed by fiction.

Articles claim that there exist "networks" of parent- like figures for children -- including day care providers, extended family, or male or female role models brought into one-sexed parenting households. (See, e.g. Melissa Murray, The Networked Family: Reframing the Legal Understanding of Caregiving and Caregivers, 98 Va. L. Rev. 385 (2008)). But such pieces give no "data" regarding how often this happens, nor about the depth of "parent-like" attachment expressed by any of these individuals (although there are some studies indicating frequent extended -family involvement in various minority communities.) Again, given what children need, and given men's more likely psychological, emotional and even evolutionary-biological attachment to their offspring -- isn't it the case that if we're encouraging second-adult involvement with a child, we're talking "father"?

The essentialist argument only makes sense if there first is proved that without more, biological fathers -- merely because of having had sex with a woman nine or ten months earlier -- are more likely to be attached psychologically, emotionally, and "even evolutionarily-biologically" (huh?) to their offspring. Not only has that not been established, but it's a ridiculous idea. Medical students donated sperm for decades before these political arguments became trendy, and did so without agonizing over their unknown offspring somewhere. Men have no reproductive telepathy that connects them with the products of their sperm when they are not actually present and in a family relationship. These ideas are about getting people worked up over abstractions that serve ulterior interests (such as those of the Catholic Church which established many of its reproductive rules in order to increase its power and land holdings in the Middle Ages).

Two final points: first, what about what men need? Lest they fail in what Erik Erikson called the crucial seventh stage of development -- generativity versus stagnation -- men have a need too, to care for the well-being of the next generation.

Finally, Alvare's article comes down to being all about what men need. Perhaps it's more important to first make sure that women and children have what they need. Moreover, if what a particular woman needs in order to raise her children well happens to not be hostile interference with and control over her life, which is, unfortunately, what some men are offering (many if not most who are not the married, supportive huggy-daddies who are present because they happen to love and support the mothers of their children), then what women need really ought to be respected first -- assuming it's not merely pretext that those who exalt fatherhood do so out of a sincere concern, however misguided, for children's wellbeing.

Practically speaking, this means children. Neurobiological evidence seems to confirm this. Animal studies indicate that mammals who parent alter their brain development for the better (better memory, possibly less rapid age-related decline, etc.)

"Mammals who parent"? Aside from a species or two of voles and certain monkeys, perhaps Alvare meant birds, not mammals. If we are going to look to the mammalian world to consider parenting, we're not going to find much to support arguments in favor of "parenting" by males. More common in the mammalian species are herd mammals that include dangerous alpha-male sires from whom females must carefully guard the offspring. (We're also going to find a lot of homosexual activity in and among some of them, e.g. bonobos.) As for the mammal studies on oxytocin, well chicken-egg, and we're not voles.

Second, what about what society needs in the way of "father conscious" men? By this I mean that if men do not get involved with their children, and if (as it turns out) their children too are more likely to become uninvolved fathers, then more and more social institutions will be populated or even led by men with no father-consciousness.

Perhaps with more single mother homes, society's institutions will be populated by men and women who have learned to respect women as leaders.

Women will be left more often to "do it all" at both home and work. Governments, workplaces, schools, and other institutions will be less and less inclined to adopt policies which allow families to put their children first.

Children raised by single mothers also are more likely to be attuned to what families need, and support appropriate government policies.

How could this possibly please the (largely female) group of family law scholars who have given up on men? What are the chances that institutions populated by such men will give women and children the generous policies or benefits that lone-mothers would then desperately need in order to compensate for father-absence?

Such children, now grown men AND women won't be assuming that women should be left shit out of luck if they weren't continuously married to supportive, nurturing men when they had children.

In short, those who called men superfluous today may wish they hadn't tomorrow.

A final thought. In his Theology of the Body, John Paul II claimed that learning to care permanently for another in a body-soul union characterized by mutual service, would be the path to love, and thus to Christ, for the vast majority of human beings.

Let's remember that Jesus Christ was a never-married childless man who was raised by a single mother or with a stepfather (depending on which version of the mythology you prefer -- but in any case, "God" was not doing any diaper-changing.)

Fathers today are more inclined to drift away from their families; they have the "blessing" of a body of scholars who have concluded that men are substitutable, unnecessary or irredeemable. This does not at all square with the vision of the human person -- male or female -- proposed by Christian anthropology. We cannot abandon efforts to call men back to their role as fathers.

It is sheer nonsense to claim that fathers "today" are inclined to less family involvement than in times past. For some reality, see Fatherless Children Stories. For the research see Myths and Facts about Fatherhood and Myths and Facts about Motherhood. For discussions of religion, and how not terribly good religion is for women and children, see Brett's Carrel.

Helen Alvare is a member of the Ruth Instititute Advisory Board. This article first appears on (c) Culture of Life Foundation, 2009. Reproduction granted with attribution.

The Ruth Institute was founded by Jennifer Roback Morse, a woman who claims to have an adopted child, and to have cared for eight foster children. So much for the biological essentialist fatherhood arguments, and how other people won't care as much for children as some abusive, dysfunctional or merely uninterested biological parent.

(Ms. Alvare, next time you want to promote church dogma, anti-divorce, woman-subjugation, heterosexual marriage, and men's best interests, please do it in a way that is honest, in other words, in a way that admits to your irrational religious precepts founded on no good evidence. Just flat-out admit that's what you're doing, and don't misrepresent the facts, make specious arguments, omit important considerations, or attempt to mislead the public, while you advocate for policies that will harm the lives of women and children.)

liz 03/20/09


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