Research Brief: Fatherlessness

Recent research has shown that parental deprivation and fatherlessness during times of development alter the neurological brain chemistry in children and cause them to be prone to risky behavior and substance use. There are roughly 150 000 lone parent families in Canada, with 80 percent of those being female lone parent families. Female lone parent families made up 13 percent of all census families while male lone parent households were only 3.5 percent. There are many negative effects of fatherlessness on children, ex partners and society in general. Men are not socialized to value fatherhood the same way women are encouraged to embrace their identity as mothers.

There are many causes to men being absent from their children’s lives and development, ranging from being purposefully absent, in jail or being an unfit parent to being willfully excluded and prevented from having contact by ex partners and the current legal system. Several studies have shown that the main reported cause of fatherlessness is the fact that the father did not want to get divorced and the relationship with the mother deteriorated in the aftermath. Post relationship breakdown, many women report they see little value in having the father around and many attempt to deny visitation or other rights in spite of court orders. Marriage has been the main social institution to tie fathers to their children and the steady rise in divorce rates in the last half of the 20th century has partially lead to our state of rising lone child families.

While measurable negative effects of fatherlessness on their children are difficult to separate from other determinants such as poverty, American research has shown growing up without a father is tied to many negative psychological, social and physical issues. Children from fatherless families are 10 times more likely to abuse chemical substances, 4 times more likely to be raised in poverty, twice as likely to commit suicide and 9 times more likely to drop out of high school. 70 percent of teen pregnancies occur in a fatherless home and girls are 9 times more likely to be sexually assaulted in a home without a biological father. Stepfathers and boyfriends pose a much higher risk of sexual predation. 60 percent of accused rapists came from fatherless homes and those raised in fatherless homes are 11 times more likely to engage in violent behavior and 20 times more likely to be incarcerated at some point.

The official government statistics reveal that fatherlessness is a pressing issue in society and contribute to a host of social problems. Fatherhood should be praised and encouraged as a source of pride and meaning for fathers, not just as being in the role of ‘bread winner.’ Sensitivity to children and child rearing has largely been deemed the female domain and as a result, many men do not necessarily value or covet being a father and instead opt to spend time away from offspring earning money. The stereotype that men are intended to protect and provide income and women are intended to nurture and love are based on sexuality and gender and are powerful social constructions.

A positive male father figure is clearly vital in the social and physical development of boys and girls. Lone parent households do not give the same benefits as homes with both mother and father. The ideology that women and children do not greatly benefit from male partners or fathers is false and harmful to children and society. While there are many ways to make a family, the empirical benefits of having a two parent household is compelling. Widespread American studies show that children raised by two biological parents had far less internalizing and externalizing behavioral problems. The current legal model is adversarial and usually does not foster post divorce healthy co-parenting.

While mothers of course are necessary for children, their strict primacy in custody causes challenges healthy shared parenting. Making policies to support single mothers only does not address the effects of what happens to children raised in lone parent households or contribute to more fathers being involved in their children’s development. Even if there is a relationship breakdown between parents, there is still a pressing need for children to have substantial contact with their fathers. It has been argued that fatherlessness affects the personality and attachment style of daughters and women especially. Children who are deprived of fathers have less economic benefits, supervision, guidance and protection as well as suffering from less emotional support and feelings of abandonment.

Further Reading: Fathers’ Involvement and Health Outcomes of Children