Guest Columnists

The Unique Role Of a Father

by John Garvey

WE ARE NOW in the parental interregnum – the period between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

The modern project to make women and men more or less interchangeable has failed. The difference between the sexes, and the importance of their respective roles in the family, remains alive and well. Yet it is inescapable that the roles of mothers and fathers have changed, even in the most traditional of households. And this is not all bad.

Susan Gregory Thomas wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal on dads as “the new moms.” She reported that according to the U.S. Census Bureau, “32% of fathers with working wives routinely care for their children under age 15, up from 26% in 2002.”

Children will benefit from fathers who are more involved in parenting. Yet this good trend is colliding with two others that are both very bad for children. Charles Murray comments on these in his new book “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.”

The first negative trend he identifies is the decline of marriage. It is widely known that about four in 10 marriages end in divorce. It is less widely known, he notes, that more and more men have never been married – as of 2010, this was true of nearly one in three working-class white males aged 30-49. Marriages aren’t just failing – they also are failing to materialize.

The other trend, he identifies, is the rise in the number of children living with just one parent. Some of these (22% of children among working-class whites in 2010) are the children of divorced or separated parents. Others are children born to unmarried women – a group that grew dramatically over this half-century.

In other words, although dads are doing better at parenting, they are doing much worse at marriage. The net result is worse for children.

I used to have on my bathroom mirror a saying attributed to Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh: “The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” I’m not sure he was the first person to say it, but the fact that it gets attributed to so many people (John Wooden, Abraham Lincoln) is probably a testament to its truth.

A happy marriage sends children important messages that will help them in life. It shows them that they are born out of love – that they are wanted and part of God’s plan. It makes their world a safe place, in which their parents protect them from the arrows and even the pinpricks of adulthood until they come of age. Children in stable families are not like the other young of the animal kingdom, who must live from birth in constant fear of predators.

Finally, stable marriages reassure children that love is lasting – that both parents, and especially the father, will keep the promise to care for them always. Good parents provide a living lesson to their children in how to love others, including most especially the person they eventually marry.[hr] Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington.