Written by David R. Sprayberry, MD
What do you know about your dad? Do you know him or do you know of him? I grew up in a two-parent home with my birth parents.
Things were not always perfect. I can tell you the positive things about my dad and some negatives.
The reason, though, that I can tell you the negatives is that I know my father and I know him well because he was there.
He was there at the dinner table. He was there at my baseball practices. He was there at my basketball games. He was at all the school functions and awards nights.
He was there.
During my pediatric residency, one of my classmates was posed this question by one of the kids he was seeing in the clinic: Are you my daddy? Sadly, this was not a joke.
The child had no idea who his father was. More and more American kids are growing up not knowing their fathers at all or having minimal relationships with them. Their dads are just not there, either partially or fully.
The absence of a father from a child’s life can do immense harm and the presence of a father can do immense good.
Scope of the problem
In discussing this issue, it is important to define what an absent father is. In general, when we use the term absent father, we are speaking of fathers who are physically absent from the child’s primary home. This includes fathers who have only joint custody of their children.
The degree of this issue is immense. Over one-third of all U.S. children live absent from their biological fathers. Nearly half of all children from disrupted families have not seen their fathers in the past year.
Nearly 20% of kids in female headed households have not seen their fathers in 5 years.
From 1960 to 2000, the proportion of children living with just one parent increased from 9% to 28% over that 40 year span. When the statistics are broken down by race, results become even more alarming.
As of the year 2000, 20.9% of all white children lived in single-parent homes. At the same time, 31.8% of all Hispanic children and 57.7% of all black children were living in single-parent homes.
The reasons for the racial differences are debatable, but what is clear is that this is a problem that is not limited to a single race.
Reasons for father absence
Why do we have so many absent fathers? There are many factors that contribute to this problem, but a large proportion of absent fathers are absent for one of the following reasons.
One of the largest reasons that fathers are absent from the homes of their children is divorce. The number of currently divorced adults has nearly sextupled from 4.3 million in 1970 to 23.7 million in 2010.
The number of divorces per year has increased from 390,000 in 1960 to 1.2 million in 2009.
There are recent reports of decreasing divorce rates, but these decreases are generally looking at divorces as a proportion of the general population, not as a proportion of marriages. Additionally, the marriage rate has declined considerably, likely leading to an increase in the second factor contributing to absent fathers.
A second significant reason that fathers are absent is births out-of-wedlock. Forty-one percent of all newborns in the U.S. were born out-of-wedlock in 2009, up from 33% in 2000.
About 75% of all teen births are out-of wedlock. In many of these cases, the father never lives in the child’s home, even at the beginning.
A smaller, but still significant, reason for father absence is incarceration. As of 1991, there were an estimated 423,000 fathers in prison with children under the age of 18. That number has increased to 744,200 as of 2007.
To be fair, many men may not be able to control the amount of time they are with their children. They may want to be involved, but are prevented by factors beyond their control.
As a pediatrician, I understand how difficult it is to balance a demanding work schedule and family life, and I don’t always do a great job at maintaining that balance.
I point these issues out not for the sake of being critical, but in order to spur men on to take a larger role in the lives of their children and to become more physically and emotionally present for them. We have a relatively short time to raise our children. Let’s make the most of it.
My next post (the second in a three-part series) will discuss the consequences of father absence and the benefits of father presence.
Dr. Sprayberry is a practicing pediatrician and believes there is more to medicine than shuffling patients in and out the door. To read more about Dr. Sprayberry’s medical trips to Kenya, visit his blog, Pediatrics Gone to the Dawgs.
Photo credit: Chin.Musik