Editor’s note: This is the first article in a four-part series, written in partnership with TheAtlantic.com, examining the role of fathers in American families. You can also read part two, part three or part four of the series.
MIDVALE, Utah — Jordan Ott was the third of his mother’s six children, born over the course of four marriages.
By age 8, he’d had two stepfathers; his brothers and sisters had more or fewer, based on birth order. Each child also had different numbers of siblings, depending on whether their own dads fathered other children. Ott has one full sister, four half-siblings and at one point had three step-siblings “that I know of,” he said. His own father has mostly lived far away.
His story is not uncommon today. More than half of babies of mothers under 30 are born out of wedlock. The divorce rate among those who do marry exceeds 40 percent, according to the 2012 State of Our Unions report.
These statistics play out most often in the form of absent fathers — or the arrival and departure of serial father figures involved in romantic relationships with a child’s mother. (Moms still usually retain custody in a breakup or divorce.) Twenty-four million American children — one in three — are growing up in homes without their biological fathers, the 2011 Census says. Children in father-absent homes, it notes, are almost four times more likely to be poor.
Like Ott, now 25, children may grow up with lots of father figures but no real dad. Or they can be like Arvie Burgos, 17, and in foster care in Utah, who grew up in a virtually man-free zone.
Ott said he learned not to pay attention to stepfathers, even one he had for years. “If I did something wrong and needed discipline, he was all over it. Otherwise, we didn’t have too much to do with each other.”
Meanwhile, Burgos’ sole significant male role model was a young man he saw a few hours each month courtesy of a Big Brothers program. His father had never been part of his life and his mother was a drug addict. He could count on his grandmother, but she died when he was 15, about the time his mentor moved away.
The dad factor
“I think there’s consensus that cultural and family factors are causing children’s family lives to be more unstable than in the past,” said Andrew J. Cherlin, author of "The Marriage-Go-Round" and director of the Hopkins Population Center at Johns Hopkins University. Experts debate whether recent cultural shifts or economic changes most undermine family stability, but, said Cherlin, “most who I respect believe both are at play.”
Most children weather family turmoil and wind up OK, said Cherlin, who coined the term “family churn” to describe what happens to families as couples split, often moving dad out of the home and a new man in. A study in the Journal of Marriage and Family said children in such homes experience an average of more than 5.25 partnership transitions. That’s tough for kids who are used to having their own fathers within reach.
“Dad also helps with impulse control and memory and enhances a child’s ability to respond effectively to new or ambiguous situations, for boys and girls,” said Warren Farrell, author of "Father and Child Reunion." Children who are close to their fathers tend to achieve more academically, while kids with absent fathers are more likely to drop out. Fathers are the biggest factor in preventing drug use, Farrell said.
Burgos said one of his biggest challenges growing up without a father figure has been impulse control and anger management. He had no guide to teach him effective ways to handle frustrations — and he’s had a lot of them in his young life.
The time a dad spends with his children is a particularly strong predictor of how empathetic a child will become, according to a commission of experts who wrote a proposal asking President Obama to create a White House Council on Boys and Men. The group, which Farrell helped assemble, compiled research showing infants with dads living at home were months ahead in personal and social development. Children who lack contact with fathers are more likely to be treated for emotional or behavioral problems. Girls with absent or indifferent fathers are more prone to hyperactivity. If dad is around, girls are less likely to become pregnant as teens.
As early as 1993, studies showed that dads also influenced whether their sons became teenage fathers. A Temple University study found no boys born to teen mothers became teen fathers if they had close relationships with their biological fathers, compared to 15 percent of those who didn’t have that closeness.
“None of this implies men are better as dads than women are as moms,” Farrell and the commission emphasized. Children need both.
But dad’s place is not always secure. The commission report said, “The U.S. has done a better job of integrating women into the workplace than in integrating men into the family — especially into the lives of children in the non-intact family. We have valued men as wallets more than as dads.” The result is “moms feeling deprived of resources and dads feeling deprived of purpose and children feeling deprived of the full range of parenting input.”
One after another
Few have studied the relationship between children and sequential parent figures, said Paula Fomby, associate research scientist at the University of Michigan. She said research suggests someone not biologically related is less likely to invest in a child for various hypothetical reasons, including unclear parental roles. Sometimes, father figures compete or are stretched thin by obligations to children fathered with other women.
The more transitions a child endures, the worse off he or she typically is, Cherlin said.
In Ott’s case, not all the siblings growing up with him experienced the family’s transitions the same way. Some of his younger half-siblings were actually living with both biological parents while he was dealing with a stepfather. It was unequal and complicated as stepfathers treated him and his siblings each differently. He saw friends in intact families enjoy greater consistency, something he wants for his own future children.
“There is a great deal of evidence that children from single-parent homes have worse outcomes on both academic and economic measures than children from two-parent families,” wrote scholar Elaine C. Kamarck and Third Way president Jonathan Cowan in the introduction to "Wayward Sons," a report produced for Washington think tank Third Way. “There is a vast inequality of both financial resources and parental time and attention between one- and two-parent families.”
The report also said absent fathers particularly impact the psychosocial and academic development of boys.
University of California-Berkeley’s Philip A. Cowan and his wife, Carolyn Pape Cowan, study parent couples. Their research shows a couple’s relationship is vital to their children, even if they are no longer intimate partners — whether they’re divorced, separated or never married.
“The relationship between two biological parents determines a lot about how fathers are going to be involved, and that determines a lot how kids are going to be,” he said.
If parents get along, their children tend to be more psychologically and emotionally healthy. Moms who feel their child’s father backs them up are better mothers through all stages of the child’s development, reports the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — “more responsive, affectionate, and confident with their infants; more self-controlled in dealing with defiant toddlers; and better confidants for teenagers seeking advice and emotional support.”
Ott’s father lived too far away to be available physically or emotionally. Burgos “knew” his father through a single letter and a phone call. Neither of them gained the benefits the studies attribute to an involved, interactive dad.
Washington takes note
The federal government is beginning to recognize how important fathers are to children after years of focusing almost exclusively on mothers. Government-funded programs to promote marriage for at-risk families now include money for paternal involvement, too, Cowan said. Social welfare programs have been told to include fathers in case management. The Obama, Bush and Clinton administrations all funded healthy-marriage initiatives. Cowan called attempts to include fathers “islands of hope,” but concedes they’re “fighting decades of prejudice.”
The odds are still stacked against fathers in many government and nonprofit agencies designed to assist families, he said. Often, men’s names are not included on case files, even when parents are married.
Simply improving the job market for young adults, especially men, would do wonders to stabilize families — particularly those just starting out, Cherlin said. Experts have been surprised by the real drop in divorce among the college-educated, who still can get good jobs. He said young people need more job training opportunities and apprenticeships, especially if they’re not college-bound. Making sure tax policy doesn’t discourage marriage and providing a modest earned income tax credit for disadvantaged childless young adults would also encourage formation of stable relationships, he added.
Stable relationships are something both Ott and Burgos long for, and each can picture one in his mind. But both admit to feeling somewhat unsure about how to make it happen in real life.
Burgos said he had some good teachers and a foster dad he liked a lot, but no confidants after his “big brother” Jacob moved away. “I don’t really have deep emotional conversations with anybody,” he admits.
Ott recently married and hopes to have children and a stable family life. Burned more than once by the choices adults made when he was young, he keeps one eye on the past. It’s a path he doesn’t intend to travel.
“I’ve never had a family,” Ott said. “I know what I’m not going to do.”