O father, where art thou? Social support needed for positive relationships

There are no studies that have looked at children brought up in isolation from men or from women. WalkingWounded

Media comment in the lead up to Father’s Day is generally a pretty tame affair, but this year fatherhood is under the hammer. Fatherlessness was named as the cause of rioting and looting in London and proclaimed to be in danger from same-sex marriages being proposed in Australia.

It all started with The Telegraph blogger Cristina Odone contending “rioters would not stop in their tracks if their local authority were to reinstate their library. They would, however, feel very differently about life and about themselves if their father were to spend time with them, cheer them on to do better, and warn them about bad friends and dangerous substances.”

Closer to home, there were warnings about the danger of a fatherless society provoked by Minister Penny Wong and her female partner announcing their IVF pregnancy. The Daily Telegraph columnist Miranda Devine worried that celebrating lesbian IVF babies would erode the institution of marriage and sideline fathers.

Both columns provoked discussion, more than 500 comments on Devine’s story and less than 700 on Odone’s, putting the spotlight on the duties, functions and vagaries of fatherhood.

But apparently, fatherlessness is just a part of the problem. The real villain may be the over-generous welfare state ruining the family by supporting single mothers. Or is it a misguided, meddling government wanting to pass laws to promote same-sex relationships at the expense of heterosexual marriage and fathers?

In the midst of so many overlapping, complex and emotional claims for the causes of social ills, it’s difficult to see how fatherhood research could really provide much clarity. But there are some things we can learn from recent studies.

We know, for example, that fathers’ involvement can reduce delinquency in boys from one such study. In the United Kingdom, 17,000 babies born in 1958 were followed up at age seven and again at 16.

Boys whose fathers were involved in their lives (taking them out, reading to them, taking an interest), at age seven were less likely to be in trouble with the police at age 16 than those with uninvolved fathers. Whether the family was separated or not didn’t change the protective effect of father involvement in this study.

But the key point is that the study didn’t measure truly fatherless families because when you think about it, the notion of fatherlessness is an odd idea. Is it family where no male parenting at all happens?

Lesbian couples sometimes attend the antenatal classes where I conduct fathers’ groups. When the time comes for me to take the fathers into another room for the “dads’ session”, the non-biological mothers will sometimes opt to join us.

When this has happened, the mother explains that both she and her partner see the father’s role as important for their child and want the father-donor involved. So the assumption that babies of lesbian couples have no male parenting input may be an exaggeration.

No studies I’m aware of have examined children brought up in complete isolation from men (or from women), but we have lots of evidence that children can flourish within a variety of family forms.

The flip side of the debate – that promoting positive father involvement would be good for children – is not really in contention. Research demonstrating the importance of positive father-child relationships is now strong – the difficult part is making this happen.

Paternity leave for Australian fathers, for example, was aimed at boosting positive father involvement. But offering two weeks at the minimum wage is unlikely to change many father-baby relationships.

The difficulty for advocates of more generous support for new fathers is that even though well-paid “daddy leave” has been available in some countries for many years, the evidence that this factor alone results in better child outcomes is scarce.

Like mothering, fathering isn’t reducible to being present or absent so claims about the effects of “absent” fathers are rightly treated with suspicion. And the links between positive fathering and broad social debates about same-sex marriage or social unrest are way beyond the reach of our current knowledge about fatherhood.

Perhaps when the media commentary has settled down, we can start discussing how best to use existing research evidence to encourage positive father-child relationships.