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To Working-Class White Mothers: Just Say Yes to Father Involvement

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"Just Say No: For white working-class women, it makes sense to stay single mothers" by Naomi Cahn and June Carbone is the latest attempt to devalue the role of fathers. The article is based on Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Remaking the American Family, a book just released in March written by the same authors.

Despite decades of research to the contrary, this article implies that fathers are not important to the well-being of children. But it does so in the very pernicious way that has become the tactic du jour of individuals who continue to disregard mountains of evidence on the importance of fathers.

Cahn and Carbone share the story of Lily, a single working-class mom who decided to raise her child without the involvement of Carl, her boyfriend and the child's presumed father. Lily recently broke up with Carl because he's a "tool." He's an unemployed loser who sits around all day drinking with his buddies and playing video games. Lily doesn't want to commit to Carl. She can support herself and her child and doesn't want to risk marrying a guy she can't financially support or trust.

Who can blame her, right? I certainly can't blame her. As the father of two girls, I wouldn't want either of them to date, much less marry, a guy like Carl. And I certainly wouldn't want them to have my grandchildren with him! Selfishly, I look forward to bonding with my future sons-in-law in ways other than playing World of Warcraft.

I don't believe that Cahn and Carbone meant to say that fathers aren't important. Nonetheless, their article has that effect. The problem with Cahn's and Carbone's use of Lily's example is that it deflects attention from what children need to thrive: an involved, responsible, committed father. And it symbolizes what marriage has become for so many Americans: a way to fulfill their own desire for finding a soul mate who can complete them and make life wonderful, rather than as a means for raising children who thrive. The authors' tactic prevents us from seeing and discussing the indisputable fact that raising children without involved fathers places them at much higher risk for a range of poor outcomes and causes the ills we see in so much of society.

Their argument for Lily's choice rests on the fact that recent and not-so-recent economic developments -- such as more men becoming unemployable, less educated, and, thus, unmarriageable, and more women being able to financially support themselves without the need for a second income -- have freed many middle and upper-income single moms to make this choice. Ironically, on the flip side, the same developments have allowed fathers to become the primary caretaker in families where the mothers are the sole breadwinners.

They also argue that recent, more balanced approaches to property distribution in divorce cases and awarding joint (or shared) custody to fathers is another reason for Lily to avoid marrying Carl. Why should she be saddled with his debts, be negatively affected financially in other ways, or, God forbid, share parenting time with him?

Unfortunately, in making this argument, Cahn and Carbone unintentionally reduce the contribution of fathers to that of a bank account. (Research and common sense shows that fathers offer so much more.) Indeed, their policy recommendations on how to address an unfair marriage market focus on economic solutions. By focusing on what's best for Lily, they obfuscate the potential negative effects of her choice on her child. And if the child is a boy, they avoid asking what kind of man and father that child will one day become, which is a critical question.

This focus also avoids the need to ask Lily another critical question: Why did you have sex with this guy in the first place knowing that he is such a loser? Not asking this question is another symptom of a reactive culture that would rather argue about what to do after the bomb goes off than what needs to be done to keep it from being built in the first place.

Our culture desperately needs to reflect on and correct the problem with this article and the way of thinking it represents. The article is all about what is best for mothers and helping them avoid situations that will "interfere" with their ability to raise their however they want. This is not where our focus should be. Our focus should be on what is best for children. And frankly, when fathers are encouraged and educated about being involved, responsible, and committed fathers, children, moms, and dads are better off. Isn't that what creating strong families is all about?