The start of a new decade leads many of us to contemplate the past and ponder the future. In that spirit, I offer a prediction: In 10 years, many fathers will be casting off their role as second parent, eagerly engaged in their children’s daily lives. Here’s another prediction for 2020: Many other fathers will be at best occasional visitors and at worst completely absent from their children’s lives.
Finding the evidence for prediction No. 1 is as easy as walking the streets of the upper West Side or Park Slope. Over the past decades those neighborhoods have become thick with men carrying infants in baby slings and wiping toddler’s runny noses. In his recent book “Home Game,” the writer Michael Lewis contrasts today’s dad-heavy childhood with the past “Dark Ages of Fatherhood”; his own father admits to him, “I didn’t talk to you until you went away to college.”
Today’s fathers like the younger Lewis spend their time on Little League soccer and baseball fields, cooking up pancakes, and most amazing of all to the men of the Dark Ages – otherwise known as the Greatest Generation – changing diapers.
The new dadism has led to a mini-genre of books and Web sites by fathers helping to devise the rules of the new home game and taking over where women once dominated: the novelist Michael Chabon’s “Manhood for Amateurs,” Sam Apple’s “American Parent,” sites like fatherville.com and mrdad.com.
There are numbers to back up these observations. According to the demographer Suzanne Bianchi, between 1985 and 2000 residential fathers tripled the time they spent taking care of their children. And the number of stay-at-home dads, while small, has been growing steadily.
So what about that other prophecy, the one about disappearing fathers? That prediction is also pretty easy to evince, though you’ll have to stroll different parts of the city. In low income neighborhoods — which are by and large, let’s be honest, also predominantly minority – children rarely hear their fathers read a bedtime story or see them pouring milk on their breakfast cereal. Instead of finding sustenance in memories of Little League seasons and family meals, they often grow up knotted in rage and sadness.
This is not to say that race or ethnicity equals family structure. New York boasts many black families where fathers are around to help the kids with homework every night, while in other less urban parts of the country, low-income whites dominate the census rolls of mother-only families.
But the dominant trends are undeniable. Some years ago, BET.com, a Web site affiliated with the black television network, encouraged visitors to post Father’s Day greetings. Organizers assumed that they would see a Hallmark fest of “I love you” or “I miss you.” Instead they got a venting session: “To all my dead beat dads out there, I just want to say, thanks for nothing,” and “That bastard forgot that I even existed.”
In this case the numbers tell the story even more powerfully: More than 70% of black children today are born to single mothers; estimates for some poor neighborhoods like Bushwick run as high as 90%. Meanwhile, unmarried women account for half of Hispanic births.
Some people assume that married or not, dads can still play a key role in their children’s lives. And it’s true that a lot of single mothers – almost half according to the Fragile Families and Well Being study – are actually living with the baby’s father when they come home from the maternity ward. Those fathers are often as entranced by their newborns as any middle class daddy-blogger.
But things tend to go downhill from there.
Within five years, three-fifths of cohabiting fathers are no longer living with their children, and over a third have not seen their sons and daughters in two years.
To get an idea of why this happens, consider a young African-American father I’ll call Jason who I interviewed several years ago. He described his anger toward his absent father and his determination to “step up” for his 3-year-old son. His words were heartfelt. But toward the end of our conversation, Jason mentioned casually that he had broken up with his son’s mother, and that his new girlfriend was about to make him a father again. It’s very likely that soon enough his son’s mother will have a child by another man.
And then what? It happens more often than not that a man in Jason’s position won’t take to his son’s stepfather or his ex will have a falling out with his new child’s mother. Maybe there will be another break up with yet another stepfather or mother and more step-siblings.
The collateral damage in all of this chaos will be Jason’s son. Boys in particular fare badly when their lives are unstable, which almost always means fathers fading from the picture. By 3, they have more behavior problems than children in married-couple families. In school, they’re more likely to lose focus and cause trouble. In adolescence, they are more likely to drop out of school or even become part of the criminal justice system.
The rapper Jay-Z sang this about his own childhood after his father left home: “Now all the teachers couldn’t reach me/And my mom couldn’t beat me/Hard enough to match the pain of my pops not seeing me.”
Jay-Z is childless but married to Beyonce for the past year and a half. If they stay together he will be breaking the mold; the boys from single-parent homes are considerably more likely to become unmarried – and eventually absent – fathers themselves. Given their anger, it’s not surprising.
What this tale of two families bodes is that, despite the best efforts of many valiant reformers, by 2020 the income and education gap between white and minority children will not only continue; it will intensify.
For several decades now the trends have been firmly in the direction of, on the one hand, more time and stronger relationships between middle class kids and their fathers, and on the other, greater absence and weaker ties for low-income fathers and their children.
There’s little reason to think those trends will reverse themselves.
And so this New Year’s Eve, make a toast to the best – and worst – of times.
This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News