Credit be given, my title is lifted from the name of a talk advertised by my employer, one of those presentations HR puts on about how to be an effective leader. I think it’s a fitting riposte to David Brooks’ New York Times opinion piece, “Why Fathers Leave their Children.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2/017/06/16/opinion/why-fathers-leave-their-children.html)
In a column this past June, Brooks wrote about a study that attempts to rebut stereotypes of fathers who abandon their kids. Contrary to how they are often portrayed, he reports, there are in fact many absent fathers “who desperately did not want to leave their children, who swear they have tried to be with them, who may feel unworthy of fatherhood but who don’t want to be the missing dad their own father was.”
Well, Dionne Warwick summed it up pretty well: “wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’” won’t make for a good father. The way to be a good father is to be one. A man’s absence from his child’s life is no less real because he didn’t “want” to be gone. It isn’t mitigated by his swearing he tried to show up. And, while he may not “want” to be “a missing dad” like his father was, he nevertheless is one.
Brooks summarizes the study (http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520274068) by opining that “it would be great if society could rally around six or seven key bridges to the path to fatherhood. For example, find somebody you love before you have intercourse.”
That’s where my title comes in: be decisive, act responsibly. Don’t just “find somebody you love before you have intercourse.” Instead, get married to the person you love before you have intercourse. Because if you don’t, it may mean that you don’t really love each other.
Having intercourse invites becoming a potential parent with your partner. Being open to parenthood is part of what it means to love another person. It’s why you should not be having sex with somebody unless you can imagine a lifetime association with that person.
Brooks’ article implicitly acknowledges this when he notes that cohabiting couples tend at one point to forego contraception: “when it becomes understood they are ‘together,’” he writes, “they stop.” For Brooks, this is a sign of irresponsibility. For me, it’s a suggestion of normality: people who have sex, who think they are “together,” want to give themselves totally. The element of responsibility lies earlier in the decision chain: in having sex, which, naturally and rightly, has a procreative aspect.
Part of the problem in Brooks’ analysis is that he (as well as the authors of the study) take fornication as a given. But no amount of patchwork will replace and fix the core problem: having sex (which can lead to children) outside marriage is inherently setting oneself up to fail. It’s not particularly smart to play Russian roulette just because you have a five-out-of-six chance of not blowing your brains out.
Part of the confusion underlying what absent fathers think and expect can be attributed to “soul mate” models of marriage, which foster an expectation among young adults that there is a Cinderella or Prince Charming who will fulfill all their emotional needs (the National Marriage Project has documented the rise of such marriages: http://www.stateofourunions.org/pdfs/SOOU2001.pdf). The problem is, of course, that no one person can do that for another. But the illusion persists. Focusing only on adult emotional fulfillment marginalizes the transition to parenthood, sowing disorientation between spouses after they become parents and must focus their attention on their child.
Again, Brooks himself implicitly acknowledges this. “The key weakness,” he writes, “is the parents’ bond with each other.” Many of these dads dream “of the perfect soul mate” but realize that this woman “isn’t it, so they are still looking.” The mother, usually more immediately taken up with responsibility for the child, has “a very practical view of what … [she needs] in a man” and can “trade up” if she finds the father of her child “can’t provide the financial stability” she’s looking for. Brooks continues:
The father begins to perceive the mother as bossy, just another authority figure to be skirted. Run-ins with drugs, the law and other women begin to make him look even more disreputable in her eyes.
Two immature “adults,” one who is “still looking” because the mother of his child now strikes him as hopelessly imperfect, the other who wants to treat the father of her child like a used car she can “trade up” to replace her lemon. Meantime, he’s into drugs, crime, and other “soul mates” while she’s already moved in with the next loser, whose presence, Brooks says, makes daddy “redefine his role. He no longer aims to be the provider and caregiver, just the occasional ‘best friend’ who can drop by.”
I have no doubt that the problems of family breakdown are exacerbated by the ongoing loss of jobs for the less educated, the cultural problems of the lower middle/working class, the social dislocation and lack of role models (and good work) for young men. In today’s economy, it is increasingly hard for many men to be a “provider,” which, whatever some feminists may claim, is still rather important to a successful life.
These factors are not insignificant, but the breakdown of the family, as documented by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s more than half a century ago (“The Negro Family: The Case for National Action”) has been proceeding for decades. What Moynihan wrote about the decline of fatherhood in black families in 1965 is now, unfortunately, increasingly true of all families.
The problem with contemporary liberal solutions to marital and family breakdown is the refusal of advocates to admit that lifestyle libertinism is the cause of the problem. No amount of tinkering around the edges will produce good fathers (or mothers) out of men (or women) who are “what’s in it for me” hedonists. The solution lies not in lectures supplemented by the Pill and condoms; it lies in a few basic rules:
- Don’t have sex until you are married;
- Don’t get married until you are ready to be married;
- Don’t have kids until after you are married and prepared to raise them.
That’s what being responsible and acting decisively means. Everything else is just “wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin.”
John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views contained herein are exclusively his own.