Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Why Are There So Many Problems In American Families?

April 8, 1996

After a divorce, half the fathers are almost completely absent from their children's lives. For those fathers who don’t live with their children but remain involved, the quality of their relationship is often less than desired.

Despite the availability of contraception, the number of births to unwed parents have skyrocketed - a 300 percent increase from 1970 to 1990. In 1990, a quarter of our children were living with their single mothers as compared to 5 percent in 1960.

Welcome to fatherless America. The statistics are frightening.

David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values calls the trend toward fatherlessness, "The most socially consequential family trend of our generation." Why is this happening?

1. The decline of social norms against premarital sex. The visual media glamorizes and graphically depicts premarital sex with its soul-numbing message. Couples no longer need to be committed to each other to engage in sexually intimate behavior. Marriage is no longer socially expected to have a sex life. Thirty percent of all births are to unwed mothers.

Half of all couples cohabitate prior to marriage. Of the couples who live together, 40 percent split up prior to making it to the marriage alter. The remaining 60 percent who marry have a higher divorce rate than those who do not live together prior to marriage.

2. The displacement of men from the provider and protector role. There is a world-wide trend of men having fewer job opportunities or working for increasingly lower wages while jobs and compensation for women are rising. The jobs that depended on large muscles and physical strength are disappearing.

When women no longer need men to support the family, many women feel they no longer have to put up with them. Also, the declining financial status of men makes them less marriageable in the eyes of women. Adequate incomes for females reduces the pressure to get married or stay married.

3. Children of divorce suffer. Children from divorced single parent homes have twice the mental health problems as children from two parent intact families. Children from divorced families are twice as likely to drop out of high school as those in two parent families. Boys at all ages from divorced families have particularly hard adjustments while girls do less well during their teenage years.

Seventy percent of women and 80 percent of men remarry. Children are in step-family relationships which have their own complicated adjustment patterns and problems.

4. Women expect men to be more sensitive and emotionally responsive husbands and fathers. Besides the increasing stress of the workplace, men are expected to be more supportive and nurturing in their relationships. Many of today’s men were raised in traditional homes without good role models on how be caring, empathetichusbands and fathers. Marriages are less stable as women grow impatient with mates who are slow to change.

5. A two-income economy reduces the quality of parenting in the home. There are more latchkey and unsupervised children at home. The quality of the childcare is problematic. Mothers of young children are in the workforce.

Productivity pressures at work often means more work and stress is brought home. Parents are finding it ever more stressful to balance the home and the workplace. Increasingly, parents are still connected to their jobs through E-mail, beepers and fax machines. Demanding jobs are becoming more intrusive into home life.

Worn out and fatigued parents come home and have less energy and time for family fun and one-to-one time with the children. Husbands have to adjust to new roles of cooperation with childcare and homemaking tasks.

6. Parents are too caught up in themselves. Parents may get caught up in trying to maintain higher and higher standards of living. This starts a treadmill of working harder and harder at the expense of family time and commitment.

Taken to an extreme, our culture promotes parents who are busy trying to have it all. Parents lives are so busy with their priorities that they do not put their children first. They expect their children raise themselves without much adult guidance or supervision. Children’s needs aren't being met. They turn to their peer group for acceptance and belonging.

The challenge is to make things right. Children do better when fathers are around. Most men and women are better off in marriage. Divorce should be a last resort.

The absence of fathers is taking a terrible social toll. We urgently need programs to help prevent teen pregnancy. The old rules of morality play an important part in preparing young people to be committed marriage partners.

Men are learning to be active and involved fathers. Efforts like the Million Man March and the Promise Keepers are hopeful signs that men understand their importance in the family. Families have to make hard choices to place value on a rich family life and family time. They are making sacrifices at the expense of job and personal priorities.

If we are going to raise a generation who knows how to have stable relationships and what it takes to be good parents, we have to start now before we are overwhelmed by a tide of under socialized adults.

This column was written after consultation with psychologists James Bray at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston TX; Catherine Chilman of Washington DC, and Chris Stout of Forrest Hospital, Des Plaines IL.