Dads’ demise?

 By  Ray O'Reilly

Having kids is no longer the preserve of married couples, or couples full stop, it now seems. That's all good and well, but does it mean dads will soon be surplus to requirements? No way!

15 October 2009

Preparing this story is messing with my head. Last night I had a dream that men were social outcasts, allowed to enter the forbidden ‘city of ' but once a year – fertilisation time.

(Visually, the dream was something between The Wicker Man, pagan murder mystery, and The Matrix, just a stupid film.)

Now, I'm reconstructing this dreamscape, trying to imagine the chain of events leading to this sci-fi Béguinage, and I wonder if the first step has already been taken in the form of modern fertility science.

In vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment has already made the penis optional in reproduction and pushed back nature's body clock so women well into their 40s can have children.

Changes in social and moral moorings, influencing or influenced by legal changes, obviously play their part in this chain, too. For example, lesbian couples can now get IVF treatment here in Belgium, making Brussels a popular “fertility tourism” destination especially for lesbians from France, where treatment is restricted to heterosexual couples. 

My dreamscape could include a scene about generous social welfare systems in European countries and more child-friendly working environments, making it easier for single mothers to raise children without fathers.

(No comment on whether this is by choice, but it is prudent to mention here the steadily growing divorce rates in Europe, and mothers' predominance in child-rearing.)

So, my chronicle of absent fathers is now drawn: clearly, we are optional today, so who is to say we won't become redundant in the child-raising scene of tomorrow.

I am. And I've got some good evidence – economic, social, biological, emotional and health – for the defence counsel's case for why dads are not, and will never be, altogether dispensable. 

Case for dads

Dads and male influence around the house are as important as ever. US reports[1] claim children in “father-absent homes” are five times more likely to be poor and twice as likely to drop out of school (‘economic', check). And youths without an involved father are at higher risk of substance abuse, crime and delinquency (‘social', check).

A Canadian study[2] has proved that having males around the place affects brain activity – at least in California mice couples which are known to rear their offspring together like we do. The researchers removed fathers from the nests soon after the babies were born and studied the pups' brains – the parts known to influence personality and social interaction – for signs of chemical changes, such as in oxytocin levels (a hormone also called the “cuddle chemical” because of its connection with social bonding). Pups deprived of fathers responded less to oxytocin, the study discovered, and were less interested in engaging with other mice (‘biological', check).

Kindergarten-age children from single-parent or step-families are below average in three development areas – health, social and emotional, and cognitive. Being raised by a single mother has been associated with earlier menarche (the beginning of menstruation) and greater risk of teen pregnancy. Infant mortality rates are 1.8 times higher for unmarried mothers than married ones. Single mothers are much more likely to experience a bout of depression than married ones (‘health & emotional', check).

Seriously, do I have to go on? Dads matter alright.

A version of this article first appeared in (A)Way magazine. It is republished here with the author's permission. © Copyright Ray O'Reilly.


Read more facts and stats about fatherhood

1 Taken from the National Fatherhood Initiative. Comprehensive EU-wide statistics do not appear to exist.

2 Reported in the New Scientist ‘Fathers aren't dispensable just yet' (22 July, 2009)


  • Christian Nielsen

    Christian Nielsen is a journalist, copy writer and editor based in Brussels. He writes pretty much anything that takes his fancy, from the woes of travelling with kids to the dangers of antidepressants, but technology, EU affairs and science writing pay the bills.

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3 thoughts on “Dads’ demise?

  • James Stourt

    The risk of inability to conceive through cancer treatment might be better compared to medical doctors as well as patients understand. Nearly all ladies identified in their Early twenties and Thirties who want kids sometime should be given the choice of freezing their eggs or even embryos, San Francisco Bay Area male fertility experts say.

  • [To Anna]
    Like menstrual synchronicity, it’s probably neutral on the news scale, I’d say (-:

    But there is something a bit freeky, from a male’s perspective, that women somehow synch while living together. You’d get yourself burned for less a few hundred years ago.

    But seriously, cheers for the comment. Always good to have some value-added on your stories.

  • The onset of period in young girls with absent fathers is an interesting one, though difficult to see how a “value” can be attatched to this piece of knowledge: Is it positive or negative? Neutral and pure survival I suppose. Women who live together under the same roof often have synchronised periods.


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