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 women' 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 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 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)