A Christian response to the boom in absent dads.
After reflecting on how my father’s absence has impacted me as a girl and now woman, wife and mother in my memoir, The Artist’s Daughter, others have shared with me similar stories of abandonment and struggle. Our collective stories confirm what statistics scream: that the bond from father to child is essential. Whether our dads were good, bad, or not there at all, this relationship shapes our understanding of our very identities.
Yet, we live in a country where too many of us have broken relationships with Dad. In America, 1 in 3 kids live apart from their biological fathers. A recent Washington Post article addressed the dad dilemma with the eye-catching title: The new F-Word – Father. In it, Kathleen Parker addresses a question being asked as we discuss the latest stats on America’s female breadwinners: In the evolving 21st-century economy, “what are men good for?”
Women have become more self-sufficient (a good thing) and, given that they still do the lion’s share of housework and child rearing, why, really, should they invite a man to the clutter? Because, simply, children need a father… . Deep in the marrow of every human child burbles a question far more profound than those currently occupying coffee klatches: Who is my daddy? And sadly these days, where is he?
While single mothers may have enough grit, love, and know-how to raise us, the absence of Dad will still have its effect. Study after study shows that a children with absent fathers are more likely to live in poverty, drop out of high school, have a failing marriage, even be incarcerated than those whose fathers are involved in their lives. The data confirms how much a father matters to a child’s physical and emotional wellbeing and development. Fatherhood, it turns out, is a social justice issue.
But that’s unfortunately where the church often ends the conversation. We lament the shift in the family structure, express outrage at the latest statistics. We bring absent fathers into the culture wars, wrapping them up with changing definitions of marriage and family. As we preach and debate, Father’s Days go by and millions of children remain without the single, most influential male relationship that will continue to shape their identity throughout their lives.
If we take James’ words seriously and see true religion as caring for orphans and widows (James 1:27), we must see strong parenting, orphan prevention, as part of the call. How do we practically support the idea of children maintaining relationships with their fathers, if the ultimate responsibility lies on the father himself?
We can—without fanfare—support the fathers we know, including those that live with their children and those that do not. As Christians, we can offer dads opportunities to connect with their kids. That doesn’t mean plan another church carnival or father-daughter dance, though those are nice events.
Instead, as Christian families and communities, we should help foster organic relationships between fathers and children. Though relationships can be redeemed at any stage, the earlier the father-child bond is cultivated the larger the benefit is to the child. We can invite a dad and his kids into our lives, the things we are already doing, so they can experience life together. We support fathers as we ask a family over for dinner, ask them to go camping with us or signing up for T-ball together. Putting on the father-daughter dance is easier to execute because at the end of the night it’s over, while organic relationships are open-ended. It’s this side-by-side kind of journey that presents father and child the opportunity to be together.