October 22, 2004
Nanny remembers it as “1963, the year the fifties ended, and the fathers in our town were leaving…. It was our collective great fear, that our fathers would leave us, start new families with younger and prettier children; we had seen it happen before.” A brave young girl in Anne LaMott’s All New People, she gave voice to the fears of an entire generation of children…and for the children of two successive generations.
Nanny was a prophetess. On January 1, 1970, the first no-fault divorce law, California’s Family Law Act, became effective and eliminated the requirement to use one of seven statutory reasons for filing for divorce. In the following decade, all other states followed California’s lead, making divorce an easy-as-pie solution to “incompatibility.”
In the past thirty-five years, as divorce has become commonplace, another statistic has been on the rise. Unwed teen pregnancies have given birth to children whose fathers are absent from the very beginning…no divorce needed.
In just three decades, between 1960 and 1990, the percentage of children living apart from their biological fathers more than doubled, from 17 percent to 36 percent. Poppa’s gone.
Mama is left to handle the children on her own…their lunch money, their bruises and hurt feelings, their temper tantrums, fights at school, homework, dating, proms and first loves. When children reach for a hand up and when they celebrate with a high five, they aim for one hand…the hand of their Mama. Papa? He’s gone.
This is no exaggeration. About 40 percent of children in father-absent homes have not seen their father at all during the past year; 26 percent of absent fathers live in a different state than their children; and 50 percent of children living absent their father have never set foot in their father’s home.
The impact of absent fathers has proven complicit in a wide range of social problems: crime; premature sexuality and out-of-wedlock births to teenagers; deteriorating educational achievement; depression, substance abuse and alienation among adolescents; and the growing number of women and children in poverty.
How do we bring Poppa home? The answer is being melded from many sources. An Arizona judge requires counseling before divorce. Legislatures are considering changes in no-fault divorce laws. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has developed a special initiative to support and strengthen the role of fathers in families.
In the private sector, groups like the National Fatherhood Initiative and The Fatherhood Project are reaching out to dads with help on parenting, encouraging them to take an active role in the lives of their children. And faith-based groups are taking the lead in helping to strengthen marriages and in giving couples effective strategies for dealing with conflict before it leads to divorce.
But the biggest hope in bringing Poppa home…and creating a home where he will stay…comes from a surprising group: abstinence educators. Abstinence education is all about placing sex in context, helping students understand that the natural result of sex is to produce children…in families…with parents…with Mamas…and Papas.
Joneen Krauth, who developed Wait Training abstinence programs, has her students begin a marriage file. She encourages them to collect information on how to create and maintain healthy and happy relationships, and in particular, how to “marry smart”. What are the compatibility factors that predict survival of relationships? What are the seven warning signs of a bad relationship? Is he/she “just a date”…or are they “my soul-mate”?
Students learn that relationships require the same planning, goals, and commitment as college educations and career plans. They gain hope by realizing that even in a culture of divorce, they can learn how to avoid the mistakes that lead to broken relationships.
Abstinence until marriage…students learn to see sex, not in isolation, but in the full context of human life and relationships. And in this context, where marriage is valued, students are laying the foundation for families where Papa and Mama come together…and stay together…for each other…and for their children.
October 15, 2004: Where’s Poppa?
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