Lost in the never-ending push to redefine marriage are those who suffer most when they are denied the benefit of a traditional marriage. Children need both a mother and a father far more than any adult needs societal approval of a romantic relationship. And although American children may, for the most part, have food, shelter and education, too many are denied this most basic need. According to the most recent US Census, a third of American children live apart from their biological fathers. For African American children, it is nearly two thirds.
I have written a great deal, along with many others, about the terrible consequences of father abandonment for children. Children who grow up without their fathers are more likely to be poor, use drugs, commit crimes, drop out of school and commit suicide. But behind these statistics are millions of individual human stories of intense pain. The marriage debate has become so focused on the desires and demands of various groups of adults that we have forgotten the legitimate needs and terrible suffering of children.
An absent father leaves a deep wound in the heart of his child. Writing in the magazine Essence, singer VaShawn Mitchell spoke for millions when he admitted, “As I approach 35, I still have many unanswered questions about my biological father and the reasons it took me nearly 30 years to realize that I had to forgive him and move forward. I had questions like… What man would have a son and not want to be a part of his life?”
Mitchell’s unanswered question goes to the heart of fatherlessness: the child who grows up feeling constantly rejected by the man who should have been his provider and protector. Critics of the traditional family have long sought to convince us that the gender of a parent is irrelevant: boys can learn to be men even if they are raised by two “mommies,” and girls do not need their biological fathers in their lives to have healthy relationships with men in the future.
Artists and authors have told a different tale for millennia. The longing of the abandoned child for his or her father has been a theme in literature since at least 1200 BC, when Homer told of Telemachus’ ache to know his father Odysseus. More recently, Maya Angelou described the occasional visits from her biological father in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. “Daddy Baily visited occasionally, bringing shopping bags full of fruit. He is shown like a Sun God, benignly warming and brightening his dark subjects.”
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.