Some may consider it chutzpah for the president to tout fatherhood the same week his girls' collegiate hi-jinks landed them on the cover of People magazine, but those people probably don't have teen-agers themselves. No barroom brawl or DUI? Not even public drunkenness? Puhleez. The rest of us (recalling our own college days) would be delighted to discover that the worst our kids ever did behind our backs was order a margarita.
More than a third of American children are living apart from their biological fathers. And 40 percent of the children who live in fatherless households have not seen their fathers in at least a year. Is fatherlessness still getting worse, or has it started getting better? The sad answer is that despite two recent census reports on families and households, we really don't know.
A group of distinguished scholars, including Norval Glenn, Linda Waite, Paul Amato, Sara McLanahan and former Clinton aide William Galston, recently asked the Census Bureau to tabulate and release the data trends in the proportion of children living with their own two married parents. While "such a return (to traditional families) may be considered bad or good," they pleaded, every American "deserves to have accurate information about whether that change has occurred."
One thing is certain: Fatherlessness of this magnitude has changed the social landscape. So the staid women's magazine Good Housekeeping, for example, celebrates this Father's Day with tales (fairy tales, really) of long-lost fathers who eventually reunite with their kids. This Father's Day we celebrate men like David Ross, who went from sperm donor to sort-of dad.
In the early '80s, Becky Peck was one of a new generation of women experimenting with what optimists dub alternative family forms. She chose to use an anonymous sperm donor to create a deliberately fatherless household. Just her and her cuddly babies. Sixteen years later, she tracked down the DNA provider, David Ross. After making sure her motives were not financial (i.e. meeting his kids wouldn't cost him any money), David was thrilled. Instant family -- no diapers to change, no college to pay for. What's not to love?
But why would a woman who chose anonymous sperm donation suddenly decide at that late date to attach a face and a name to the DNA? The kids, of course. In spite of all the love a mother could provide, they still longed for Daddy. Becky never planned on that. Too many women still don't.
The actress Calista Flockhart, Miss Ally McBeal, adopted a baby. She recently confessed to the New York Post, "I want more children. I guess it would be nice to have a husband, too, and if you know where I might find the right one, let me know. But meanwhile, the baby is all I really want."
Maybe so. But what does her baby want, or what will he want a year from now? Children's hearts will keep fracturing until more mothers, especially privileged mothers, recognize that giving their baby everything he needs includes giving him a loving father. That's the old, stubborn idea of marriage, the place where a man and woman pledge themselves in love, not only to each other, but to their future children.
As President Bush said so bravely and truthfully, "a child's greatest source of security today is not only knowing 'my mom loves me' and 'my dad loves me,' but also that Mom and Dad love each other. If we are serious about renewing fatherhood, we must be serious about renewing marriage."
Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.