Fathers are necessary

Polls indicate that a majority of Americans believe the word “marriage” should be reserved for a legal covenant between two people of opposite sexes only. Curiously, polls also show a majority of Americans are comfortable with two same sex partners having all the privileges of marriage as long as they don’t call it marriage. What is the difference anyhow?

As best I can figure out, same sex couples figure the difference is like having “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites. Calling a legal relationship a different name when it is the same in every other way but the sex of the participants in their eyes suggests that their relationship is not as worthy of sanction as those between two people of opposite sexes. It’s like getting a silver medal when you earned the gold. For many heterosexuals, I think what really makes “marriage” a special word is that traditional marriages come with the potential of parenthood and this is special enough to make the distinction unique.

Not any more, obviously. My wife is a friend of a lesbian couple and one of the wives is pregnant. Naturally, she did not invite a male to have intercourse with her; a willing donor provided semen, which she obtained from her local sperm bank. Most kids get only one mother. This one will have two, which is twice as much of a blessing, I guess. What is noticeably absent though is the father. Does the absence of a father deprive the child of something important? For that matter, does the absence of a mother also deprive the child of something important? Do two mothers equal one mother and one father? Do two fathers equal one mother and one father?

These were questions I didn’t know I was struggling with until last night. After our traditional Thanksgiving Dinner featuring a potpourri of friends and family, the topic of two same sex parents came up. At our table were many of my wife’s friends from the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. I was washing dishes and minding my own business but listening to their conversation. As it turns out, I am perfectly okay with gay marriage. I think any two people of legal age who want to get married should have the privilege. They can have “I’m married” stamped on their foreheads if they want to and I would have no problem calling them Mrs. and Mrs. Jones or Mr. And Mr. Smith. Where I have some hesitation is when it comes to two people of the same sex raising their own children together. Is it a good or a bad idea?

Before I knew it, I had joined the conversation and stated an opinion that for me seemed almost right wing. Since the topic was in the context of two women, I said I thought the presence of a strong father figure was important for raising a healthy child. The same is true with a mother, of course. As proof, I pointed to the District of Columbia where black fathers living at home are almost an extinct species. Single mothers are raising the vast majority of black children in D.C., sometimes with the assistance of their grandmothers because the fathers long ago abandoned the mother. In D.C., a black child is lucky to see his real father on occasion, and even luckier if he is actually providing child support. Many of these youth have no idea who their father is, or if they do, their only memory of him is a distant one.

What is the impact of being nurtured without a strong father figure? Arguably, at least in D.C., it is devastating. How many of these youths who are currently doing drugs and getting involved in gangs would be doing so if they had a father in the household? It is hard to say for sure because I doubt there is much clinical research. I do think it is reasonable to assume that the incidence would be much lower.

I have not had the privilege of having a son, but I do have a daughter. I do know there are plenty of studies that suggest the presence of a strong father figure is a critical factor among those girls who grow into leadership roles as adults. I am not entirely sure how much of my daughter was shaped by my presence and nurturing these last twenty years, but it must be a large amount. How could it not? How would my daughter be different if my wife had been a lesbian instead, had been in a gay marriage, had been artificially inseminated and raised her with her loving partner of the same sex? Would something important be missing from my daughter as a result? Perhaps I overvalue my role as a father, but my guts says yes: a good father is necessary in raising happy and healthy children of any gender, as just as it is important for a child to also have a nurturing mother.

Obviously there are many bad marriages out there. There is no guarantee when two people get married and have babies that they will have the right stuff to raise their children into healthy, sane and productive adults. My suspicion is that children raised in dysfunctional marriages are probably healthier without that stress. With roughly half of marriages dissolving, one would have to assume the odds for children in traditional marriages are at best 50/50. Many, many factors influence children throughout childhood and adolescence, but it would seem obvious that parents are their primary influences. The health of the marital relationship should correlate closely to the likelihood of raising mentally healthy and fully functional children. That seems to be true on my block, where I spent the last sixteen years. The adult children who are now doing best tend to be from families with strong and nurturing parents. The struggling children seem to be from those that were rife with marital discord.

Like it or not, children will inculcate behavior modeled by their parents. My question: is there is something critical about having parents of the opposite sex to raising healthy children? Today, gay and lesbian couples no longer have to feel like parenting is off limits to them. What we do not really understand yet is what the long-term effects of children being raised by same sex couples will be. A correlation is made harder because there are so many bad traditional marriages out there too. It appears that even though I have some concerns that children raised by same sex couples may be missing something important (although I am not entirely sure what it is) it is happening nonetheless, and social scientists over the coming decades will have an opportunity to study its effects.

It could be that a child is raised by two people of the same sex will do just fine if both are positive and nurturing influences in their lives. They may grow up to be more tolerant people than they otherwise would be, which sounds like a good thing. Sons though may need to observe and pick up crucial male bonding behaviors from their fathers. It may be that the absence of this factor makes them less functional in society compared with others raised in traditional marriages. The problem is less acute for girls, since the number of men in gay marriages raising girls is much smaller.

I do know that in the District of Columbia, we seem to be raising an angry and dysfunctional generation of young men and women. There may be many factors causing this horrendous outcome, and poverty is certainly one factor, but the lack of strong and healthy male authority figures in these households is obvious. The problems in these communities were not nearly as bad when there were more intact marriages among African Americans. To me it seems reasonable to infer that if this can happen among African Americans, it can happen within any ethnic community.

The example in D.C. suggests to me that when it comes to parenting, we should proceed with caution. Our children should not necessarily become victims of a vast social experiment because newly liberated gay and lesbian couples also want to raise their own biological children. We do not fully understand the nature of nurturing, but I strongly suspect is not solely a feminine or a masculine thing. The masculine element exhibited in the role of a father seems to also be critical, for both boys and girls.

The cry to save the word “marriage” may at its root be nothing more than an inchoate feeling among many of us that we are playing with dynamite. The lessons in D.C. and many inner city communities ought to be red flags for us to think through the consequences of our actions before plunging headlong into them.

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