Alarmed by growing evidence of the importance of fatherhood, President Barack Obama, who was raised by a single mother, has forcefully pleaded with fathers to step up throughout his presidency.
"In many ways, I came to understand the importance of fatherhood through its absence — both in my life and in the lives of others," Obama wrote in a 2009 Father's Day piece in Parade Magazine. "I came to understand that the hole a man leaves when he abandons his responsibility to his children is one that no government can fill. We can do everything possible to provide good jobs and good schools and safe streets for our kids, but it will never be enough to fully make up the difference."
...While the divorce rate has dropped in recent years, it's not an indication that more families are staying together. Rather, Hawkins said, more people are choosing not to get married in the first place.
For many years, marriage and children "were a packaged deal," he said, "and society was pretty good at enforcing that with strong cultural norms." Things started shifting during the sexual revolution of the '60s and '70s.
...The move away from marriage is a result of a bigger shift in American values that Hawkins calls a loss of "child centeredness." At one time, society expected adults to make decisions based largely on what was best for the children.
"Marriage isn't about kids anymore," he said. "It's about my satisfaction as an adult, my emotional well-being, my personal development."
A large percentage of today's young moms and dads are children of divorce and, therefore, wary of marriage. For many, Hawkins said, the logical solution is cohabitation. In 1960, there were only about 197,000 unmarried couples raising children together, the U.S. Census Bureau reported. In 2009, there were more than 2.5 million.
"Most of these couples are together when the baby comes and they have high hopes for staying that way," Hawkins said. "Unfortunately, only a small percentage are able to hold that together and solidify that relationship. It's even easier to leave your kid when you haven't got a legal commitment holding you there."
In a five-year study following 5,000 children, the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C., found 80 percent of fathers provide support to mothers during pregnancy and more than 70 percent visit their children at the hospital. At the time of birth, a vast majority indicated they wanted to help raise their child.
Five years down the road, however, only 35 percent of unmarried couples had gotten married. About 40 percent of unmarried mothers had already broken up with their child's father and entered into at least one new partnership. Fourteen percent had a child with a new partner.
"Most fathers care about their children," said Victor Nelson, a marriage and family therapist from Logan. "They've given up on making things work with the mother, but most want to figure out some sort of solution for their kids."
But even if fathers keep in touch after a breakup, children suffer...
...A study by the Wisconsin Department of Health and Social Services found only 13 percent of juvenile delinquents come from families where the biological mother and father are married to each other. Thirty-three percent come from families where the parents have divorced. Forty-four percent have parents who were never married. The University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University both found young men who grow up in homes without fathers are twice as likely to end up in jail as those who come from traditional two-parent families — even when other factors like race, income, parent education and urban residence were held constant.
"Something about not having a father in the picture seems to make at least certain types of boys more likely to engage in aggressive violent behavior..."
Despite socioeconomic status, however, just having a father at home makes a child more likely to succeed at school, according to a study by the Charles F. Kettering Foundation. Children from low-income, two-parent families outperform students from high-income, single-parent homes. Almost twice as many high achievers come from two-parent homes as one-parent homes.
Children who grow up without a father in the home are also more likely to run away from home and commit suicide, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Eighty-five percent of children with behavioral disorders don't have a father at home.
...For girls, living in a father-absent home has physical consequences. Without a father, said Erin Holmes, an assistant professor in BYU's School of Family Life, girls tend to go through puberty sooner. A recent study by three U.S. universities found the earlier a father left, the greater risk a girl was at for getting pregnant as a teen.
Fatherlessness is also associated with eating disorders and depression, Holmes said.
...Being a father is more than just being male and showing up, said Holmes, who studies the effects of father involvement. Children who have poor relationships with their fathers or even those whose fathers are away from home working for extensive periods of time are at risk for some of the same problems as a child without a father...
"Sometimes fathers aren't in homes because they weren't doing good fathering," Holmes said. "We're not just saying, 'Let's get dads back in homes.' We're saying, 'Let's get dads doing good fathering.' "