Medical Branch Clinic, Naval Hospital, Jacksonville, Fla.

J Am Board Fam Med. 2001;14(3) 

In This Article

Father's Absence

Although it might be correct to be gender-neutral and discuss parental absence, the fact remains that in approximately 90% of divorced families, the children remain with the mother. This outcome stems from a legal precedence, often cited as the "doctrine of tender years," which states that children up to 6 years of age rely most heavily on the mother to best provide for the children's physical and developmental needs. This precedence has been replaced by the "best interest standard," which is still heavily weighted in favor of the parent who has spent the most time with the children in the past, rather than in favor of the parent better able to provide for the child in the present or future. This standard overwhelmingly favors the mother.[7]

American society extols equality of the sexes in the workplace, but the grocery aisles and playground paths still consider fathers to be second-choice parents. Men are considered amateurs at nurturing, whereas women are the professionals. There is no maternal instinct. New mothers know how to care for a baby only if they have watched another mother doing it. A study of monkeys raised without a mother showed that the new monkey mothers were neglectful of their offspring and were poor parents.[3]

The cultural image of fathers is changing. On one hand, fathers are commonly considered work-aholics, absentee parents, and uninvolved in much of the daily parenting of the children. In recent times, however, popular media have romanticized the nurturing father figure in Cliff Huxtable, Mr. Mom, and Mrs. Doubtfire; but they appear nearly always in comedies.

The cultural stereotypes of mothers as the primary parents even when they work outside the home and fathers as the primary wage earners are societal realities. Fathers spend less time with their children while fulfilling their role as wage earners. From early in the baby's life, men defer to women on child-rearing issues and participate less actively in the child-rearing tasks.[8] In all intact or divorced families, child development is associated with the quality of the parenting environment. Good parenting is a learned skill, not inherited or sex based. In general, men are less practiced in the skills of parenting and are therefore frequently less competent to serve as the custodial parent in a divorcing family.

Continued contact with a competent noncusto-dial parent, however, has been shown to enhance the adjustment of children, especially for children the same sex as the noncustodial parent. Unfortunately, studies have repeatedly shown that as the length of time from the divorce increases, contact with the noncustodial parent decreases. One recent study estimated that one fifth of children living with their mothers after a divorce or separation had not seen their fathers at all in the previous year.[7] Wallerstein and Blakeslee[2] found that three of four children felt rejected by the noncustodial parent 10 years after the divorce.

Many factors contribute to the absence of the noncustodial parent. The separation might be geographic. Parents who remarry have the competing responsibilities of a second family. Many others simply tire of the trouble. Without the day-to-day contact, the parent-child connection weakens. The schedules of both parents and children make visits increasingly a burden to arrange. Adolescents become too busy with school, extracurricular activities, and jobs and view the visits as disruptions in their lives, just as they minimize interaction with the custodial parent. The conflicts with the spouse that preceded the divorce might continue and are often easier to escape by distancing. The noncustodial parents slowly fade away, and the children suffer.

Wallerstein and Corbin found that a poor father-daughter relationship was associated with poor social adjustment in girls 10 years following divorce. As adolescents, these girls often exhibited precocious sexual activity and promiscuity.[6]

The degree of paternal involvement is directly correlated with academic performance in boys. Fathers frequently set and enforce limits, helping their sons control their own behavior and develop an appropriate conscience. Men are taught to be the head of the household and to have the last word, as in "Wait until your father gets home." When the mother is awarded custody, the father is often relegated to the role of secondary authority and withdraws to another setting where he can again be top dog. An absent father can result in more aggressive behavior by the boys.

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