The changing face of fatherhood

WASHINGTON - The image of the American family is changing and increasingly that means a family doesn't include a father figure.

For example, in 1960, only 11 percent of children lived apart from their fathers, but now that number is 27 percent, according to a recent Pew study.

Expectations of the American father are changing, too. A Gallup poll found that 80 percent of teens believe making enough time to spend with children is "very difficult" or "somewhat difficult" for fathers. Another Pew study found that 78 percent of fathers living apart from their children visit less than once a month.

Brian Caulfield, editor of the Knights of Columbus initiative Fathers for Good, believes a man's obligation to be a good father is a moral obligation.

"Marriage is a vocation within the Church. A married man who has a child includes his family in that vocation," Caulfield said in a telephone interview with Catholic News Service.

The changes seen in fatherhood and the role of fathers in many ways are related to a cultural trend that says men are not needed in a family, he said.

"In vitro fertilization, abortion and divorce take the male actor out of the situation," he explained. "All of these things sideline a father and make him feel he is not as needed. I believe the solution we are trying to propose through Fathers for Good is that men need to stay involved in the family."

The Pew study showed that 57 percent of adults believe being a father today is harder than being a father 20 to 30 years ago. Only 9 percent believe it is easier.

Gregory Slayton, a Catholic who is a former U.S. ambassador to Bermuda and author of a new book titled "Be a Better Dad Today," agrees that dads today face a lot of challenges their own fathers didn't.

"I think we got to this point through a confluence of negative events. The media has changed, and the traditional bulwarks of society have less influence today," he told CNS.

However, there is a way to combat such influences, said Slayton, and for him that is faith.

"Faith is an absolutely critical tool in being a good father. Not having a dad myself, I realized I needed to learn from many different fathers," he said. "There were very few great dads who were not men of faith. They have their priorities in order, because having a long term relationship with God means you think in the long term for your family."

In his book, Slayton emphasizes that the greatest role a man can play is the role of a good father, adding that men need to understand their role as fathers and set priorities.

"Every father must prioritize for a family. Nothing significant is built without planning. You don't build a church, a network, not even a bicycle without a plan," he said.

Slayton noted that children who grow up without a dad are "three to six times more likely to spend time in prison, become addicted to drugs, fail out of high school, and have children themselves out of wedlock."

Both Caulfield and Slayton said a father's strong relationship with his wife is one key to creating a stable family.

"Men need to listen to their wives, and be accepting of what (Pope) John Paul II coined 'feminine genius,'" Caulfield explained. "John Paul II's theology of the body says the holistic complementarity within marriage comes from the family." And for that, he added, there needs to be a strong and present father.

"A father must work with his wife, he's in a relationship, he's in a sacramental bond. The idea of Fathers for Good is to incorporate a good faithful man into a family."

The Knights' initiative, www.fathersforgood.org, provides information, advice, an interactive forum, a Q-and-A section and other resources to help the "seasoned dad," new dad, dad to be or single guy who wants "to know more about fatherhood."

Matrimony and loyalty to that matrimony is often the first step in building a strong family, according to Slayton and Caulfield.

The troubling statistics about fatherhood, however, come from fathers separated from their families. According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, the consequences of absent fathers are negative factors in poverty, maternal and infant health, crime, teen pregnancy, child abuse, drug abuse, childhood obesity, education, and more.

Slayton has advice for the growing number of estranged fathers. Quoting Winston Churchill's famous words during World War II, he said, "Never, never, never give up."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970