The fact that this topic is framed in an either/or sort of way -- either you believe wholeheartedly in the unique and vital impact a father has on his children and reject all non-heteronormative family models or you denigrate the contributions of fathers and believe that a mother and child are better off without a troublesome man around -- makes it very difficult to have really helpful and constructive dialogue on the topic. This is another situation where those who dictate the terms of the debate control the debate. By forcing us into a false dilemma, they silence us. But of course, the best way to deal with a false dilemma is to reject it by either embracing both options and showing how they're compatible, or by pointing to a viable third option. And this is what I think we should do with the fatherhood debate.
Rather than merely focusing on the importance of parental involvement for both parents, we should move past this to look at a plethora of other issues concerning parenting. Some factors that play a prominent role in the way kids grow and develop are:
- Having a loving network of family and friends who are engaged with the child. This family may or may not be the traditional nuclear family. In fact, kids whose grandparents and extended families are involved often experience a more rich environment than those who are isolated in the conventional nuclear family.
- The resources that are available to the family. Families headed by a single parents tend to live on much lower incomes and have fewer educational and other resources that enrich a child's experience available to them.
- An increase in the number of elderly people who are impoverished and lack good housing options also means a lower number of grandparents who can provide much-needed help with childcare and support for single parents.
- Excluding gay and lesbian parents from the network of protections and assistance available to heterosexual married parents puts their children at a disadvantage.
But loosening societal norms concerning what counts as a family and providing better support for single parents and impoverished families and supporting the elderly so that they can contribute to the extended family and have a more meaningful connection with the younger generation etc. does not preclude a commitment to fatherhood and an acknowledgement of the important parenting contributions men have to offer. Fathers can be equally valued as parents even as we make the changes needed to support families in which a father is not actively involved. So I think it's important that feminists call out the implicit condemnation of single mothers and non-traditional families that often accompanies the moralizing concerning fatherhood. I think it's time we point out that it's not an either/or situation, that the conventional nuclear family is not the only option, and that we need to support and celebrate our families wherever and however we find them.