by Dr. Laura Markham
Can Kids Be OK without a Dad?
“Dr. Laura…I hate Father’s Day. My children’s father left us and takes no interest in them. And then I get your email about how important fathers are. Are my children scarred for life?”
“Dr. Laura….My partner and I (both women) chose to have two children using a sperm donor. We work hard to be excellent parents. We do have extended family who love our children, but no male who could be called a father figure. We tell our children they have two mommies instead of a mom and dad.”
“Dr. Laura…I am a single mother by choice. I resent the implication that I am damaging my child.”
Yesterday, I sent my weekly email a day early in honor of Father’s Day. If you missed it, it’s here. As always, I received a number of responses from mothers who are raising children without fathers. Whether by choice or by fate, these moms are working hard to give their children everything they need, but there is one thing they aren’t giving them: a father. Understandably, they bristle when I say that fathers are important.
So even though you already received your weekly email yesterday, I’m including you in this daily mailing, just in case this topic applies to you. If it doesn’t, please feel free to delete it right now, and enjoy the Father’s Day email from yesterday. I’ll look forward to talking with you in my next email as usual. But if my Father’s Day email touched a nerve with you, this email is for you.
There is no denying that fathers ARE important, in the same way every parent is important. If that parent is loving, supportive, and positively engaged with the child, the effect will have positive ripples for the rest of that child’s life. If that parent is harsh, the ripples will be negative. If that parent leaves the child, whether by choice or by fate, there will be a loss that will stay with the child forever. Can a child overcome the loss of a parent? Of course, with enough love and support from the remaining parent (or parent figure.) But as with all loss, the child is changed forever, and the emotional work is very real.
Bottom line: Kids can survive anything, and heal, if they have another parent there to help them process their emotions.
If you’re a mom raising kids without a Dad, you’ll want to know that:
1. What children need to thrive is unconditional love. Regulating your own emotions, accepting your child’s emotions, moving beyond punishment to empathic limit-setting, seeing things from your child’s perspective, keeping your own cup full so you can remain generous with your child — all of this is more important than whether your child has one or two parents.
2. Negative presence is worse than no presence. Research repeatedly shows that when a father or stepfather treats a child in a harsh or critical way, it is worse for the child than if that parental figure leaves, as long as the remaining parent is loving. The child may grieve the loss of the parent, but that grief can heal with enough support from the remaining parent, whereas the constant negativity is permanently disabling to the child.
3. Single parenting is part of the risk factor. It isn’t just hard because Dad left. It’s hard because Mom is single parenting. Parenting is hard enough, single parenting will earn you angel wings. The risk for your kids is less that they don’t have a dad than that Mom is so overwhelmed. Can a single parent raise great kids? Of course! But you don’t need me to tell you how hard it is. If you find yourself in this position, by choice or by fate, do whatever is necessary to keep yourself healthy and centered so you can do double-duty for your child.
4. Same-sex couples raise great kids. The research I’ve seen shows that children of same-sex couples grow up just as emotionally healthy or even slightly healthier (emotionally and physically) than the rest of the population. The explanation usually given is that these families had to work harder than usual to bring their child into their arms, and therefore are more attentive, nurturing parents. Whatever the reason, there’s no risk factor here, and it’s further proof that the love of the parent is what’s important, not the gender. And yes, a study was recently released that claimed the opposite. In that study, most of the kids had not lived with the gay parent most of the time! So it tells us nothing about whether same-sex couples can raise kids well.
5. Both women and men have male and female energy. Research shows that dads and moms parent differently, which benefits children. For instance, fathers roughhouse more and that’s great for kids. But women can roughhouse as well as men can, and men who actively parent have more oxytocin and other “nurturing” hormones circulating in their bloodstreams than other guys do. To be emotionally healthy, all of us need to embrace all of ourselves, including those traits that our culture has told us are the province of the other gender. Nobody can be everything; we all give our children what we can. If you notice your child needs something he or she isn’t getting, you may be able to dig deep and find a part of yourself you didn’t know was there. But you can also call in reinforcements. For instance, your son may find a mentor at a martial arts studio who offers him something you can’t. The key is noticing and accepting your child’s needs, and staying open to all the parenting support the universe sends you.
6. It isn’t divorce that leaves children scarred; it’s the way it’s handled. The truth is that every child whose parents divorce is scarred. But the wound can be relatively small, heal quickly, and be much less of a problem than living in a situation where the parents are at war. The real wounds come when a child feels rejected by one parent, forced to choose between parents, or when a stepparent introduces negativy toward the child. That’s when the wound is serious, and the scar tissue extensive. Bottom line, if divorce is part of your life, you owe it to your child to do everything in your power to keep things amicable, which is a huge predictor for whether your ex will stay in your child’s life in a positive way. For more on kids and divorce, see my article Divorce: Protecting Your Kids.
So do Dads deserve homage on Father’s Day? Absolutely, for so many reasons. Will your child be fine if there’s no dad around? The answer is yes, absolutely — if you shoulder the extra weight. True, life isn’t fair. But those angel wings should help you with the burden. In the end, what matters is only love. Love never fails.
May you create miracles today, large and small.