David Popenoe, Life Without Father: Compelling New Evidence that Fatherhood and Marriage Are Indispensable for the Good of Children and Society (New York: The Free Press, 1996)
David Popenoe’s book Life Without Father: Compelling New Evidence That Fatherhood and Marriage Are Indispensable for the Good of Children and Society examines the dramatic decline in the status of fathers and fatherhood in American culture in recent decades, and his conclusion is remarkable. In response to the arguments of certain lobbyists, politicians, and his colleagues in sociology who wish to convince the world that women and children no longer need men, this National Marriage Project (Rutgers University) researcher boldly states his thesis: “The aim of this book is to try to convince you that this no-father argument is fundamentally wrong. If we continue down the path of fatherlessness, we are headed for social disaster" (8).
The aim of this book is to try to convince you that this no-father argument is fundamentally wrong. If we continue down the path of fatherlessness, we are headed for social disaster.
The book is organized into four parts. Part One presents Popenoe’s diagnosis of the state of fatherlessness in our nation today. Part Two places this diagnosis into context by giving a history of fatherhood and family life in recent times. In Part Three, Popenoe makes his case that “fathers matter,” and that fatherhood is a virtue upon which the well-being of children and our very social fabric depend. Finally, in Part Four, he gives his recommendations as to what our nation should do to “reclaim fatherhood and marriage.”
Life Without Father begins with an examination of the unprecedented growth of fatherlessness in twentieth-century America. This change, beginning in the 1960s, was dramatic and unexpected. The American family had been experiencing a golden age: "By 1960 more children were living with both their natural parents than at any other time in world history” (22). "As late as 1965 only one out of every thirteen births took place out of wedlock. Today , nearly one out of every three does” (23). By 1974, more children were losing parents through divorce than through death (21). Just when improvements in life expectancy were allowing so many children to enjoy the company of both their parents, unexpected societal changes began to tear families apart. Over the past decades we have become sadly familiar with the fatherless family, to the point that very few people even question the concept of the "single mother." Fathers are considered an optional part of families. Fewer men care to be fathers and fewer women admit a desire to have fathers help raise their children.
In place of commitment and obligation to others, especially children, marriage has become mainly a vehicle for emotional fulfillment of the adult partners.
Popenoe believes that society has seen a change in the purpose of marriage. "In place of commitment and obligation to others, especially children, marriage has become mainly a vehicle for emotional fulfillment of the adult partners” (24). He sees this erosion in the importance of marriage as a result of overzealous individualism. “This loss of social purpose is part of the broader cultural shift toward a radical form of individualism that accelerated rapidly beginning in the 1960s. With the rise of the 'me generation,' trust in all of our traditional institutions waned. The legacy of this era remains firmly with us, with our attitude toward almost every social institution—government, religion, the law, the professions, education—now marked by a pervasive cynicism” (24). The "communitarian individualism" of America's past, which balanced one's duties to society with the right to make personal choices, has given place to a "radical, expressive, or unencumbered individualism...devoted much more to self-aggrandizement at the expense of the group” (46). In the thirteen years since Life Without Father was published, we have seen the continuation of this progressive individualism. Today the popular culture places almost no bounds on individual behavior. Once universal moral rules regarding marriage, sex, and childrearing have now become despised by a huge portion of the population.
Chapter 2, aptly called “The Human Carnage of Fatherlessness,” explains the results of this unforeseen shift away from fatherhood. In the last few decades in America, juvenile delinquency and child poverty have skyrocketed. The divorce rate has risen, and children of divorced parents show worse outcomes in a number of ways. From 1960 to the writing of the book, violent crime increased by 550 percent (61). According to the sociological data Popenoe cites, family disruption is a major contributing factor to violent behavior (62). There has been a huge increase in teen sex, leading to many more illegitimate children and three million new cases of STDs among teenagers each year (64). Child abuse and violence against women have also risen off the charts. Too few people realize that marriage is the best antidote to these problems.
Contrary to prevalent propaganda favoring female independence, Popenoe says that marriage is a “strong safety factor” for women. Married women are four to five times less likely to be victims of violence (74). In addition, Popenoe supports the age-old belief that marriage has a civilizing effect on men, causing them to behave better because they are so often around women and children. This civilizing effect of marriage has become less prominent as fewer and fewer men are married. Popenoe says, “Wherever large numbers of young, unattached males are concentrated in one place, the probability of social disorder greatly increases” (75).
2. Fathers in History
Part 2 of Life Without Father showcases the "modern nuclear family." This is the family form which most people would call "traditional": "A married couple with children, living apart from other relatives...the productive work of men shifted from the home to an outside workplace, and fatherhood became a part-time activity" (81). Popenoe explains that this family form was not always in existence, but arose in upper class Britain in the 1700s, coming to dominance in the Victorian era. It replaced what he calls the premodern family, typified by the Puritans in America. Marriage in the premodern family was primarily an economic venture, and fathers and mothers worked together to earn an income and raise their children. Popenoe calls the premodern family the "apogee of fatherhood" (89), in which fathers were the central authority figure in the household and were viewed as the primary parent of children.
Popenoe considers World War II to have had an ambiguous impact on the status of fatherhood, for while it stressed the vital importance of the protector role, it also showed that millions of women and children were able to get along just fine while fathers were away for months or years at a time.
Many factors came together to end the premodern family and establish the modern nuclear family. As men left home to work in new industrial jobs, the majority of childrearing was left to their wives. The rise of democratic individualism made the concept of a patriarchal father seem outdated. The Quakers put an end to the traditional belief in children's innate depravity, saying that their inherently good natures thrived not on stern fathering but on gentle, nurturant mothering. As the culture absorbed the many changes brought by an industrial, democratic world, courts began awarding child custody to mothers in the mid-19th century (97).
While the position of men became more tenuous within the home, society still celebrated their roles as providers and protectors. However, the coming of the Great Depression showed the weakness of men in the provider role as well. Popenoe considers World War II to have had an ambiguous impact on the status of fatherhood, for while it stressed the vital importance of the protector role, it also showed that millions of women and children were able to get along just fine while fathers were away for months or years at a time.
The 1950s saw a flowering of familism in America, perhaps inspired by the wish to get back to a simple domestic life after the trauma of war. The modern nuclear family reached its zenith, with men going to work each day and women staying home to keep the house and care for the children. However, as quickly as it appeared, the 1950s family vanished in the 1960s. Popenoe says that the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the divorce revolution of the 1970s, and the women's liberation movement of the 1980s all continued trends that had been evident as far back as the roaring 1920s but had been put on hold due to the upheavals of the Great Depression and World War II (119). The end result, in Popenoe's opinion, is that the modern nuclear family is finished. It has outlasted its social purpose and society right now is desperately trying to come up with an alternative. Popenoe believes that whatever this alternative is, it needs to include an emphasis on fatherhood.
3. Why Fathers Matter
Men are much better equipped than women to teach their sons how to be men and to teach their daughters how to relate to men.
In the section “Why Fathers Matter,” Popenoe explains the importance of fathers in the upbringing of children. In addition to being a mere “second adult” in the household along with the mother, tradition and biology both support the common expectation that males should serve as protectors and providers for their wives and children. Men’s physical strength combines with other attributes to make them irreplaceable in the father role. Men are much better equipped than women to teach their sons how to be men and to teach their daughters how to relate to men. They have a “rough-and-tumble” approach to play which teaches children physical and emotional self control. Furthermore, fathers stress to their children the importance of competition, risk-taking, and eventual independence, providing the metaphorical “wings” that complement the “roots” mothers create through their gentle nurturing. Finally, fathers and mothers strike an important balance when disciplining children, men preferring to stick to the established rules and women preferring discipline intuitively.
While Popenoe believes that fatherhood is a good and praiseworthy thing, he also believes it to be a product of evolution that still runs against the grain of males. “Nature is perverse. Men have a strong capacity to father, but male biology pulls men away from long-term paternal investment and pair-bonding” (173). He attributes to a weakness in evolution what Christians attribute to the weakness brought by sin; that is, while men have a natural biological tendency toward fathering, they are only weakly attached to it and to marriage, seeking to wander for “greener pastures.” We can agree with Popenoe that the most prosperous societies would be those which encourage men into marriage and fatherhood, and that American society has been in decline because of the lack of this encouragement.
4. Popenoe's Recommendations
He encourages all sectors of society to be unequivocal in promoting marriage and placing it on a higher level than ‘committed relationships.’
Having given his readers a modern history of fatherhood in Part Two and a defense of its importance in Part Three, in Part Four Popenoe draws his conclusions for societal action. He believes that Americans ought to make a concerted effort to restore fatherhood as a primary cultural virtue. He says, “We are somehow going to have to undo the cultural shift toward radical individualism and get people thinking again in terms of social purposes. Specifically, we are going to have to reembrace some cultural propositions or understandings that throughout history have been universally accepted but which today have become unpopular, if not in fact rejected outright” (197). In short, these propositions are that fathers are unique and irreplaceable to their children, children need a “committed male and female couple” to provide them a favorable growing environment, men need the cultural pressure of marriage to help keep them in touch with their children, “children need to feel ... accepted by their fathers”, and the selfless love of biological fathers is the best and most reliable (197).
According to Popenoe, these five cultural propositions boil down to two actions which our society must take. First, we must reestablish marriage as a primary social institution. He encourages all sectors of society to be unequivocal in promoting marriage and placing it on a higher level than “committed relationships.” Second, Popenoe says that we must redefine fatherhood to make it fit in modern society. That is, we must give men clear expectations of their duties as husbands and fathers, replacing today’s murky “anything goes” situation. He argues against androgyny, but taking into account the new roles of women in modern society he says that “fathers should have an ‘equivalent parenting role’ with mothers” (211). He emphasizes that equivalent roles are not “the same” roles. Fathers and mothers need to celebrate their differences in temperament and experience while sharing the labors of childrearing. Popenoe acknowledges that women are more ideally suited for infant nurturing than men, but that as children mature their fathers provide an emotional leadership and family peacemaking ability that is irreplaceable. In addition, fathers have the responsibility to maintain the strength of the marriage bond while mothers expend their energy nurturing young children.
He emphasizes that equivalent roles are not “the same” roles. Fathers and mothers need to celebrate their differences in temperament and experience while sharing the labors of childrearing.
Another of Popenoe’s convincing arguments for marriage bears mentioning. Science and sociology have shown time after time that marriage has a tremendous positive influence on men’s lives. Simply put, married men are happier, healthier, enjoy greater longevity, and are more productive at work, enjoying more frequent promotions and wage raises. In addition, much to the chagrin of those who preach sexual liberation, they have much more fulfilling sex lives (216-17).
Popenoe ends his book with “windows of hope,” certain trends he sees in society which can help us be optimistic in the midst of what can be a very depressing discussion. He says that cultural change tends to move in cycles, each generation reacting against the strengths and weaknesses of its predecessors. There are significant movements within our society promoting the natural family, whether it be through religious, scientific, or political channels, and they all have reasonable arguments on their side. In addition, the fast-paced economic changes of the twentieth century, which challenged many families with “sudden affluence,” have begun to stabilize. No one can tell the future, but it is not unreasonable to say that all these factors may lead to a renaissance of the American family in our time.
Popenoe somewhat arbitrarily chooses what kinds of social change are or are not possible, and thus does not take into account the possibility of redefining new notions of contemporary culture to fit older notions of fatherhood.
This book is not without its weaknesses. Popenoe’s tendency to explain human behavior and tradition through evolution is evident throughout. However, I was most disappointed to find near the end of the book that his plan of action for the nation includes two quite objectionable premises regarding nonmarital cohabitation and premarital sex. In both cases he falls into a pragmatic trap, saying that society should not stigmatize activities that it cannot reasonably prevent. Popenoe acknowledges that nonmarital cohabitation before marriage often leads to divorce, but in his opinion we should allow it to exist in a “limited and responsible form” (204) even as we try to reduce its prevalence. He argues that since nonmarital cohabitation makes more practical sense in our contemporary culture it is beginning to be practiced by more people than just “young tradition challengers” who are good candidates for divorce: “Nonmarital cohabitation is becoming widely accepted as a responsible phase of the normal life course, and it is likely that the association between cohabitation and divorce will weaken or vanish as more and more young people cohabit” (203). In this context he also advocates “no sex before adulthood,” meaning that promiscuity should not be tolerated but that responsible adults should be allowed to have sex with one person in a loving relationship (204). Popenoe apparently overlooks how these two premises work at cross purposes to the promotion of marriage. It is unreasonable to promote any kind of relationship which permits sexual intimacy outside a permanent, monogamous bond while still claiming that spouses ought to be sexually faithful to one another. The abandonment of the belief that marriage is the only environment for sex is the very thing that is toppling marriage as the dominant social institution.
There is a similar logical weakness to Popenoe’s assertion that we must redefine fatherhood to be applicable to contemporary culture. I feel he is being contradictory when he says so emphatically that “we cannot go back” to previous forms of fatherhood (210). At other times he highlights the rapid social change that has come about when millions of people begin to agree on a new idea (e.g., the civil rights movement and the women’s liberation movement) (209), and he criticizes those who refuse to look to the past to draw lessons for the present (99). In my opinion, if it is reasonable for millions of people to reform society’s appreciation of fatherhood, then it is not unreasonable for millions of people to also recognize the merits of any particular past economic system, such as male breadwinning, and re-implement it. Popenoe somewhat arbitrarily chooses what kinds of social change are or are not possible, and thus does not take into account the possibility of redefining new notions of contemporary culture to fit older notions of fatherhood.
The fact that an evolutionist who seems to care little about religion has spoken out so strongly in favor of marriage (and has defined marriage quite in harmony with biblical revelation) is very encouraging.
Despite the weaknesses in this book, its overall message can give us a window of hope just like the ones Popenoe saw opening up in our society thirteen years ago. For this reason I recommend this book to anyone looking for a scholarly analysis of marriage and family life. The fact that an evolutionist who seems to care little about religion has spoken out so strongly in favor of marriage (and has defined marriage quite in harmony with biblical revelation) is very encouraging. God designed a beautiful world that is rational and has a proper order, and He implanted in man, the crown of this creation, an inner knowledge of that order (Romans 1:19-20). No matter what Satanic clouds may darken man’s understanding, this inborn knowledge of God and His moral rules remains (Romans 2:14-15). Ideas which are antithetical to this knowledge and to the order of creation will crumble in failure like a house built on sand. David Popenoe should be applauded for being one of the first in the secular academic world to recognize that fatherlessness is not some noble experiment, but rather a terrible detriment to society. Furthermore, we Christians can take comfort that there are others in this world who share one of our temporal hopes, looking forward to the benefits that can be achieved when we promote a worldview that celebrates God’s created order.
Mr. Matthew Sulzle serves as the secretary on The Hausvater Project's Board of Directors. He has earned a B.A. in Music and a minor in History with highest honors. Mr. Sulzle lives in northern Iowa with his wife and son.