Fostering fatherhood or marriage?

Bush's fatherhood initiatives may neglect nontraditional dads.

Published January 31, 2007 7:45PM (EST)

Today a piece on AlterNet about the Bush administration's new fatherhood initiatives raises an interesting question: Are we doing fathers -- or kids, for that matter -- any favors by shoveling federal dollars into programs solely focused on promoting marriage? The $42 million recently awarded to various fatherhood initiatives nationwide will, to different degrees, fund job training services, classes that promote healthy parenting and workshops meant to strengthen marriages. But it's no secret that Bush and his compatriots are fixated on marriage -- with the fervor of the imagined 10-year-old girl who keeps a scrapbook depicting her future dream wedding -- and social policy experts are worried that funds will be misdirected from promising programs that focus on fatherhood toward those promoting matrimony.

The trouble with the marriage-focused approach to supporting fatherhood is that it neglects the wide array of nontraditional family setups (which, it has been argued, are becoming the rule rather than the exception). Not to mention, promoting marriage as a necessarily good thing seems treacherous. "Fathers need to be involved with their children in a positive way and should get married only if it's the right situation," Vivian Gadsden, director of the National Center on Fathers and Families in Philadelphia, told AlterNet. "We need to figure out all different configurations of families without judgment."

"The notion that getting people married creates a long-term way to support women and children is downright foolish," said Barbara Risman, executive director of the Council on Contemporary Families. "Women may or may not stay married. Better to make sure each parent is competent." Along the same lines, Vicki Turetsky, a senior staff attorney with the Center for Law and Social Policy, told AlterNet that programs that cultivate men's employment and economic stability in turn aid families. That would seem to apply to traditional and nontraditional families alike -- a father's ability to financially support his offspring is beneficial to the children, regardless of the particular domestic setup.

There's no doubt that the best approach to supporting fatherhood would employ a number of different tactics -- including an emphasis on healthy marriages and relationships. But that should be a small component of the larger whole. We -- or at least some of us -- have to get over the fact that many American families will be splintered and kids will grow up without the two-parent, white-picket-fence fantasy. Sure, some will. But the common denominator is a father's relationship with his child. (To employ a popular conservative talking point: It's all about the chiiildren!) "Whether the men were physically present or absent, they were emotionally present in these kids' heads," said Gadsden of her related research. "Much of what they did was in response to interactions with their fathers. Kids should be at the center of the discussion. There is an incredible yearning for male companionship."

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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