Monday, June 2, 2008

Do Families Need Fathers?

This is the hard question now facing England. "The first civil partnerships in 2005 were met with such enthusiasm that it seemed Britain had become a new, more tolerant place, accepting of non-traditional families. But today that tolerance will be tested as MPs decide whether the embryo bill should be amended to make it almost impossible for lesbians and single women to have children through IVF." The debate is over wording that would require the presence of a father for IVF in the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act.

Here is some of the story from The Guardian UK:
What seems to get people most upset is what the bill might mean for traditional ideas of family - that it is, acccording to Duncan Smith, "hammering a nail into the coffin of the traditional family", and specifically the role of the father. As the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, argued in a speech to the House of Lords: "Is it not self-evident that the welfare and needs of a child are enhanced and met when there is a father present?"

Few would argue that fatherhood is not a serious issue in a country which, according to the Office of National Statistics, has nearly three million children in single-parent heterosexual families, 91.2% of which are headed by the mother. But this has to do with a broad range of issues, not least the rate of divorce, currently at 45% (that's 45% of people who initially did what conservatives want them to do, ie get married); it has very little to do with lesbians and single women seeking IVF treatment. According to the most recent figures from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), only 1.4% of all women receiving IVF cycles were single, while only 0.5% of all women receiving IVF cycles were registered as lesbian - that's 574 cycles and 201 cycles respectively. When you consider that women can often undergo more than one cycle, that's just not very many women. And "the reality," says Summerskill, "is that almost every lesbian couple with children works assiduously to ensure that there are male role models for their children, whether they be family members or good friends."

It just underlines the fact that there seems to be a larger, more judgmental argument bubbling under the surface. The broad, cross-party support for civil partnership may indicate a certain tolerance - but this issue of children, it seems, is testing its limits. Sentamu, for example, also argued, last year, that the bill was putting the interests of "consumers" who wanted to become parents before the welfare of children. "There is an unpleasant seam of rampant individualism at the heart of this bill," he said, "rooted in a consumerist mentality, where the science that allows something to happen is transformed into the right to have it." Consumerism in society is worth arguing about - but, given that the clause does, in effect, apply only to lesbians and single women, it takes on a more worrying tinge: that these groups are being selfish; that having babies and by extension, perhaps, being single or gay - is simply a lifestyle choice; that for such people to have babies is careless, like taking on a puppy soon to be tired of and abandoned.

"There will be Conservatives who stay away [from the vote today]," says Summerskill, "because they've told us they find the argument quite distasteful. They think it's an anti-gay argument dressed up as something else. And indeed one on the front bench has said it has the sense of section 28 about it."

IVF requires a huge degree of financial and physical commitment. You cannot accidentally get pregnant, have the baby, and let it take its chances, as heterosexual couples do all the time. Duncan Smith claims that, without fathers, boys join gangs and teenage girls become pregnant. But "there's nothing magical about fathers," says Susan Golombok, professor of family research and director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, and co-author of Growing Up in a Lesbian Family. "Fathers who are very involved with their children are good for children. But fathers who are not very involved - they aren't as important, and can even have a negative effect. It's a very simplistic notion to think that fathers are important just because they're male."

Don't boys need male role models? "The thing is that fathers make absolutely no difference to their children's development of masculinity or femininity," she says. "Studies that have looked at single-parent families have not found that boys are less masculine or girls less feminine. In fact, it seems that parents make very little difference to the masculinity or femininity of their sons and daughters. The peer group is more important, and the stereotypes that are around them in their day-to-day life. Even in families where parents try hard to influence their children's gender developent, where they try to stop their sons being very masculine, for example, and try to make them more gender-neutral, actually find that whatever they do makes no difference whatsoever. Fathers are important more in terms of emotional wellbeing, not in terms of role models."

I'm not sure I agree that fathers are unnecessary as role models for children, or for their normal psychological development. Maybe there doesn't need to be a traditional father, but it seems to me there is certainly a need for a masculine presence in the lives of children of either sex.

For nearly all of human history, children have grown up with the presence of some kind of masculine energy, either as part of the tribe as part of the family. It has only been in the last 100 years or so that children have grown up without the presence of a man in their daily lives, as most men have had to work outside the home.

There are a lot of books in recent years that have examined the impact of this new trend in human history. Nearly all of them conclude that, at least as far as boys are concerned, the absence of the father has a serious impact on gender identity and mental health.

In my own case, my father was mostly absent (due to work) as a young child, and then he died when I was 13. That absence at the most important transitional period in my self-identity was crucial in my life -- in a bad way. I missed that mentoring that a father should provide for his son as a he grows into manhood.

I'm certainly not opposed to single women and lesbians having children -- good parents are good parents, no matter the gender. But I would hope that these women consider that their children need a male presence for normal psychological development. Maybe they don't need a traditional father, but they do need to experience a masculine archetype.

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