Motherhood is obvious because of the self-evidence of the connection between mothers and their children. The bond is immediate and physical: babies elicit from the bodies of their mothers, attached at their “omphalos” by a cord through which life’s vital necessities have flowed for nine months. Often while still “attached,” a mother will place a newborn child at her breast from where vital sustenance will continue to flow, sometimes for several years. Before the advent of the hospital birth, it was unusual for a mother and baby to be separated for any length of time for days, weeks, months, sometimes years after a child’s birth. The corporeal link was the inescapable fact of the relationship of a child to its mother. The love of a mother and her child is perhaps the most elemental form of love that we humans can know and experience, the love of another being whose body we once shared, whose sustenance is intertwined with our own, whose heartbeats co-existed in syncopated rhythm, whose bodies respond instinctively and immediately to one another.
Somewhat outside of this bond stands the father. For much of human history the biological link between fathers and their presumptive children was only dimly understood and uncertainly established. While it was known that reproduction resulted from the sexual coupling of a male and female, not only was the mechanism shrouded in a mystery that lay hidden within the depths of the woman’s body, but – from a practical standpoint – a man could never be entirely certain that the child that emerged so visibly and obviously from the body of the woman with whom he had coupled was, in point of fact, his child. Everything about the man’s relationship with the child was defined not by the intimate, immediate, and corporeal bond between the mother and her child, but rather by a kind of distance, a remove, and uncertainty. The man’s role in reproduction was momentary, fleeting, and involved leaving his seed inside the woman, now separated from his own body. While the child grew inside the woman’s body, the man might be anywhere, no longer essential for the biological growth and development of his child. Often the act of birth excluded the man, who was often seen as being of little use during birth and more likely to be an obstruction. For many centuries the woman would rather be surrounded by other female care-takers, with men outside the birthing chamber, awaiting news from the sanctum of new life. This practice of exclusion continued into the modern era when men would pace outside the hospital birthing room, to be ushered in only after the child was safely weighed, measured and swaddled. Today fathers are more likely to be present during the entire birthing process, and even prepare to be birth partners, but perhaps the most symbolically meaningful act is the common practice of cutting the umbilical cord, severing the physical bond of the mother and child. During the first years of a child’s life, while the father can be present and essential to a child’s upbringing, the bond between the mother and baby remains elemental, particularly through ongoing breast-feeding. Only after a number of years, typically, would a father and mother exist in a kind of physical separateness from the child. And even then, it remains a known fact that the growing child emerged from the woman’s body.
In most cases, outside of those instances where DNA testing is done, fatherhood remains a leap of faith – certainly one fortified by evidence of physical resemblance and reinforced by upbringing and long interaction, but still – it is a bond based at a deep level more on belief and cognition than instantaneous physical connection. True, we should and must recognize that it is a kind of embodied belief – one that inescapably implies a physical component, an undeniable biological fact. But it is still that first relationship between two humans that is defined by parts embodied reason and parts embodied faith. It is a complementary and fulfilling of the more immediate physical and intuitively intimate bond between the mother and the child. Between the two parents, the bonds that shape a child’s life comprise a kind of whole of human experience of relationality.
As I began by saying, much mischief has resulted from the uncertainty and fear arising from the greater tenuousness of the relationship between fathers and children. Women have often been sequestered out of fear that they might be seduced or raped by another man. From these sorts of fears arose stories of the gods – most often featuring Zeus – dispersing his seed widely, even among women who seemed to be most perfectly sequestered from the intrusion of any man. Intricate laws of inheritance often involved determining the paternity of a given child, but even then, before the invention of DNA testing, it could never be known for certain if a child was definitively the biological progeny of a presumptive father. Medieval alchemists, perhaps seeking to assuage these fears, developed the theory of the homunculus, the belief that a fully formed human being was contained in each male sperm, that the mother was merely the temporary carrier of a human child.
Much feminist commentary rightly decries these male anxieties and their resulting subjugation or diminution of women and mothers. But what this commentary tends systematically to overlook is the fact that, in spite of all of these efforts to attain certainty through the careful oversight of women, fatherhood remains uncertain, tenuous, distant and at a remove, certainly in comparison to motherhood. What is more remarkable and worthy of commentary and even praise is that presumptively biological fathers become ontological fathers at all – not merely presumptively biological partners in procreation, but have more often embraced their status as humans whose relationship is, in a certain sense, defined by embodied reason and embodied faith, and even have become complete partners in the raising of children, in spite of any apparent distance. Fathers more typically overcome the natural anxiety of uncertainty and the inevitable sense of distance from their presumptive children and fully embody their fatherhood. This is the far more remarkable, even miraculous fact. This is not simply the result of nature or instinct – nature and instinct are on the side of the mother and her relationship to her children. Fatherhood implicates the human capacity to bond with other humans that goes beyond the elemental, the instinctive, the immediate and physical. Fatherhood involves the remarkable cultivated human capacity to act fully from deeper motivations of contemplative embodied reflection and faith. Fatherhood is thus the first and most powerful exemplar and model of embodied faith and reason that a child encounters. A man’s fatherhood grounds and activates the capacity for faith and reason in his children – by very virtue of his fatherhood, more than anything he might teach through verbal instruction; rather, a father instructs most deeply through his very presence as a living witness to the lived embrace of faith and reason.
The bond of fatherhood is thus a vehicle of instruction for what are otherwise instinct-deficient human beings. Unlike other creatures, who come to know each other largely through instinctual contact – the sense of smell, sight, gestures that designate basic moods or dispositions – humans are generally strange to one other. We don’t instinctively form hives or colonies like the bees or ants (Aristotle’s comparison of humans to these social animals notwithstanding); while we are in need of one another to attain our flourishing, we don’t come together as a result of an unconscious motivation. We come together consciously through various artifices, and especially through the building of human relationships that are not based upon instinct or instantaneous and instinctive attraction – such as that experienced by animals in heat. To the extent that human relationships are built upon the architecture of artifice – starting with language, ascending through custom and governed ultimately by law within cities – then we can say that human survival and thriving rely upon our capacity to be theoretical creatures. Human life is supported, sustained, and ultimately achieves flourishing through our capacity as self-conscious creatures who base our actions not upon instinct and immediacy, but through conscious reflexivity and artifice. Our very humanness rests upon the cultivation of reason and faith as the most necessary, and the most distinctly human, of our many attainments. The fact of our humanness is a direct result of our capacity to be – for want of a better word – “theoretical.” And, the first and most powerful experience of this “theoretical” bond is through fatherhood, through the central role played by the father in the lives of children who experience the distinctive love of one who – in spite of the fact of greater distance and anxiety – nevertheless, embraces the fact of his fatherhood.
Particularly to the extent that fatherhood is thus the primordial model of embodied faith and embodied reason, fatherhood thus is also the model that exemplifies the form of relationality of some of the most vital and necessary forms of human interaction that define the complete and flourishing human life. We could point especially to four whose form of relationality is based upon, and properly modeled by, less the immediate biological bond of the mother-child, but the reflective and conscious bond of father-child – namely, friendship; marriage; citizenship; and religion. They are each forms of human bonds that rest on our capacity to enact forms of embodied faith and embodied reason with one another. They are the attainments of the human ability – unique among all the animals – to base relationships upon intellection, self-conscious reflexivity, and even reason and faith. They are each a requirement for human flourishing.
That these constitutive social bonds are evidently fraying in advanced societies is reflective not of random and accidental causes, but derives from the very decline of that primordial model of elementary bond – the decline of fatherhood, both in reality and as a station of esteem for today’s opinion-makers. Today we live amid a crisis of fatherhood. It is not even – though it is certainly – that fatherhood is receding as a presence of the lives of so many of our countrymen. This is truly a crisis, and one that should alarm a society that hopes to flourish, even to continue. But our crisis is much worse – it is not only the terrible crisis of fatherlessness that afflicts a growing number of fellow Americans, but the very fact that our society does not see it as a crisis. By way of conclusion, then, let me speculate about the fact of this silence about the nature of our crisis, and how it manifests its pathologies.
A spate of recent articles as well as long-standing research, observes the deeply damaging effect that fatherlessness has upon children unfortunate enough to grow up in single-parent households. In a bracing and chilling article that appeared on Christmas day of last year entitled “Fathers Disappear from Households Across America,” the Washington Times reported that 15 million, or 1 in 3 children, now live in fatherless households – a truly staggering rise. That number has risen threefold since 1960, when just 11% of children lived in homes without fathers, due more often to early mortality than absenteeism. A plethora of studies have shown the fatherless children are more likely to experience poverty, result in lower IQs, perform poorly in schools, be absent more often from school, engage in delinquent and criminal behavior, spend time in jail or prison, evince more suicidal behavior. The absence of fathers clearly and decisively negatively impacts the life prospects of children.
However, while the absence of fathers is a striking and alarming fact in itself, what is perhaps more striking and alarming is that the elites in our nation today largely ignore the magnitude of this crisis, indeed, do not view it as a crisis at all. As Charles Murray has recently shown in his book Coming Apart, the difference between the likely life-outcomes of children is strongly correlated to the presence of both parents in the household, with children growing up in single-family households – almost always with the mother – lead to significant negative consequences across an array of behaviors, including “delinquency in adolescence, criminality as adults, illness and injury in childhood, early mortality, sexual decision making in adolescence, school problems and dropping out, emotional health, etc.” (158). According to Murray’s analysis of data through 2010, just 3 percent of upper and upper-middle class children live in single-parent home. While there has been an extraordinary increase in the incidence of non-marital birth – resulting in the worst outcomes for children – having risen from under 5% in 1960 to nearly 30 percent in 2010, there is a strong negative correlation between the number of years of education and likelihood of such non-marital births. That is, non-marital births – now a third of all births – and the likelihood of fatherless households are an epidemic among the lower and less-educated classes. Yet, as Murray observes, “I know of no other set of important findings that are as broadly accepted by social scientists who follow the technical literature, liberal as well as conservative, and yet are so resolutely ignored by network news programs, editorial writers for the major newspapers, and politicians of both major political parties” (158).
We can speculate on a number of reasons for this conspiracy of silence about this crisis in our underclass. It is particularly striking, to my mind, that many who loudly proclaim their devotion to principles of “social justice” are studiously silent on this crisis of fatherhood, while presumably members of the upperclass whose children generally enjoy the benefits of two-parent families. These are often people who insist on fidelity to scientific findings and decry those who ignore the implications of scientific findings – yet who consistently fail to note the consistent and overwhelming findings in a range of social scientific studies of the rise of fatherlessness, and its deleterious effects, upon the life prospects of children.
Why is this? Doubtless part of the reason, perhaps a large part of the reason, is to avoid the appearance of judgmentalism that might stand accused of racism. However, with an African-American president in office whose personal life appears to be the very model of the healthy human family, why wouldn’t there be liberation from this particular fear, and rather, liberation of encouragement to emulate an exemplary instance of fatherhood?
My suspicion is that the invisibility of fatherhood as a model today has a different cause – its cause is woven more deeply into the fabric of our deepest philosophical and even theological assumptions, and is manifested today by this remarkable, even criminal silence. Our political system was born of the philosophy of liberalism, particularly in the early-modern period in the thought and arguments of thinkers such as John Locke. Much of Locke’s writings consists of a sustained attack on “paternalism,” a philosophy that had sought to link the relationship of father to king, and to justify the rule of kings on the same grounds that fathers were the heads of households. While this philosophy was in ways ill-conceived, the reaction by Locke was excessive, insisting on a temporary obligation of parents to raise children and then the complete liberation of children from the arbitrary bonds of parents. If Locke sought to combat the linking of fathers to rulers, he did so by linking children to those autonomous individuals in the State of nature. That is, children stand in the same relationship as individuals to the State, as rights-bearing individuals who sanction the creation of the State through their consent. As Locke writes in Chapter 6 of the Second Treatise, entitled “Of Paternal Power,” “every man's children being, by Nature, as free as himself or any of his ancestors ever were, may, whilst they are in that freedom, choose what society they will join themselves to, what commonwealth they will put themselves under.” When we reach the age of maturity, we enter the condition akin to that of the State of nature, and we form the bond to our parents, no less than to our polities, in the same manner as our original ancestors who formed the original Social Contract. In seeking to liberate us from the arbitrary rule of the King, Locke succeeded in re-defining the relationship of father to children especially as one of arbitrary tyrant to subjects. Fatherhood was been deeply suspect at the very outset of liberal philosophy for its perceived similarity to kingship, and as a result, has suffered a long descent as a legitimate and model of the human relationship.
By demoting fatherhood’s centrality in our public philosophy, and putting in its place the phantasm of the self-raising, autonomous human person, perhaps even a human that is gladly relieved of that ancient arbitrary authority of the Father – we demote in turn the deepest and most formative essence of fatherhood, the necessary presence of one who complements the corporeal bond of the mother, one who rather personifies the capacity of humans to form deep and lasting bonds on the basis of human reflexivity, particularly embodied reason and faith. The demotion of fatherhood in our official stance that silently endorses fatherlessness as a legitimate lifestyle option thereby demotes all fatherhood, even the role of real fathers, and in my estimation contributes to our declining capacities to bring the resources of reason and faith to some of the most vital areas of human relationality – particularly friendship; marriage; citizenship; and religion – all of which today, by various measures, are in decline and even crisis.
We could do much worse than, as part of a counter-culture, commend the greatest exemplars of fatherhood to our countrymen, though their receptivity at this time is doubtful. There is the model of the priest – while damaged by horrific incidences of abuse in the Church, but nevertheless at best, the model of the man of genuine love and care whose bond is one of embodied faith and reason with his flock. There is, of course, the ideal human model of the Father – St. Joseph. He is the paragon of fatherhood because he exemplifies one who embodies the role of Father in spite of not having been the biological father of the Christ-child – his is the fullest exemplar of embodied reason and faith, especially faith. And then there is the Father of us all, God the Father, that model of infinitely loving, infinitely forgiving, infinitely knowing Fatherhood that is the fount of all of our relationality, our common fraternity and our common sorority. We lack not the models for Fatherhood, but the belief in its centrality. Until we embrace the vital centrality of fatherhood and all it gives to all of our relationships, we will wander as prodigal children in a barren land. We should, and we must, return to the House of our Father.