"Dr. Laura...I hate Father's Day. My children's father left us and he takes no interest in them. And then I get your email about how important fathers are. Are my children scarred for life?"
"Dr. Laura...I am a single mother by choice. I resent the implication that I am damaging my child by not giving her a father."
"Dr. Laura....My partner and I (both women) chose to have two children using a sperm donor. We work hard to be excellent parents."
Every year when I post in honor of Father's Day, I hear from mothers who are raising children without fathers. These moms are working hard to give their children everything they need, but whether by choice or by fate, there is one thing they aren't giving them: a father. Understandably, they bristle when I say that fathers are important.
So if Father's Day touches a nerve with you, this post 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.) Trauma doesn't come from the experience, but from suffering alone without someone to help you work through the experience. 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 a committed parent there to help them heal 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, renouncing punishment in favor of 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.
When a parent 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 factor 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. 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 yes, moms tend to be more "nurturing" -- but 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 rock-climbing group who offers him something you can't.
5. 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, because they lose the family and life they had before the divorce. That is a big loss, and we shouldn't deny that it's real. But that loss, like all losses, can heal. And it is much less of a problem than living in a situation where the parents are at war.
The lasting wounds from divorce come when a child feels rejected by one parent, forced to choose between parents, or when a stepparent introduces negativity 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. Not only is this immeasurably better for your child, it is also 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 guide Divorce: Protecting Your Kids.
6. Same-sex couples raise great kids.
The American Academy of Pediatrics reviewed three decades of research and concluded that children of same-sex couples grow up just as emotionally healthy as the rest of the population. So 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 2012 University of Texas study claimed the opposite, but most of the kids in that study had not lived with their gay parent most of their lives. So that study tells us nothing about whether same-sex couples can raise kids well.)
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.