Politics & Policy

Single Father by Choice: The Newest Trend

Is it any better for kids than single motherhood?

Outrage greeted the 2007 publication of Louise Sloan’s Knock Yourself Up: No Man? No Problem: A Tell-All Guide to Becoming a Single Mom. But Sloan, the former editor-in-chief of American Express Custom Publishing, published only the most comic of the recent books on the subject. (She recounts “cyberstalking an anonymous sperm donor, dealing with exploding semen vials, and being mistaken for a horse breeder.”) An Amazon search turns up, among others, Choosing Single Motherhood: The Thinking Woman’s Guide; Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice: How Women are Choosing Parenthood without Marriage and Creating the New American Family; and the original SMC manual, Single Mothers by Choice: A Guidebook for Single Women Who Are Considering or Have Chosen Motherhood.

Now it looks like men are taking a page out of these books.

National Public Radio reports: “B. J. Holt always wanted to be a dad. As he approached 40, with no life partner in sight, he felt a version of the ticking biological clock. . . . So Holt decided to go it alone. A few years ago, he used an egg donor and a surrogate to create a family of his own.”

Holt is at the fore of the newest trend: the SFC, or single father by choice.

The data on this trend, though, are unreliable. The Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA that studies same-sex issues, reports that 1 million never-married men were raising children alone in 2010, but it is unclear how the institute arrived at this number. The Census Bureau provides for two broad arrangements of unmarried “family groups,” which are defined as “any two or more persons (not necessarily a householder) residing together, and related by birth, marriage, or adoption.” The first arrangement is the “two-parent unmarried family group,” in which the child is the biological offspring of two parents who live together but are not married. The second arrangement is the “one-parent unmarried family group,” in which the child is biologically related to a single parent. The problem with the second grouping is that it covers both single parents living alone with their child and parents cohabiting with a partner who is not biologically related to the child.

Thus there are significant difficulties when discussing the Census data with regard to SFCs. Furthermore, the Census Bureau does not inquire about single fatherhood by choice, so men who are separated or divorced could be raising children by choice as well. And the Census Bureau does not ask about the sexual orientation of parents, so it is difficult to tell how many single fathers are homosexual and how many heterosexual. Adoption and surrogacy agencies have recently reported an increase in interest from single men; anecdotal evidence suggests that it is single gay men who are largely the cause of this spike in interest.

Until more careful studies appear, skepticism should greet attempts to determine exactly how many men are single fathers by choice. But even so, some rough estimates are available by collating various data. The Census Bureau’s 2011 Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC) reports 1.7 million fathers raising “alone” at least one child younger than 18. Of those, 541,000 (31.2 percent) have never been married; 784,000 (45.2 percent) are divorced; 321,000 (18.5 percent) are separated; and the remaining 88,000 (5.1 percent) are widowed. Single fathers by choice could potentially be in any of these groups.

Furthermore, the 2010 Census shows a 1.6 percentage-point increase in “Male householder, other family” households from 1990 to 2010, accompanied by a 6.8 percentage-point decrease in married-couple households. Meanwhile, between 2000 and 2010, opposite-sex unmarried-partner households increased by 40 percent, and same-sex households increased by 80 percent (although the latter still constitute less than 1 percent of all households in the country).

The decline of husband-wife households with biological children, accompanied by the massive increase of unmarried opposite-sex households, indicates that family structures are indeed changing. And given the increasing rate of out-of-wedlock births and the overwhelming tendency of cohabiting couples with children to break up, that raises concerns.

But what does this have to do with single fatherhood by choice?

Study after study has confirmed that single motherhood has detrimental consequences for children. The children of single mothers are more likely to end up impoverished, unemployed, poorly educated, and imprisoned. Today, 53 percent of all births to women younger than 30 are to women who are not married. Because of single motherhood, writes Kay Hymowitz in the Spring 2012 issue of City Journal, “not only do we have more poverty, inequality, and [social] immobility; we have the makings of a caste society, with an inherited elite and an entrenched proletariat.”

Some would counter that it is not growing up with a single mother that is the problem but the instability that so often causes single motherhood: divorce and the like. A single mother by choice would avoid those messy situations. But few single parents, male or female, remain permanently single. They generally enter into new married or cohabiting or dating relationships, injecting a measure of instability into their children’s lives.

The problems that face children of single mothers are a direct consequence of growing up with a missing parent in a situation characterized by flux. And there is little reason to believe that children who grow up today under “enlightened” 21st-century SMCs, guided by sages such as Louise Sloan, will be spared the detrimental effects of those born to the trailblazing SMCs of the 1960s, or to mothers who separated or divorced, whose cohabiting relationships ended, or who bore children because of a “hookup.”

To consider the question of SFCs, then, one needs only to turn the question around: If it is decidedly detrimental to grow up without a father, will it be similarly detrimental to grow up without a mother? As early as 1986, Sara McLanahan, currently the William S. Tod Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, showed that, when it came to determining “whether children of single parents [are] more likely than others to become single parents themselves and become dependent on welfare . . . living with a single father has the same consequences as living with a single mother.” In fact, McLanahan’s early research showed that single-father families were more likely than their single-mother counterparts to produce welfare-dependent, single parents. If the problem for children raised by single mothers is imbalance — all mom, no dad — it is absurd to believe that tipping the scale completely to the opposite side — all dad, no mom — would be any better.

But the trend that Holt represents is plagued by variables, the most complicated (and sensitive) of which is the sexual orientation of the parent.

Mark Regnerus’s New Family Structures Study was published earlier this month to much hand-wringing, particularly from the LGBT community, because it confirmed that even if same-sex households are not bad for children, the traditional household of two married parents with a biologically related child is definitely good. Regnerus’s study admits of some reasonable criticism, but his findings are nonetheless worrisome: Young adults whose fathers had had same-sex relationships were more likely than children raised by their biological parents to be involved in crime, to have sexually transmitted diseases, to have been forced into sex against their will. They were five times as likely as children raised by biological parents to report recent suicidal thoughts.

The question that no one can definitively answer is how children of single homosexual fathers will fare. But if the answer is uncertain, it’s probably not impossible to predict. What is certain is that the single-father arrangement raises serious concerns, which NPR and others who laud the creation of a “new” “alternative” family are content to overlook.

It’s important to recognize that many children raised in these nontraditional arrangements will end up as healthy, productive, morally upright members of society, and that the men who adopt them or raise them with the help of surrogacy will love them and provide for them.

But the evidence indicates strongly that more often single fathers by choice are not doing what is best for the kids. And shouldn’t putting kids first be the goal?

— Ian Tuttle is an editorial intern at National Review.


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