The Corner

Does ‘The Back-Up Plan’ Work?

Does donor insemination work? That’s a question W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and a member of the Commission on Parenthood’s Future, took on in the Wall Street Journal Friday. He discusses the need for fathers a bit more here.

Q: Is maverick motherhood — just going and getting a sperm donor and bypassing/ giving up on a man — remotely common?

A: Right now, it is not that common. Scholars estimate that between 30,000 and 60,000 children are conceived annually through donor insemination (DI) in the United States, and more than 4 million children are born every year now in the U.S. So that would suggest that about 1 percent of children are born through donor insemination.

But some of these DI children are conceived by lesbian couples or heterosexual couples dealing with infertility. So we’re talking about less than 1 percent of children who are being born to maverick moms.

Nevertheless, these “single mothers by choice” appear to be growing, especially as more adults put off marriage and parenthood. And these maverick moms get lots of attention in the press, popular culture, and the academy, partly because journalists and academics seem more likely to be or know maverick moms.

Q: What is motivating these women? Is it giving up on finding a husband? Is it a backlash against tradition?

A: Media accounts, such as Lori Gottlieb’s essay in The Atlantic, suggest that the most common pattern behind maverick motherhood is that a thirty-something woman finds she cannot find her soulmate, realizes her biological clock is winding down, and decides to move on to motherhood without marriage.

So it’s not motivated, by and large, by a rejection of marriage. But Gottlieb argues in her new book, Marry Him, that some of these women, herself included, set standards for their Mr. Right that were too high, and thus find themselves without a husband in their late 30s or early 40s.

So I think the emergence of a “soulmate” model of marriage, where young men and women hold very high expectations for a future spouse, helps to explain why more women — especially highly educated women — find themselves without a husband and a desire to have a child as their biological clock winds down. 

Q: Could society adjust? Hillary Clinton did tell us about the village, after all.

A: Not easily. Very few people, or civic institutions, are willing to invest as much in a child as a biological father. And, especially now, the state has fewer economic resources to invest in fatherless children. 

Q: What happens to a child whose dad is a donor? Besides not having a father in your life, how does that affect a child who knows that her dad is a sperm donor?

A: As I argue in the Wall Street Journal, children who have donor dads are more likely to report a sense of loss in their lives, and to wonder about their paternal origins. Of course, these children also don’t enjoy the distinctive approach that dads typically take to parenting.

Children of donor dads are also much more likely to end up in trouble with the law before age 25, and to turn to drugs and alcohol to fill the paternal hole in their soul. For example, the offspring of maverick moms are 177 percent more likely to have a problem with substance abuse and are 146 percent more likely to report having had a run-in with the law, compared with offspring of two biological parents.

The published comments of donor offspring are suggestive of the challenges facing these kids. For instance, Katrina Clark, the daughter of a maverick mom, wrote the following in the Washington Post: “That was when the emptiness came over me. I realized that I am, in a sense, a freak. I really, truly would never have a dad. I finally understood what it meant to be donor-conceived, and I hated it.”

Q: Could that change as my-daddy-was-a-donor becomes more common? And the stuff, as you mention, of pop culture?

A: It’s possible, but I doubt it.

Many scholars thought children of divorce would do better as divorce became more and more normalized. But research by sociologist Paul Amato indicates that even as divorce has become more common, and more normalized, it still exacts a heavy toll on children.

It turns out that most studies lend empirical support to a notion that the vast majority of ordinary Americans still embrace: Children in the United States are most likely to thrive when they are raised by their own married mother and father.

Q: It seems so basic and yet still an issue: Why are dads so important? 

A: Look, both moms and dads can supply their children with the attention, affection, and discipline that they need.

But, on average, dads who live with their children play a distinctive role in the lives of their children. They tend to contribute more money to the family, they are more likely to engage in exciting, physical forms of play (such as roughhousing) with their children, they are more likely to encourage their children to embrace life’s challenges and opportunities, and they are more likely to successfully discipline teenage sons. They also play an important role in guiding the healthy sexual development of girls, by providing their daughters with attention and affection and a healthy model of masculinity.

Take roughhousing — something dads tend to excel in. As psychologist John Snarey of Emory points out, “children who roughhouse with their fathers . . . usually quickly learn that biting, kicking, and other forms of physical violence are not acceptable.” In other words, by roughhousing with their toddlers and young children, dads teach their children how to control their bodies when they play with others. Roughhousing in turn is linked to children’s later popularity in school. So here dad’s play seems to prepare children to succeed on the playing fields of life.

Q: Why are these women having such a hard time finding men to have children with? Is it them? Is it the men? Who is to blame?

A: I think both men and women can share the blame, along with developments in the broader society. Now, many men and women have unrealistic expectations about potential spouses, many young men act like adolescents well into their thirties (e.g, wasting hours every day on gaming, etc.), too many schools are failing to prepare boys for a productive adulthood, and it’s now harder for young adults to find decent, stable work. All of these social changes make it harder for women to find Mr. Right.

Q: Is there anything to celebrate about donor insemination?

A: It depends if your perspective is adult-centered or child-centered. Obviously, many adults celebrate DI.

But a new report, My Daddy’s Name Is Donor, which was co-authored by Elizabeth Marquardt, Norval Glenn, and Karen Clark, suggests that children find donor insemination much more problematic. A large number of DI children from lesbian, heterosexual-couple, and maverick-mom families express a sense of loss, a longing to know their own biological fathers, and a desire to learn about their father’s kin. They also experience significantly more emotional and social problems than children conceived the old-fashioned way.

Q: Do we, as a culture, value dads enough?

A:  No. From Hollywood to the halls of the academy, as I point out that WSJ piece, we often get the message that dads are superfluous. Plenty of people see men as second-class mothers. And large numbers of men and women in the U.S. think, on average, that single mothers can do just as good a job as a married mother and father in raising children.

But the science does not support the idea that fathers are fungible. On average, children raised in intact, married homes are much more likely to thrive in school, to steer clear of trouble with the law, to avoid a teen pregnancy, and to avoid an untimely demise. Moreover, the positive effects of fatherhood are especially strong for fathers who are engaged, affectionate, and firm with their children.

For instance, a recent study by sociologist Mark Regnerus found that the quality of a father’s relationship with his teenage daughter was a much better predictor of her sexual activity than the quality of her relationship with her mother. Dads appear to play a particularly powerful role in steering their daughters clear of early sex, as well as a teen pregnancy.

Studies like this suggest that dads are not second-class mothers. They have their own distinctive contributions to make to their children, and we should do more as a culture to encourage fathers to plug into their children’s lives and to enable them to keep that connection with their children alive.

For without flesh-and-blood fathers, children are significantly less likely to thrive and even survive.

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