“I have come to take a stand against the recent tide of opinion and the rash of books asserting that boys must have a father in the home in order to grow to full manhood.”
Thus Peggy Drexler begins her conclusion of Raising Boys Without Men.
Her conclusion is true. It is also a straw man.
There has not been a rash of books asserting that boys must have a father in order to grow to full manhood. There has been ample documentation, though – especially David Blankenhorn’s Fatherless America and David Popenoe’s Life Without Father – that boys are more likely to do better with a father than without. In any group, some will thrive despite risky conditions, and some will fail despite having all the advantages. Most members of the group, though, will respond in the normal way. That is the definition of normal. And most boys do better with a father than without. The fact that Drexler found a small, select group of boys who seem ok through middle school without a traditional father in their home is not really a disproof of the general claim.
Moreover, Drexler demonstrates the many ways in which the mothers she interviewed, especially in the lesbian couples, went out of their way to find father substitutes for their sons. The mothers, as well as the sons, sought out grandfathers, uncles, neighbors, mother’s male friends, coaches, and teachers, to be male role models for their sons. This is an admirable work-around for what the mothers themselves saw as a potentially risky absence in their sons’ lives. Most interestingly, in the lesbian couples, the birth mother tended to act like a traditional mother, and the “social mother” tended to act like a father. The single mothers, likewise, turned to “the village” for all kinds of help with their children, especially for men to be father-like to their sons.
As I noted yesterday, Drexler’s core concern, that sons raised only by mothers would suffer from “smotherlove” and be sissified, seems surprisingly old-fashioned. A more pressing question of the past decade has not been about boys with too much mothering, but boys with too little fathering. Fatherless boys cause most of the social problems that we face in America. Groups of fatherless boys – slum gangs – are the greatest domestic terror threat, posing a far greater danger than Al Qaeda or the white supremacist militias. (Those groups, by the way, seem to be disproportionately made of fatherless boys, too).
The boys that Peggy Drexler studied seem to pose no threat to society. On the contrary, the picture she presents is of boys who are unusually thoughtful and sensitive. Why are they so different from that other, more dangerous group of fatherless boys?
First, Drexler is only showing us these boys as boys. The subjects of her study had not even finished high school when the study ended. We do not see many of them in the real danger years.
Second, the enduring legacy of divorce that Judith Wallerstein writes about comes when the children of divorce attempt to marry, which they often delay for years. Only a few of Drexler’s subjects are the children of divorce. It would be interesting to see how this grab-bag of sons of “maverick moms” – lesbian couples, single-mothers-by-choice, divorced, widowed, and never-married mothers – made marriages of their own. My guess is that the children of divorced and never-married mothers would follow the pattern Wallerstein found, though this group, which Drexler seems to have selected because they are high functioning, will probably do a bit better than average. The kids of widows, single-by-choice, and lesbian moms will probably be more confident than the divorced kids that they can marry successfully, because they are less likely to feel that their fathers abandoned them. But only time, and a systematic research plan, will tell.
Third, and most important, Drexler obscures the difference that class makes in the lives of these boys. For her original study, Drexler chose stable, educated, older, white, business and professional couples. They appear to live in neighborhoods of similar families. These boys are worlds away from the sons of poor, young, single mothers in slums where few households contain stable couples of any kind. For Drexler’s main subjects, money helps keep their home and neighborhood stable and secure, and goes a long way to underwriting the “village” of coaches, teachers, and men-at-a-distance who fill in the gaps in the boys’ lives. Moreover, the lesbian couples’ families are, as far as we are told, very small – the focal boy, and maybe another child – so the double income of their white-collar mothers is not spread over many other kids. Drexler’s second set of “maverick moms, “ most of whom are single, are not as rich, and appear to have more kids. Still, with only a few exceptions, this is a middle-class-or-better sample.
Raising Boys Without Men is an interesting, but very limited, study. If it were called Raising a Boy With Functional Moms, Money, and Lots of Helpful Men and Women, Though Without Fathers in the Home, the book would be more honest, if a bit less surprising.