The Nation's Pulse

Family Deformation

One in five American mothers have children from different men.

By 4.8.11

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A recent eye-opening study put numbers to an issue that I have written about repeatedly: One in five of all American mothers have children from different men. When mothers of more than two children are isolated, the number jumps to 28 percent. When race is isolated, it gets extreme: 59 percent of African-American mothers and 35 percent of Hispanic mothers have children with more than one father. The mothers were overwhelmingly low income with little education; while they were "poorer than others to begin with," their single-parent status virtually assured that "their whole lifetimes [would] continue to be disadvantaged."

This is no small problem, as indicated by the fact that press coverage of the report ranged from Medical News Today to Forbes, from "Imperfect Parent" to "WebMD," and from MSNBC to the Los Angeles Times. The negative consequences for both the mother and the child are so well documented they have almost ceased to register on the public's radar. Yet, warnings about the outcomes -- bleak as they are -- are not getting through to the culture, and we continue to see the myth perpetuated that single motherhood is glamorous and the "baby daddy" culture as a substitute for husband/father continues to thrive, especially among the poor and uneducated in America. The number of young women who are cohabitating instead of getting married is increasing; the number who have children before getting married is increasing; and the number of children who live in blended households as a result of divorce or prior cohabitation is increasing, as my research and writing reveals.

Single moms of children from multiple fathers are far more likely to be "under-employed, to have lower incomes, and to be less educated." The children in these households live with enormous stress: "Everyday decisions are more complex and family rules are more ambiguous." Just figuring out logistics, such as "whose turn it is to spend time with the kids and who gets more attention," and dividing up time, responsibilities, and finances -- who lives with whom when, who is responsible for what when, and who pays for food, clothing, and incidentals, as well as who pays child support for what child -- is daunting and sometimes impossible. Sadly, and most damaging to the children, is that the conflicts that lead the parents to separate in the first place tend to go on and on, with the kids often getting caught in the middle.

The study's author, Cassandra Dorius, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, presented her findings at the Population Association of America. She studied data from up to 20 interviews with each of 4,000 women over a 27-year-period. The data for the study came from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. Dorius called the trend an "intergeneratic transmission of disadvantage." She said, "Juggling all the different needs and demands of fathers in at least two households, four or more pairs of grandparents, and two or more children creates a huge set of chronic stressors that families have to deal with for decades."

Opposition to Dorius's findings was immediate.

Black critics accused the author of focusing an "unfair spotlight" on black women's "love lives," "over-sensationalizing" and holding up "stereotypes" of black women for "ridicule." One critic was concerned that "this will be another way that this country will put a negative label on black women."

Other critics were afraid "people will point to this fact as an example of the decline in American morality and the cause of a good number of societal ills." In fact, the critic accused society of wanting to "police the sexuality of women -- especially women of color -- and these troubles will be laid at our feet."

There are those, too, who believe the situation is not "inherently bad or good" and, in a flight from reality, they argue that any group of people can successfully parent. They contend that the larger problem is whether the dad plays a role in his child's life, whether married or not. Yet research is clear and unsurprising: When a mother finds a new man or has a child by another man, fathers typically become less involved financially and emotionally, and they are far less likely to be a physical presence in their children's lives.

Some reports sought to debunk the "myth of the perfect family." Such thinking, however, merely sets up a straw man and is erroneous. There is a voluminous body of research that is clear and unambiguous: The very best family for a child's positive development and good outcome is a married mom and dad.

The critics can sidestep the issue with their victimhood opposition, but the facts are accumulating from highly respected universities and think tanks across the ideological spectrum, and the conclusion is unanimous: Those who are care about women and children must do something to change the pernicious "baby daddy" culture that is destroying the future of so many promising young women and precious children. As Time magazine put it: "Growing up in a home in which different men cycle in and out is not good for a child's health or well being. Think of these families as having 'domino dads,' with each one's departure putting pressure on the next."

All the comments about victimhood do nothing but perpetuate the problem in minority communities. Only by facing facts and addressing problems realistically can we hope to see a brighter future and the inherent potential of the next generation realized.

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About the Author

Janice Shaw Crouse, is the author of Children at Risk and Marriage Matters.