There is no better time than the midpoint between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day to set the record straight about the impact of Mom and Dad in a boy’s life: Contrary to our most popularly held assumptions, single mothers aren’t responsible for producing terrible men, and absent fathers aren’t a death sentence for boys. Because what we’re really talking about when we lament fatherlessness for boys is that we believe mothers nourish and fathers teach discipline. So by extension, what we’re really saying is that we don’t believe women can teach men proper masculinity. And that we strongly believe boys are missing out on being taught limits, discipline and how to manage their aggression, emotions and anger when fathers aren’t in the picture.
Without these things, we think, men are irrevocably screwed. But do these assumptions still hold water?
First, most children today grow up in two-parent households, or about 69 percent. Of the remaining 31 percent of households with only one parent, 83 percent of those are headed by the mother. Currently, one in four kids under the age of 18 are raised without a father, or about 16.4 million children.
The statistics on single mother parenting don’t exactly look great. There’s a greater risk of poverty, behavioral problems, suicide, substance abuse and dropping out of high school. Generally speaking, criminals (who are typically male) are more likely to have grown up in a single parent household. Prisons are lousy with fatherless men, and some 92 percent of men currently behind bars are fathers themselves, carrying on the legacy of their own fatherless childhoods. Some research shows that when women raise boys alone, the lack of resources trickles down to the support and education given to those boys, who end up with lower incomes as adults themselves.
Then there are the mythical whoppers that get bandied about without scrutiny: All school shooters are fatherless. That’s unfounded. Some of them are; many of them are not. Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, had a single mother. Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters, didn’t. Caleb Sharpe, who shot up his Washington State high school in 2017, knew his father, because he accessed his dad’s safe to get the guns he used.
“This is all the incapacity to manage your aggression,” Mark Banchick, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who focuses on marriage, divorce and raising healthy children, says about the bleak statistics on men raised by single moms. “Whether we agree that the Y chromosome provides that aggression or not, we could argue all day. But we know that boys need to manage their aggression, their impulse control. The capacity to say no to yourself — to say I have the discipline to not to be angry, to not hit someone. I have the discipline to manage my emotions. It’s an important component of masculinity. And when they aren’t taught this, you get all these behaviors — depression, acting out, suicide.”
Banchick sees numerous single mothers in his practice, who in his view, overwhelmingly raise healthy boys. When he counsels single mothers struggling with teaching men these self-regulatory skills for emotion, he doesn’t actually see it as something the mother is doing wrong, but rather that certain boys won’t accept this from his mother.
In other words, she could teach him the skills, he just may not be able — due to a mixture of his own temperament, their dynamic and cultural messages telling him to shun anything like a female influence — to hear it, accept it or internalize it while also trying to separate from her. “There’s a wrinkle for some boys in having their mother both provide nurturance and setting limits,” he explains. “It’s often helpful to have two people or more involved with raising kids so all the pressure isn’t all on one parent to provide nurturing support and set limits at the same time.”
But he doesn’t think that’s a father, per se. “Fatherlessness isn’t the same thing as male-lessness,” he says. Sometimes, he can instruct the boy about how he’s talking to or treating his mother and help him understand it’s not appropriate or respectful, and they’re simply better able to take it from another man. At issue, he says, is that for some boys there’s a particular tension with their mother at the point when they begin to break away from her to explore and form a masculine identity. Particularly important is that in our culture, men are largely defined by how they aren’t like women.
“Boys sometimes to need to differentiate from their mother as part of their masculine identity,” Banchick says. “I’m not her, I’m me. Some boys 9 or 10 don’t want to talk to their mothers. They ignore their mothers and write off their mothers. Most women will roll their eyes and know it’s not a big deal — a boy needs to find his identity from his mother. But he may feel if he caves to her, he can feel as if he’s being undermined. He can feel like — you can’t tell me what to do.”
Banchick notes this is reinforced “a thousand times by society. Culture gives men the notion that if you cave to your mother, you’re a mama’s boy and that’s not okay. Many boys can’t take that. So they push back at the mother.”
Such cultural perceptions pervade the informal discussions of what it means to be raised by a single mother. Online, some men talk openly with regret about having learned how to be emotional from their mothers, but not how to be a man (notice being a man must mean not emotional). Men recount negative experiences with single mothers, but they’re all largely attributable to the mother’s issues or personalities themselves, not their marital status — issues that would potentially harm a child in any relationship setting, such as mental illness or being overbearing. One man’s main issue with his mother is how often she asks him to think about issues he discussed in dating from the woman’s point-of-view.
But other men say the opposite: That they’ve benefited enormously from being raised by single mothers, particularly those raised in the 1980s and 1990s with women who had jobs and careers, and who they saw hustle to raise and support them. Particularly if they’ve seen their fathers behave badly.
Plenty of widely admired celebrities were raised by single mothers, too, including Barack Obama and Jon Stewart, proving it’s not a one-way ticket to jail. “If you’re raised by a single mother, if you’re a young boy or young man, you really can’t hold two opposing thoughts in your mind about women,” explains Leah Klungness, a psychologist and author of The Complete Single Mother. “You can’t hold the idea that women are stupid or a girl can’t do that. Or what the hell does that chick know? Because who puts food on the table? Mom. Who makes sure you have what you need? Mom. Who does your laundry? Mom. Who teaches you right from wrong? Mom.”
In her view, single mothers impart multitasking to their sons, a skill they pick up from motherhood. They see them working hard, juggling everything, and they learn how to do two things at once. They learn independence; they learn self-reliance; and they learn to respect women. It’s not that there can’t be examples of women who are less ideal mothers or more ideal mothers, but she’s seen the same kind of situation in women who stay at home, or are in two-parent households. “The truth is, there’s no one statement you can make about single mothers, because there’s no family situation that’s 100 percent ideal,” she says. “But there are some real positives to men being raised in a single mom household.”
This is a fairly radical statement given that single motherhood has been stigmatized for decades, along with the idea that having generations of men raised by women is a bad thing, responsible for some fundamental loss in men that leaves them less strong.
That happened for a few reasons. First, divorce rates picked up in the 1970s and peaked in the 1980s. Courts routinely awarded custody of children to mothers, not fathers, until only recently, when judges began moving toward a 50/50 split whenever possible. More rigid gender roles and discriminatory pay practices have meant that dads have largely worked rather than deeply engage in the rearing of children, even when the parents were still together, but especially when they split up. Other institutional shifts have led us toward what’s thought of as a more feminized society, with women replacing men as teachers in the mid-19th century (now men are only about 15 percent of elementary school teachers), and religion playing less of a part in boys development (Catholic Church scandals didn’t help).
This has generally been cause for alarm. The conservative right has long waged the campaign that feminism — which allegedly tells women to invest in careers and divorce men with impunity — has destroyed the American family. Single motherhood is viewed largely as a tragedy that succeeds, if at all, in spite of itself.
But the data often misleads, in that we don’t always define what we mean by fatherlessness or single mother-led households, and we don’t always control for poverty. The U.S. Census would consider a mother raising her son 50 percent of the time, and shuttling him to his father’s the other 50 percent, a single parent household (as would be the father’s). A single parent designation doesn’t indicate whether the father is dead, or a deadbeat. It doesn’t indicate if the mother never married in the first place, because she had a child alone by choice, or pursued IVF, increasingly more common. It doesn’t indicate whether the father in question is involved on weekends, or once a year. It doesn’t indicate if the mother is divorced but has a boyfriend, only not remarried, meaning a male figure is in the household, even though it’s not the biological father.
And it doesn’t tell us whether there’s any male figure in the boy’s life at all, which is ultimately the deal breaker in his life. It’s not really whether positive role models are in his house. It’s whether they’re in his life. “A boy wants to identify with a man he can be like,” Banchick says. “A good coach can change a young man’s life by setting limits with him. And getting him to mobilize his aggression in a way he’s in control of rather than his aggression being in control of him.”
Banchick says the problem isn’t that single mothers don’t know this. In fact, most of the single mothers he counsels are concerned primarily about how to help their boys have discipline that doesn’t make him feel diminished by her. That the boy gets oppositional, and she doesn’t know how to extricate. “It takes a village,” he says. “There are so many other role models. There may be an uncle, a coach, a priest, a rabbi, a teacher or even another woman there who can provide stability that they can complain to. Or somebody who can set limits.”
Klungness says in the absence of any good male figures in a boy’s life, she counsels single mothers of sons to point out ideal male behavior every time she sees it in an age-appropriate way, what she calls a patchwork quilt of influences. “You can point to men on the spot, meaning five seconds after an interaction — with a 4-year-old you can’t say ‘Remember yesterday afternoon,’ but you point out qualities you hope your boy models,” she explains. “And certainly, more positive than negative. If you see what we would now call toxic masculinity — someone berating a clerk, throwing something on the floor and walking out — you label it: ‘That was rude. That scared that woman for no reason, and that’s not how we treat people.’”
She adds that men raised by single mothers are seeing a radical shift themselves, one that we can see many men emulating in their relationships as adults. More equal relationships, more engagement, more respect. “When you see a guy pushing a stroller, and making sure he’s got diaper wipes, the whole thing,” she says, “this would’ve been impossible in the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s.”
Similarly, she believes there’s also been a radical shift in the way that many single mothers see themselves. In short, they’ve come to find single motherhood as both a successful endeavor and a joyous one. That not having a father around isn’t the problem, it’s merely making sure to provide what we think of as a father’s role. Because in many cases, the family is better off without the father because he didn’t provide that anyway.
“Everybody has a father,” Klungness says. “But not everybody has a daddy — a loving, consistent male presence in their life. A daddy who happened to be their father or a daddy like an uncle. Somebody that’s always there for them, takes care of them and encourages them. Single mothers can do that, too.”