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Five Myths on Fathers and Family: Be on the lookout this week for

stories with these bogus memes.

By W. Bradford Wilcox

With Father’s Day almost upon us, expect a host of media stories on men and family life. Some will do a
good job of capturing the changes and continuities associated with fatherhood in contemporary America.
But other reporters and writers will generalize from their own unrepresentative networks of friends and
family members, try to baptize the latest family trend, or assume that our society is heading ceaselessly in
a progressive direction. So be on the lookout this week for stories, op-eds, and essays that include these
five myths on contemporary fatherhood and family life.


Open a newspaper *1 or turn on a TV 2* in the week heading up to Father’s Day and you are bound to
confront a story on stay-at-home dads. I have nothing against stay-at-home dads, but they make up a
minuscule share of American fathers.

For instance, less than 1 percent (140,000) of America’s 22.5 million married families with children under
15 had a stay-at-home dad in 2008, according to the U.S. Census 3*. By contrast, about 24 percent
(5,327,000) of those families had a stay-at-home mom. This means that the vast majority — more than 97
percent — of all stay-at-home parents are moms, not dads.

The focus on Mr. Mom obscures another important reality. In most American families today, fathers still
take the lead when it comes to breadwinning: In 2008, the Census estimated that fathers were the main
provider in almost three-quarters of American married families with children under 18. Providership is
important to protect children from poverty, raise their odds of educational success, and increase the
likelihood that they will succeed later in life. Thus, the very real material contribution that the average
American dad makes to his family is obscured by stories that focus on that exotic breed, the stay-at-home


Another prevailing media myth is that contemporary women are looking for fathers who will split their
time evenly 4* between work and family life. It may be true for the average journalist or academic, but it
is not true for the average American married mom.

Most married mothers nowadays do want their husbands to do their fair share of housework and childcare.
But they do not define fairness in terms of a 50-50 balancing act where fathers and mothers do the same
thing at home and work. Instead, contemporary mothers take into account their husbands’ work outside the
home when they assess the fairness of the division of labor inside the home.

Moreover, most women who are married with children are happy to have their husbands take the lead
when it comes to providing and do not wish to work full-time. For instance, a 2007 Pew Research Center
study found 5* that only 20 percent of mothers with children under 18 wanted to work full-time,
compared with 72 percent of fathers with children under 18. My own research has shown 6* that married
mothers are happiest in their marriages when their husbands take the lead when it comes to breadwinning
— largely because his success as a provider gives her more opportunities to focus on the children, or
balance childcare with part-time work (the most popular work arrangement for married mothers). So, on
this Father’s Day, dads who are fortunate enough to hold down a good job and make a major contribution
to their families’ financial welfare should take some comfort from the fact that they are likely to be
boosting not only their families’ bottom line but also their wives’ happiness.
With the rise of cohabitation over the last 40 years, a large minority of American children will spend some
time in a household headed by a cohabiting couple. Experts now estimate that about 40 percent of
American children will spend some time in a cohabiting household, either because they are born into such
a household or because one of their parents cohabits after a breakup. Faced with this reality, many
journalists, scholars, and advocates are tempted to minimize the differences 7* between married and
cohabiting fathers and families.

But the reality is that, on average, cohabiting fathers do not compare with married fathers. As Sandra
Hofferth of the University of Maryland and Kermyt Anderson of the University of Oklahoma found in a
recent study, married fathers are significantly more involved and affectionate with their children than are
cohabiting fathers. In fact, from their research, they conclude “that marriage per se confers advantage in
terms of father involvement above and beyond the characteristics of the fathers themselves.”

Married fathers are also much more likely than their cohabiting peers to stick around. One recent study by
Wendy Manning at Bowling Green State and Pamela Smock at the University of Michigan found that 50
percent of children born to cohabiting parents saw their parents break up by age five; by comparison, only
15 percent of children born to married parents saw their parents divorce by age five. Dad is much more
likely to stick around if he has a wedding ring on his finger.

This is because, for men, marriage and fatherhood are a “package deal,” as sociologists Frank Frustenberg
and Andrew Cherlin observed a number of years ago. By force of law and custom, marriage binds men to
their families and gives them a recognizable role to play in the lives of their children. Try as they might,
unmarried men typically find it difficult to be a consistent and positive force in the lives of their children.


Every couple of years, some journalist seeks to revive the myth of the good divorce — often to excuse his
or her own bad behavior. Sandra Tsing Loh is Exhibit A 8* this week. In the most recent issue of The
Atlantic, she spends several thousand words trying to justify her divorce from her husband of 20 years —
a man she admits is a “good man” and “loving father” — under the cover of a sprawling, incoherent, and
frankly disturbing review of five books on marriage and family life. (Among other things, the reader is
regaled with all too much information about Loh’s private life; we learn, for instance, that one reason she
ended up divorced is that she could not replace the “romantic memory of my fellow [adulterous]
transgressor with the more suitable image of my husband.”)

Loh claims that her children appear to be doing just fine. Her two school-age girls — aged 7 and 9 —
appear to be “unfazed” and “relatively content” in the midst of their parents’ divorce. Who knew divorce
could be so easy on the kids?

In reality, Loh is probably deluding herself. The best social science presents a rather different picture than
the rosy one Loh is trying to paint. According to research 9* by Sara McLanahan of Princeton University
and Paul Amato of Penn State, girls whose parents divorce are about twice as likely to drop out of high
school, to become pregnant as teenagers, and to suffer from psychological problems such as depression
and thoughts of suicide. Girls whose parents divorce are also much more likely to divorce later in life.

Moreover, studies indicate that children experience the most harm when their parents divorce after living
together in a low-conflict marriage for many years (as Loh appears to have done). Why? These divorces
come as the most surprising ones to children who thought that their parents had a good-enough marriage.

Though Loh manages to find for her Atlantic piece a bunch of well-educated friends who are also
entertaining thoughts of divorce, she is (fortunately) in increasingly rare company. The work of sociologist
Steven Martin indicates 10* that since 1980, college-educated Americans have grown less tolerant of
divorce, and the divorce rate among this cohort has fallen off sharply. Thus, well-educated readers of The
Atlantic are unlikely to take Loh’s misleading and self-serving essay to heart.


The final myth propagated by journalists in connection with fatherhood these days is the myth of the
dispensable father. Often conjured up in glowing profiles 11* of women who have become single mothers
by choice, this myth holds that fathers do not play a central role in children’s lives.

This myth fails to take into account the now-vast social scientific literature (discussed above) showing that
children typically do better in an intact, married families with their fathers than they do in families headed
by single mothers.

It also overlooks the growing body of research indicating that fathers bring distinctive talents to the
parenting enterprise. The work of psychologist Ross Parke, for instance, indicates 12* that fathers are
more likely than mothers to engage their children in vigorous physical play (e.g., roughhousing), to
challenge their children — including their daughters — to embrace life’s challenges, and to be firm

Not surprisingly, children benefit from being exposed to the distinctive paternal style. Sociologist David
Eggebeen has shown 13*, for instance, that teenagers are significantly less likely to suffer from depression
and delinquency when they have involved and affectionate fathers, even after controlling for the quality of
their relationship with their mother. In his words, “What these analyses clearly show is that mothers and
fathers both make vital contributions to adolescent well-being.”

This is not to say that all journalists get it wrong when it comes to making sense of contemporary
fatherhood and family life. This week, for instance, Sue Shellenberger at the Wall Street Journal had a
great piece discussing 14* the ways in which mothers serve as gatekeepers for fathers to their children;
she also encourages mothers to allow fathers to engage children with their own distinctive style of
parenting. Likewise, Linda Carroll at MSNBC has written an incisive story showing 15* that involved and
affectionate fathers play a crucial role in steering their daughters away from early sexual activity; in fact, it
turns out that dads are more important than moms in protecting their teenage daughters from early sex.

In the coming years, we will need more tough-minded and honest journalism like the kind offered by
Shellenberger and Carroll. This is particularly true because the cultural and economic storms of late —
e.g., the individualistic turn of contemporary life and the recession — have been eroding the marital
foundations of family life in America. Given the social scientific record on fatherhood, marriage, and
family life, the United States could use more journalists who are willing to confront hard truths about the
roles that fathers and marriage play in advancing the welfare of our nation’s most vulnerable citizens, our
children, and the cultural, economic, and legal forces that are now undercutting marriage and fatherhood
in America.

— W. Bradford Wilcox is a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow at the
Institute for American Values.

Stay-at-Home Dads Forge New Identities, Roles
More Fathers Than Ever Are Primary Caregivers

By Katherine Shaver Washington Post Staff Writer Sunday, June 17, 2007

It could have been any play group in the Washington area, except for the diaper bags. No Vera Bradley flowers, no pastel polka
dots. The bags lying around Matt Vossler's Rockville living room Tuesday afternoon were dark Eddie Bauer canvas. One was
red but, as its owner quickly pointed out, "very metrosexual."

"Potty training was a lot of angst for me," Vossler, 43, a onetime paralegal, told the group.

"Bottle feeding was my angst," said Matt Trebon, 36, a former Capitol Hill staffer, as his 3-year-old daughter nuzzled his side.

"And trying to get them to eat well," Vossler continued, bringing up his 6-year-old. "Martin is all carbs."

"Eight days -- no diapers!" Trebon suddenly announced, thrusting his fists into the air.

With their wives as breadwinners, the fathers are part of a small but growing group of men who are quitting or retooling their
careers to stay home with their children.

On Fathers Day, an estimated 159,000 stay-at-home dads, or 2.7 percent of the country's stay-at-home parents -- almost triple
the percentage from a decade ago -- will celebrate what has become a full-time job, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But
experts say that number should be far higher because the census definition doesn't consider single fathers, those with children
over 15 or those who work part-time or flexible hours to be home. Federal labor statistics show the number of fathers providing
their young children's primary care is more like one in five.

Those fathers are changing the way many children are growing up and the calculations families make as they try to balance
busy and often conflicting lives. "Men have started to join the struggle of how you juggle family and work," said sociology
professor Andrea Doucet, who studies Canadian stay-at-home fathers at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Stay-at-home dads now have Web sites, blogs such as "A Man Among Mommies," support groups and an annual convention.
They are showing up in "Mommy and Me" classes and PTA meetings. Many men's restrooms now have diaper-changing tables,
and companies market souped-up strollers with brand names such as "the Bob."

Those in the Washington region who have lived elsewhere say they sense more of their kind here because of the prevalence of
high-powered working women. DCMetroDads, a group started nine years ago, has 325 members.

Publishers and TV talk shows have made a cottage industry out of the "Mommy Wars" debate and the angst of motherhood. But
stay-at-home dads are subject to relatively little study and, unlike their wives, generally don't care that their 6-year-old is still
wearing pajama bottoms at 3 p.m.

Sometimes, society goes easy on them.

"Dads get so much credit for staying home with the kids," said Eric Hazell, 43, of Bowie, who returned to a professorship at the
University of Maryland in 2004 after two years with his children. "If moms work, they have possible guilt for not being home
with their kids. If they're home, there's a lot of tug that they're sacrificing their career. For dads, people think it's just great that
you stay home. Then when we go back [to work], it's what people expect in the first place."

Other times, staying home can be tricky.

Men tell stories of being excluded from mothers' groups and hearing of police questioning fathers seen hanging around the
playground. Some have found close friends among stay-at-home mothers, while others say they don't feel comfortable with
such socialization or fear their wives would disapprove.

Some fathers, particularly black men, say they have gone years without meeting another stay-at-home dad.
"There could be hundreds of kids [at a playground], and I'm sitting on the bench with my Blackberry," said Phil Rawlings, 42,
of Upper Marlboro, who quit an 18-year paralegal career last fall to stay home with his 4-year-old. "I look around to keep an
eye on Tyler, and there's nothing but moms."

Many of his friends don't understand his decision, he said, even though he works from home 35 to 40 hours per week as a

"I quit a perfectly good six-figure job," Rawlings said. "My friends asked me if I got fired. It's unreal among black men. You
don't stay home from a good job to be with your kids."

Most stay-at-home fathers say the decision boiled down to money: Their wives had fatter paychecks or more promising careers.
Many say relying on one income has meant a more modest home, older cars and fewer vacations. Few opt out completely;
many say they work part-time from home.

Jeff Miller and his wife, Shawn Brennan, both worked from their Silver Spring home after their first child was born. When they
needed more money, Brennan took a full-time Montgomery County government job. Miller, 40, could continue as a lower-paid,
part-time business professor at the University of Maryland, while his flexible home consulting business let him care for
Bennett, now 7, and Megan, 5. Miller said he knows four other stay-at-home dads in his neighborhood.

"Today when I get back, I'll make a pot roast," he said Wednesday morning as he boiled pasta for Megan's picnic lunch with
some preschool friends. After mixing Megan's "mystery cereal" -- his own concoction of three cereals and nuts for extra protein
-- Miller pulled her hair into a ponytail, pointed her toward a flowered sundress to put on and loaded her into his Chrysler

At the park, one of the picnic mothers had brought sanitary wipes and a Dora the Explorer blanket, on which little girls ate
sandwiches, corn on the cob and cut-up fruit. Megan sat on the grass eating her buttered pasta from a thermos. "I didn't really
bring a bowl for you," Miller said apologetically. She didn't seem to care.

Miller said he has never defined himself by his job. Still, when someone asks what he does, he often finds himself first
mentioning his teaching and consulting.

"It's not like I can't do laundry or make a pot roast," he said. "That's the easy stuff. It's more like do I want a job or deal with the
societal stuff of people saying 'Dude, what do you do again? You stay home with your kids?' "

His wife said knowing he's there gives her peace of mind, even if her children sometimes end up calling her "Daddy" after a
long day. "I like them having a good relationship with him," Brennan said.

Still, she said, when her father came home from work, he relaxed with the newspaper while her mother prepared dinner. She
said she sometimes doesn't have time to change out of her office clothes before she's cooking and washing dishes that piled up
in her absence. ("I'm terrible," Miller confessed of his housework.)

"There are times when I think if I sat here and added up all the hours I'm with the kids, I think I'm pretty much with them as
much as he is," Brennan said. "When I'm home, I kind of take over."

Like their female counterparts, most stay-at-home fathers say they plan to return to work, many when their youngest child
reaches kindergarten. But many said they will look for limited hours and flexible schedules.

They say they don't want to lose the intimacy, the way they have come to know their children's daily rhythms like no one else.
Several pointed out that they are the first to wake up when their children cry out in the night. Some call it their mother's

2* (Video Clip)

3* (US Census Bureau data page)

Gals make passes at guys who wash glasses
Men who share the load (of laundry and otherwise) inspire lust
By Diane Mapes contributor Feb. 13, 2008

I had a party not too long ago where a funny thing happened. One of the guests — a 30-something, single
straight guy — came out to the kitchen and volunteered to do my dishes. “That way you won’t be stuck with a
huge mess after everyone leaves,” he said, filling the sink with hot, soapy water.

As he started scrubbing wine glasses, I glanced over at my guests. Every woman in the room was staring at him
with what can only be described as pure, unadulterated lust.

Behold the appeal of the dishy man.

Jennifer Matthewson, a 30-year-old caterer from Portland, Ore., has witnessed this heady phenomenon time and
time again.

“My husband is great at cooking and great at cleaning,” says Matthewson, whose spouse handles the kitchen
end of their catering company while she takes care of the business and the books. “And every time we would do
an event, there would be 10 to 15 starry-eyed women standing around him, asking him all kinds of baking and
cooking questions. They’d be like, ‘Wow, does he have any brothers?' Even my mother once joked, ‘Oh, if only
he were older.’”

For Heather Peterson, of Cambridge, Mass., the dishy man effect is nothing short of money in the bank.

Part of a tongue-in-cheek organization called the Cambridge Women’s Pornography Cooperative, Peterson and
her colleagues recently published a collection of photographs of fully clothed men cooking, cleaning house and
offering up comforting cups of tea. The book, entitled “Porn for Women,” has sold more than 140,000 copies
after just 11 months and has already spawned both a calendar and the newly released “Porn for New Moms.”

‘That's hot’
“This is a humorous book, but it does manage to convey some of the things that women really do fantasize
about,” says Peterson, spokesperson for the group. “When a man is willing to step up to the plate — and wash it
for you — you’re going to think about him in a very different way. It’s not just that he’s domesticated. It’s that
he recognizes that these things have to get done. That they’re not just automatically going to be done for him.
And that’s hot.”

According to a May 2007 in American Journal of Public Health, a guy who pulls his own weight around the house
isn’t just hot, he’s a boon for his lady’s health.

Researchers at the American University of Beirut studied 1,652 married couples and found that wives whose
husbands were minimally involved in housework were 60 percent more likely to be distressed, three times more
likely to be uncomfortable with their husbands, and more than twice as likely to be unhappy.

“Our results showed a significant association between husbands’ involvement in housework and their wives’
psychosocial health,” wrote Marwan Khawaja, author of the study.
Are there any benefits, aside from soulful glances and the satisfaction of a sparkling clean floor, that exist for
men who share the load (laundry and otherwise)?

That’s hard to say, although there are some interesting indicators. A recent survey by Parenting Magazine found
that “choreplay,” i.e., husbands pitching in around the house, was what put 15 percent of moms in the mood.

Research conducted by Laurie A. Rudman, a psychologist at Rutgers University, also seems to point to a hot
soapy love connection. Her study, recently published in the journal Sex Roles, looked at feminism’s impact on
romantic relationships. Among other things, she found that men with feminist partners reported both more
stable relationships and greater sexual satisfaction.

“We didn’t ask who was doing the dishes or taking care of the kids,” says Rudman. “We asked broadly about the
quality of the relationship and about the agreement of gender roles in the relationship. But we did find that if
men were with a feminist woman, they had more sexual satisfaction and their relationship was more stable. Men
benefit from having a feminist partner. Now the next step is to look at why. What is it about gender equality that
brings about more relationship satisfaction?”

Sharing the load (of laundry)

For Maureen Judge, a 44-year-old marketing consultant and divorced mom from Seattle, that’s a no-brainer.

“Women have been out in the workforce for a really long time and it’s staggering how many women still do most
of the housework,” she says. “Not sharing the load has got to be one of the biggest things that can negatively
impact a relationship. So, yes, men who do their share of household chores are absolutely more attractive as
potential partners than traditional guys who won’t even pick up a toilet brush. That’s where the bar should be

Are men working their way towards this bar? Signs seem to indicate the Tide may indeed be turning.

A handful of housecleaning guides — by men, for men — have hit the market in recent years, each with titles
that subtly play up the steamier side of the egalitarian household, i.e., “How to Satisfy Your Woman Every Time:
A Straight Guy’s Guide to Housework and Good Grooming,” “How to Iron Your Own Damn Shirt: The Perfect
Husband Handbook Featuring Over 50 Ways to Win, Woo and Wow Your Wife,” and “Clean Like a Man:
Housekeeping for Men (and the Women Who Love Them).”

Single men have even started to fly their helpmate flags in online personal ads. A quick sweep through Craig’s
List yields numerous postings where, along with interests in football, fishing, and romantic nights in front of a
fire, men are expressing their affinity for household chores.

Tired of Being Alone, a 43-year-old bachelor from Sacramento, Calif., says he will “cook, clean house, do laundry
and quite a few other things.” 210 Reasons to Email Me, a 25-year-old single guy from Phoenix, lists as his No. 1
incentive: “I clean and do laundry and I also know how to use an iron.” Educated Guy with a Great Career, a 39-
year-old divorced dad from Minneapolis, provides a complete resume of household skills. “In addition to being
able to cook all the meals, I am housebroken,” he writes. “I do my own ironing. I do laundry and fold it. I do the
dishes and put them away. I make the bed. I keep the kitchen clean.”
Kitchen sink savvy
Are these ads an indication that guys have stumbled onto the dishy man effect and are trying to edge out the
competition with kitchen sink savvy? Are stereotypical gender roles truly becoming a thing of the past? Or is it a
little bit of both?

“I have no problem doing household chores,” says Travis Letellier, a 24-year-old civil engineer from Boston,
whose ad talked up his willingness to do dishes and give foot massages. “It was always the norm growing up
and it’s something I do regularly anyway. I wasn’t really trying to impress a woman by mentioning that I do
dishes, but I guess I was trying to entice one.”

John McDougall, a 38-year-old medical student from Bozeman, Mont., says that while he’s never formerly
advertised his “dishiness,” he has noticed it scores major points.

“When I cook for a woman on a first date, most of the time they’re stunned,” he says. “They’re like, ‘Not only do
you keep a decent apartment, you can cook. Holy smoke!’ It’s like the icing on the cake. I suppose there’s
probably a positive feedback loop going on that reinforces that behavior on my part. But I also think housework
can be therapeutic if you choose to see it that way. Making a clean space out of a disordered space offers an
internal sense of satisfaction.”

Move over, June Cleaver. Looks like you’ve finally got some stiff competition.

Diane Mapes is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "How to Date in a Post-Dating World."

5* PDF at Fewer Mother Prefer Full Time Work


What Makes Women Happy in Their Marriages?

W. Bradford Wilcox and Steven Nock recently tackled this question in an article, “What’s Love Got To Do With
It?,” published in the March 2006 issue of Social Forces, one of the leading journals of sociology in the U.S. The
article has attracted a great deal of media coverage—in venues as varied as The New York Times, NBC's The
Today Show, Slate, and National Review Online. This website summarizes the study’s key findings and offers
resources to women and men interested in learning more about successful marriages.

The top predictors of women’s marital happiness, in order of importance:

1. A husband’s emotional engagement.

Women who are married to men who make an effort to listen to them, who express affection and
appreciation on a regular basis, and who share quality time with them on a regular basis (date nights,
frequent conversations focusing on mutual interests and one another) are much happier in their
marriages than women who do not have emotionally-engaged husbands.

2. Fairness.
Women who think that housework (and other family responsibilities) are divided fairly are significantly
happier than women who think that their husband does not do his fair share. Note, however, that most
wives do not equate fairness with a 50-50 model of equality. Only 30% of wives in this study think their
marriage is unfair, even though the vast majority of wives do the bulk of childcare and housework. Why
is this? In the average marriage, husbands devote significantly more hours to paid labor than do wives—
especially when children come along. So, in the average marriage, husbands and wives devote about the
same amount of total hours to the paid and unpaid work associated with caring for a family.

3. A breadwinning husband.
American wives, even wives who hold more feminist views about working women and the division of
household tasks, are typically happier when their husband earns 68% or more of the household income.
Husbands who are successful breadwinners probably give their wives the opportunity to make choices
about work and family—e.g., working part-time, staying home, or pursuing a meaningful but not
particularly remunerative job—that allow them to best respond to their own needs, and the needs of
their children.

4. A commitment to marriage.
Wives who share a strong commitment to the norm of lifelong marriage with their husband—e.g., who
both believe that even unhappily married couples should stay together for the sake of their children—are
more likely to have a happy marriage than couples who do not share this commitment to marriage.
Shared commitment seems to generate a sense of trust, emotional security, and a willingness to
sacrifice for one’s spouse—all of which lead to happier marriages for women. This shared commitment
also provides women with a long-term view of their marriage that helps them negotiate the inevitable
difficulties that confront any marriage.

5. Staying at home.
Wives who stay at home tend to be happier in their marriages than wives who work outside the home.
This is particularly true for women who have children in the home. Women often find it difficult to juggle
kids, a career, and a marriage all at the same time. In fact, the study finds that working women are less
likely to spend quality time with their husbands. They are also more likely to report that the division of
housework is unfair. So time pressures and role overload help to explain why working wives are typically
less happy in their marriages.

6. Shared religious attendance.

Wives who attend church or some other worship service with their husbands tend to be happier than
wives who do not share religious attendance with their husbands. Religious attendance may give wives a
sense that God is present in their marriage, a sense that their husband seeks to please them by
attending church with them, and/or access to other married couples who value marriage and can
provide them with guidance and moral support for their marriages.

7. Traditional gender attitudes.

Wives who hold more traditional gender attitudes—e.g., who believe that wives should focus more on
nurturing/homemaking and husbands should focus more on breadwinning—are happier than wives who
hold more feminist attitudes. One reason this may be the case is that traditional-minded wives probably
have lower expectations of what their husbands can and should do for them emotionally and practically.
We also find that more traditional-minded wives spend more quality time with their husbands, perhaps
because they are less likely to argue with their husbands about housework and childcare.
Four Key Questions:

A. Does this study apply to more feminist-minded women?

Yes. In a companion study , W. Bradford Wilcox looked at marital happiness among women who had more
progressive gender attitudes about the division of work and family, and who expressed support for working
wives. Even women in this sample tended to be happier if they did not work outside the home, had a husband
who took the lead in breadwinning, and/or shared a strong commitment to the norm of lifelong marriage.

B. Does this study apply to less-educated women?

For the most part, yes. Married women who have a high school degree or less are happier when their husbands
are emotionally engaged, when they think housework is divided fairly, when their husbands take the lead in
breadwinning, and when they share church attendance with their husbands. However, less-educated wives'
employment does not affect their marital happiness nor does a shared sense of marital commitment.

C. Does this study apply to every married woman?

The study's findings are averages and they do not apply to every married woman. There are, of course,
feminist-minded women in egalitarian marriages who are very happy, just as there are traditional-minded
women in traditional marriages who are very unhappy. For instance, 41% of working wives in our study report
they are "very happy" in their marriages. So just because a woman does not have one or two or even three of
these predictors does not mean she is necessarily unhappy in her marriage. But if she is missing all of these
predictors, she is much more likely to be very unhappy in her marriage.

D. Are wives likely to be happier if they have more of these predictors?

Wives who have more of the above predictors tend to be the happiest wives. So, for instance, 61% of married
women whose husband's earn the lion's share of their income and go to church with their husbands and share a
commitment to lifelong marriage are very happy in their marriages, versus 45% of women who do not have all
of these predictors.


The marriage hoax Conservative moralists, alarmed by the divorce rate, want us to return to a
Golden Age of Marriage. Too bad it never existed.

By Maria Russo

March 19, 2001 | It must be America's most often cited statistic: Fifty percent of marriages end in
divorce. For many social commentators, including voices from the right such as Barbara Dafoe Whitehead
("The Divorce Culture") and Gertrude Himmelfarb ("One Nation, Two Cultures"), the lesson in this seems
like a no-brainer: Our high divorce rate is a sign of widespread moral decline, evidence that we've become
a selfish, consumer-oriented society, one in which even the most hallowed of relationships is disposable.

Last fall, two widely discussed books sounded an urgent call of alarm. Linda Waite and Maggie
Gallagher's "The Case for Marriage" and Judith Wallerstein's "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce" both
argued that our easy-out approach to marriage is getting out of hand; divorce, they feel, should be granted
more rarely. But a new round of books published this year -- Nancy Cott's "Public Vows," Hendrick
Hartog's "Man and Wife in America" and Marilyn Yalom's "A History of the Wife" -- tells a different, if
less mediagenic, story. These books are histories, not polemics, but together they make a clear and
compelling argument: The nation hasn't suffered a massive decline in moral fiber since the 1950s, and
marriage isn't really any more fragile now than it was in the days of our grandparents and great-
grandparents. The truth is that marriage has always been a shaky, contested, unreliable institution, and
we're kidding ourselves that it was ever any other way.

The authors of "The Case for Marriage," a sociologist (Waite) and a nationally syndicated conservative
columnist (Gallagher), assert that the current state of marriage represents not a particularly wobbly phase
in its long history but a crisis that may herald the death of wedlock itself. We're "on the verge of becoming
a postmarriage culture," Waite and Gallagher say, and they predict a grave social crisis if we don't change
course. They fear that marriage is becoming "optional -- a private taste rather than a matter of urgent
shared concern."

Their main evidence, of course, is that 50 percent divorce rate. They'd like people to stop thinking nothing
can be done about it; the divorce boom, they say, presents grave problems of "public health" that must be
fixed. To that end, their book reads like an infomercial for marriage. In a cheerleading tone that shifts now
and then into one of ominous foreboding, they hail the "overwhelming scientific evidence" they've
gathered proving that marriage is "good for you." They argue that current no-fault divorce laws should be
changed, that unmarried couples who live together should not be given legal rights or even social approval
and that government and media should step in to promote "a positive view of marriage," in the manner of
current anti-smoking campaigns.

By saying that marriage is good for us, they mean that getting married will improve an unmarried person's
health, both mentally and physically. For example, if you're married, their surveys have found, you "not
only have sex more often, but ... enjoy it more, both physically and emotionally," than unmarried
cohabiting people do: Forty-two percent of wives and 50 percent of husbands say they find sex physically
satisfying, as opposed to 39 percent of cohabiting women and 39 percent of cohabiting men. The same 42
percent of wives but 48 percent of husbands say they find sex emotionally satisfying, as opposed to 39
percent of cohabiting women and 37 percent of cohabiting men.

Besides the head scratching this inspires -- they're saying that less than half of all marriages are sexually
satisfying, and they consider that good advertising for marriage? -- there's a more fundamental problem
with the authors' reasoning, one that becomes apparent when you read the histories of marriage. You can't
approach "married," "divorced" and "cohabiting" people as if these were static categories, akin to eye
color or ethnic background. It's like trying to lock a rifle's sights on a moving target. Whether two people
are married, living together or divorced at any given moment reflects not just the state of their relationship
and their degree of commitment to each other but also their personal responses to the legal and social
options available at the time.

It makes little sense, then, to advocate marriage for cohabiting people and warn against divorce for
married people through number-crunching comparisons between the groups. If, for example, as Waite and
Gallagher wish, it were harder for married people to get divorces, many couples who are now divorced
would still be married, and still suffer the sexual and emotional frustrations that quite likely led them to
split up in the first place. And if that were so, the percentage of married people telling survey takers that
they were happy and sexually satisfied in their marriages would plummet. There, right down the drain,
would go Waite and Gallagher's evidence that marriage fosters better sex.

With a similarly misleading statistic, Waite and Gallagher make the odd claim that married people die less
frequently than unmarried people do. "Unmarried people (including divorced, widowed and single) are far
more likely to die from all causes, including coronary heart disease, stroke, pneumonia, many kinds of
cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, automobile accidents, murder and suicide -- all leading causes of death." But
unless both partners in a married couple die simultaneously, by this definition, one of them must die
unmarried. This, sadly, is a statistic no amount of social activism will change, unless widowed people, the
majority of whom are women, could all be counted on to remarry before their final date with destiny.
While the surveys and studies in "The Case for Marriage" are, at a glance, persuasive, in fact they're an
example of the third category in Disraeli's famous list of the three kinds of lies: "Lies, damn lies and

Waite and Gallagher come across less like civic-minded social commentators than like control-freak
dinner party hostesses irked by the presence of unmarried guests. If they had their way, all unmarried
people would be relegated to the kiddie table for life. Where social policy hasn't worked to further their
goal of a symmetrical, legally coupled-up world, they advocate social ostracism. They urge their readers to
"gently resist demands to treat cohabiting couples exactly like married couples" and warn parents "not to
treat boyfriends and girlfriends exactly the same as spouses."

Of course, even those who disagree with Waite and Gallagher on most matters would agree that divorcing
couples who have small children present a host of social problems that demand to be addressed. Yet it's
hard to know the extent to which our high divorce rate actually is affecting children: Incredibly, according
to Waite and Gallagher, the federal government doesn't collect information about whether a divorcing
couple has children or not. States are merely required to report the numbers of divorces and marriages that
occur annually, with no details about how many of the couples have children. Waite and Gallagher rightly
complain about this state of affairs. Until we can compare the number of divorces that deprive kids of an
intact family with the number of divorces that separate unhappy couples before they have children, we
can't accurately judge how much divorce hurts kids.

Psychologist Wallerstein ("The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce") followed a group of 131 children from
the aftermath of their parents' divorce until they reached adulthood to assess the long-term psychological
damage caused by their families' breakups. Necessarily, then, the book has nothing to say about divorce
between people without children or whose children are grown. And while much of Wallerstein's argument
that parents should do everything possible to remain married is convincing -- features of post-divorce
family life such as strict visitation schedules, for example, come off as especially onerous for kids -- the
emotional costs often seem overstated. As evidence of one woman's "damage" from her parents' divorce,
we're told that, at the ripe old age of 34, after years of ambivalent relationships, she was ready to get
married to someone with whom she appears to have a loving and supportive relationship. All divorces,
clearly, are not created equal. In fact, if Wallerstein's analysis is correct, it's safe to say that the more
mismatched, childless couples who divorce before having children, the better for all of us.

But however much children suffer when torn between warring parents, is it really true that we now face an
unprecedented "crisis of marriage"? According to historians Hartog ("Man and Wife in America") and Cott
("Public Vows"), the dire proclamations have always been with us -- it's just that now we have statistics to
back up the hysteria. Hartog demonstrates that marriage in America has never been a stable and
unconflicted institution. Huge legal obstacles to divorce did not guarantee that everyone behaved in the
same way toward marriage. In fact, when marriage was more imposing and demanding, people simply
approached it in more inventive ways.

Until relatively recently, it was often hard to tell whether two people were legally married to begin with.
People have always moved around a lot in America, and the absence of centralized record keeping made it
hard to know who was married and who wasn't. Picture life in a small town in New England in the early
19th century. That new couple who just moved in down the street -- could you be sure they were legally
married? That fellow courting the girl next door -- who knew if he had left a wife and child in some other
state? "A woman might call herself 'the Widow Jones,'" as Hartog puts it, and "no one in the community
questioned her widowed status or her prior marital status." If an opportunity for "Widow Jones" to get
married arose and she took it, chances are her new husband didn't call in a private investigator to conduct
a background check. There may have been huge legal obstacles to divorce, but that didn't mean marriage
was a failsafe way to keep two people together: "There were doors that could be opened and slammed ...
leaving was a possibility, even where legal divorce was not."

At a time when "functional bigamy" was a common end run around the legal obstacles to ending a
marriage, irregularities happened at all levels of society. President Andrew Jackson's wife, Rachel, turned
out to have been married to another man at the same time, a fact the president's opponents tried to exploit
during the 1828 campaign. Rachel was under the impression that the other man had gotten a divorce in
Kentucky, but in fact he'd never gone through with it. Her mistake didn't hurt Jackson politically, though.
The public, apparently, understood how such things happened: The couple's Tennessee neighbors accepted
them as married, and Jackson easily won the presidential election.

The problem with agenda-pushing social commentators like Waite and Gallagher is that they're myopic.
When historians like Hartog or Cott present the long view, it's obvious that while the current divorce rate
may seem high, in many ways it's a meaningless statistic. We have nothing to compare it with. Were
people a century ago less fickle, more sure of their hearts, more willing to stick things out -- or were they
simply more likely to be widowed; less likely, if they were poor, to have the resources to make their
relationship a legal marriage in the first place; and more likely, if they did get married and wanted to end
it, to not bother getting legally divorced? The fact that divorce was an expensive, time-consuming and
socially shaming option did not necessarily give people more faith in the wisdom of the institution of
marriage. It seems clear that when legal options were closed to them, incompatible spouses opted out on
their own terms, whether through abandonment, quasi-divorce options such as legal separation agreements
or simply keeping their "married" legal status and going on with their separate lives, sometimes within the
same household.

For all our longing for tradition and institutional certainty, America is a young nation and Americans have
always been an improvisational people. Our approach to marriage has reflected this. In the early years of
the nation, Cott shows, what looked like marriage was often an informal agreement, called into being by a
couple who moved in together. These were for all intents and purposes marriages, but no record exists of
them. This informality was especially common among white settlers in the West, where ministers were
scarce and public records were practically nonexistent anyway.

African-American couples were not allowed to marry under slavery, and interracial marriages were illegal
in most states after the Civil War (and in some states until quite recently). Cott further observes that in
most Native American groups, "heterosexual couples were important, but they married within complex
kinship systems that accepted premarital sex, expected wives to be economic actors, often embraced
matrilocal residence and matrilineal descent, and easily allowed both polygamy and divorce with
remarriage." If none of these unions existed as legal marriages, then of course they could not end in
divorce. It's simply impossible to arrive at a meaningful marriage rate or divorce rate for the 19th century.

Even today, we're kidding ourselves if we think that the fact that people check "married" on their tax
returns means we can be sure of their domestic arrangements. South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond's
wife, Nancy Moore Thurmond, for example, is her husband's preferred successor should he die or become
disabled before finishing his term. (She has said that she would decline the appointment but she would
assist in closing his office.) However, the two have been separated since 1991, and she openly shares her
life with Robert Oldham, her "social companion" (apparently a Republican code word for "adulterous
lover," along with "good friend," still-married New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's description of Judith
Nathan). This might seem like a strikingly modern arrangement for a nice Southern gal like Ms.
Thurmond, but it's actually better seen as part of the hoary American tradition of marital making do.
That's not to say that earlier Americans weren't idealistic about marriage. In fact, they'd probably be
dismayed by the crassness of Waite and Gallagher's cost-benefit approach to advocating the institution:
Marriage will make you happier, and you'll have more money! And your sex life will rock. Though they
may claim to be upholding tradition, these pragmatic proponents of wedlock have broken with one of the
few conservative strains of American marital ideology that seem worth recovering and holding on to -- the
idea that marriage is one way to become a better person, precisely because it isn't a guarantee of riches,
happiness and endless pleasure.

In "The History of the Wife," historian Marilyn Yalom quotes from a letter Abigail Smith wrote to John
Adams in 1764 as she anticipated their wedding: "Ere long may I be connected with a Friend from whose
Example I may form a more faultless conduct, and whose benevolent mind will lead him to pardon, what
he cannot amend." Yalom asks, "How many young people marry with the conscious expectation that they
will become kinder and wiser by virtue of choosing a decent, generous mate?"

As they demonize divorce, Waite and Gallagher offer grandiose promises for marriage. It's the cure for
what ails you, for what ails all of us, they suggest. Without realizing it, they're complicit in the same
cultural mind-set they want to condemn. It's the same one-trick-fixes-all, feel-good consumerism that
leads many people to get married, and to get divorced, on what amounts to a whim. Marriage, in their
treatise, becomes a kind of universal wonder product, Prozac without the side effects. It's just a small step
from the moralistic exhortations of Waite and Gallagher to the tacky seductions of the wedding industry --
from diamond merchants to professional wedding planners, who sell even otherwise intelligent young
women fluffy-edged fantasies of being wrapped in endless, sparkling, effortless love.

We may be in a period in which the societal role of marriage is being redefined, but clearly, despite Waite
and Gallagher's warnings, we're far from seeing the end of that resilient institution. There's even new
evidence for a certain kind of renewal. As Cott points out, the seemingly radical movement for gay
marriage has had the ironic effect of heightening the prestige attached to legally sanctioned marriage. And
here at the dawn of the 21st century, with privacy increasingly under attack and personal lives constantly
under scrutiny, marriage has come to seem attractive to many nontraditional people seeking a chance to
experience "freedom in a chosen space -- a zone marked off from the rest of the world." That postmodern
twist should be encouraging even to conservatives, if only they'd stop trying to save the institution and
take a good hard look at it instead.

The author is ending her marriage. Isn’t it time you did the same?

by Sandra Tsing Loh

Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

SADLY, AND TO my horror, I am divorcing. This was a 20-year partnership. My husband is a good man,
though he did travel 20 weeks a year for work. I am a 47-year-old woman whose commitment to monogamy, at
the very end, came unglued. This turn of events was a surprise. I don’t generally even enjoy men; I had an
entirely manageable life and planned to go to my grave taking with me, as I do most nights to my bed, a glass
of merlot and a good book. Cataclysmically changed, I disclosed everything. We cried, we rent our hair, we
bewailed the fate of our children. And yet at the end of the day—literally during a five o’clock counseling
appointment, as the golden late-afternoon sunlight spilled over the wall of Balinese masks—when given the
final choice by our longtime family therapist, who stands in as our shaman, mother, or priest, I realized … no.
Heart-shattering as this moment was—a gravestone sunk down on two decades of history—I would not be able
to replace the romantic memory of my fellow transgressor with the more suitable image of my husband, which
is what it would take in modern-therapy terms to knit our family’s domestic construct back together. In
women’s-magazine parlance, I did not have the strength to “work on” falling in love again in my marriage. And
as Laura Kipnis railed in Against Love, and as everyone knows, Good relationships take work.
Which is not to say I’m against work. Indeed, what also came out that afternoon were the many tasks I—like so
many other working/co-parenting/married mothers—have been doing for so many years and tearfully
declared I would continue doing. I can pick up our girls from school every day; I can feed them dinner and kiss
their noses and tell them stories; I can take them to their doctor and dentist appointments; I can earn my half
—sometimes more—of the money; I can pay the bills; I can refinance the house at the best possible interest
rate; I can drive my husband to the airport; in his absence, I can sort his mail; I can be home to let the plumber
in on Thursday between nine and three, and I can wait for the cable guy; I can make dinner conversation with
any family member; I can ask friendly questions about anybody’s day; I can administer hugs as needed to
children, adults, dogs, cats; I can empty the litter box; I can stir wet food into dry.

Which is to say I can work at a career and child care and joint homeownership and even platonic male-female
friendship. However, in this cluttered forest of my 40s, what I cannot authentically reconjure is the ancient
dream of brides, even with the Oprah fluffery of weekly “date nights,” when gauzy candlelight obscures the
messy house, child talk is nixed and silky lingerie donned, so the two of you can look into each other’s eyes and
feel that “spark” again. Do you see? Given my staggering working mother’s to-do list, I cannot take on yet
another arduous home- and self-improvement project, that of rekindling our romance. Sobered by this failure
as a mother—which is to say, my failure as a wife—I’ve since begun a journey of reading, thinking, and
listening to what’s going on in other 21st-century American families. And along the way, I’ve begun to wonder,
what with all the abject and swallowed misery: Why do we still insist on marriage? Sure, it made sense to
agrarian families before 1900, when to farm the land, one needed two spouses, grandparents, and a raft of
children. But now that we have white-collar work and washing machines, and our life expectancy has shot
from 47 to 77, isn’t the idea of lifelong marriage obsolete?

I sense you picking up the first stone to hurl, even if you yourself may be twice or even three times divorced.
Such a contradiction turns out to be uniquely American. Just because marriage didn’t work for us doesn’t
mean we don’t believe in the institution. Just because our own marital track records are mixed doesn’t mean
our hearts don’t lift at the sight of our daughters’ Tiffany-blue wedding invitations. After all, we can easily
arrange to sit far from our exes, across the flower-bedecked aisle, so as not to roil the festive day. Just because
we know that nearly half of U.S. marriages end in divorce—including perhaps even those of our own parents
(my dearest childhood wish was not just that my parents would divorce, but also that my raging father would
burst into flames)—doesn’t mean we aren’t confident ours is the one that will beat the odds. At least that is the
attitudinal yin/yang described by Andrew J. Cherlin in his scrupulously argued Marriage-Go-Round:
compared with our western European counterparts, Americans are far more credulous about marriage. In
World Values Surveys taken at the turn of the millennium, fewer Americans agreed with the statement
“Marriage is an outdated institution” than citizens of any other Western country surveyed (compare the U.S.’s
tiny 10 percent with France’s 36 percent). We are also more religious—more Americans (60 percent) say they
attend religious services once a month than do the Vatican-centric Italians (54 percent) or, no surprise, the
laissez-faire French (12 percent). At the same time, Americans endure the highest divorce rate in the Western
world. In short, although we say we love religion and marriage, Cherlin notes, “religious Americans are more
likely to divorce than secular Swedes.”

Cherlin believes the reason for this paradox is that Americans hold two values at once: a culture of marriage
and a culture of individualism. Or is it an American spirit of optimism wedded, if you will, to a Tocquevillian
spirit of restlessness that inspires three out of four Americans to say they believe marriage is for life, while only
one in four agreed with the notion that even if a marriage is unhappy, one should stay put for the sake of the
children. If America is a “divorce culture,” it may be partly because we are a “marriage culture,” since we both
divorce and marry (a projected 90 percent of us) at some of the highest rates anywhere on the globe. Hence
Cherlin’s cautionary advice consists of two words—“Slow down”—his chief worry about our frenetic marriage-
go-round being its negative impact on our children. In fact, while having two biological parents at home is, the
statistics tell us, best for children, a single-parent household is almost as good. The harm comes, Cherlin
argues, from parents continually coupling with new partners, so that the children are forced to bond, or
compete for attention, with ever-new actors. These are the youngsters who are likely to suffer, according to a
measurable matrix of factors such as truancy, disobedience in school, and teen pregnancy. Instead of
preaching marriage, Cherlin says, we should preach domestic stability for children. Is marriage the best way to
ensure this? Apparently not, at least not the way we do it in America.

RACHEL IS ONE of the women I regularly dine with, now that I have a divorced person’s oddly relaxed—
oddly civilized, even horribly French?—joint-custody schedule. It has been almost 10 years since I dined with
adults on a weekly basis. My domestic evenings have typically revolved around five o’clock mac and cheese
under bright lighting and then a slow melt into dishes and SpongeBob … because yet another of my marital
failings was that I was never able to commit to a nanny. Even though my husband and I both drew full-time
incomes, I, as a writer, worked at home and hence was ambivalent, because if I had daily in-house help, what
was my role as a mother? Would I be emotionally displaced? Also, I secretly worried that using domestic help
was exploitative—recall Barbara Ehrenreich’s dictum that she’d never let another woman scrub her toilets.
Yea, these are the various postfeminist hurdles that stretched before me at 2:00 a.m. as I lay awake in our bed,
contorted not just by cats but by two children kicking me from both sides—Exhibit A of lazy, undisciplined
attachment parenting.
Imagine driving with me now to Rachel’s house for our new 40-something social hobby—the Girls’ Night
dinner. Leap not from my car, even though I realize—given my confessed extramarital affair, avowed
childhood desire to see my father explode into flames, and carpet of tattered Happy Meal wrappers—I may not
strike you as the most reliable explicator of modern marriage. Still, we forge on, and what I’d like to do now is
recant for a moment and not be quite so hard on marriage, which I think is a very good fit for some people. It
certainly has been for Judith S. Wallerstein (married more than 48 years, as the jacket flap indicates), co-
author with Sandra Blakeslee of the 1995 book The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts. Through close
observation of 50 happily married couples, the authors identified four templates for lasting nuptial success.
The Romantic Marriage thrives on the spark of love that never dies. (Think of those affectionate 80-
somethings in convalescent homes, still holding hands.) The Rescue Marriage features partners who fit each
other like lost puzzle pieces, healing each other from mutual childhood traumas. (And then there are those
shrieky co-dependent pairs: think of fiercely attached couples whose commitment is cemented by a
commitment to unwholesome habits. Said a friend of his 70-something WASP parents, who sally off to their
frequent cruises with huge Lavoris bottles filled with gin: “What they share is an enthusiasm for drinking.”)
The Traditional Marriage succeeds because the man works while the woman runs the home, a clear and
valuable division of labor.

Today, the most common type of marriage is the Companionate Marriage, in which husband and wife each
have a career, and they co-parent and co-housekeep according to gender-free norms they negotiate. Three
decades ago, in their 1972 runaway best seller, Open Marriage, Nena and George O’Neill suggested that such a
modern arrangement might even include sexual freedom. But as we all know, the Sexually Open Marriage
fizzled with the lava lamp, because it is just downright icky for most people. How, then, has marriage evolved?
In what sorts of partnerships do we find ourselves in the 21st century? Enter with me, finally, the home of my
friend Rachel. (To appease the diligent Atlantic fact checkers, I must now pause to announce that I’ve carefully
disguised some of the individuals whose lives we’re about to dissect.) Picture a stunning two-story Craftsman—
exposed wood, Batchelder tile fireplace, caramel-warm beams, Tiffany lamps on Mission tables—nestled in the
historic enclave in Pasadena dubbed Bungalow Heaven. Rachel, 49, an environmental lawyer, is married to
Ian, 48, a documentary-film editor. They have two sons, 9 and 11, whom Ian—in every way the model dad—has
whisked off this evening to junior soccer camp (or drum lessons or similar; the boys’ impressive whirl of
activities is hard to keep track of). Rachel is cooking dinner for three of us: Ellen (a writer, married with
children), Renata (violinist, single, lithe, and prowling at 45), and me. Rachel is, more accurately, reheating
dinner; the dish is something wonderfully subtle yet complex, like a saffron-infused porcini risotto, that Ian
made over the weekend and froze for us, in Tupperware neatly labeled with a Sharpie, because this is the sort
of thoughtful thing he does. Ian subscribes to Cook’s Illustrated online and a bevy of other technically
advanced gourmet publications—he’s always perfecting some polenta or bouillabaisse. If someone requests a
cheeseburger, he will fire back with an über-cheeseburger, a fluffy creation of marbled Angus beef, Stilton, and
homemade ketchup. Picture him in bike shorts (he’s a cyclist), hovering over a mandala of pots that are always
simmering, quietly simmering. To Ian’s culinary adventurousness, Rachel attributes the boys’ sophisticated
taste buds—they eagerly eat everything: curry, paella, seaweed, soba noodles. My own girls are strictly mac-
and-cheese-centric (but I’ve been told in therapy not to keep beating myself up over the small things).

Since her own home fires seemed to roar so warmly, I was hesitant to hit Rachel with news of my breakup, and
it is true that her first reaction was a degree of disbelief and horror even more pronounced than everyone else’s
in our village of longtime marrieds. “But what about the children?” she wailed. I explained that since their
parents had been in parallel motion since they were born, the girls appeared—on the surface at least—to be
unfazed. On top of my musician husband’s roadwork, some years I’d logged 200 shows as a theater performer,
carrying my babies in buckets to hotel rooms. In addition, when my girls’ cousins—at ages 6, 5, and 2—
suddenly lost their mother, through illness, we had done an emergency move-in with my brother for two years
(while my husband remained on the road), so my girls were more used to sitting down to dinner with an
extended family tribe than with one father and one mother. Now elementary age, my children seem relatively
content as long as they remain in their own house, their own beds, and their own school, with Mom and Dad
coming and going as usual (and when Dad’s in the house, I pick them up from school every day so they always
see me). Their most ardent daily fixations continue to be amassing more Pokémon cards and getting a dog
named Noodles to add to their menagerie of five fish and two cats, Midnite and Cuteface.

But it is now our second Girls’ Night dinner since my horrifying announcement, and Rachel has eschewed Ian’s
customary wine-club Bordeaux and is mixing some alarmingly strong martinis.

Leaning forward heavily across the bar, she swirls her glass and huskily drops the bomb: “I have to tell you—
since we talked, I too have started thinking divorce.” “No!” we girls exclaim. With a stab of nausea, I suddenly
feel as though now that I’ve touched my pool of friends with my black pen, a cloud of ink is enveloping them.

“You can’t!” Renata cries. “Ian—he’s the perfect father! The perfect husband! Look at this … kitchen!”

It’s true: the kitchen is a prime example of Ian’s contribution to their union. He based the design of the
remodel on an old farmhouse kitchen they saw during their trip to Tuscany, and of course—carpentry being
another of his hobbies—he did all the details himself, including building the shelves. One of the room’s marvels
is how ingeniously and snugly all the specialty kitchenware is housed—the hanging copper pots, the garlic
press, the mandolin, the lemon zester, the French press coffeemaker …

“Ian won’t have sex with me,” Rachel says flatly. “He has not touched my body in two years. He says it’s
because I’ve gained weight.” Again, we stoutly protest, but she goes on. “And he thinks I’m a bad mother—he
says I’m sloppy and inattentive.”

The list of violations unfurls. Last week, Rachel mistakenly gave the wrong medication to the dog, a mistake
Ian would never make. She also forgot to deglaze the saucepan and missed the window to book the family’s
Seattle flights on Expedia, whose chiming bargains Ian meticulously tracks.

Rachel sees herself as a failed mother, and is depressed and chronically overworked at her $120,000-a-year
job (which she must cling to for the benefits because Ian freelances). At night, horny and sleepless, she paces
the exquisite kitchen, gobbling mini Dove bars. The main breadwinner, Rachel is really the Traditional Dad,
but instead of being handed her pipe and slippers at six, she appears to be marooned in a sexless remodeling
project with a passive-aggressive Competitive Wife.

Rachel had even asked Ian point-blank: “Do you want a divorce?” And Ian said absolutely not—they must show
discipline and work at the marriage (again with the work!), since any domestic upset could negatively affect
the boys, who were now facing a particularly fraught time at their new school, where they have an
extraordinarily challenging roster of extracurricular activities and a quarterly testing schedule.

“You know, it’s funny,” says Ellen, after a moment of gloom. (Passing note: Ellen has been married for 18
years, and she also, famously, never has sex. There were the hot 20s with Ron and the making-the-babies 30s,
and in the 40s there is … nothing. Ellen had originally picked Ron because she was tired of all the bad boys,
and Ron was settle-down husband material. What she didn’t know was that after the age of 38, thanks to Mr.
Very Settled-Down, she was never going to have regular sex with a man again.)

“When marriage was invented,” Ellen continues, “it was considered to be a kind of trade union for a woman,
her protection against the sexually wandering male. But what’s happened to the sexually wandering male?”

In our parents’ era, the guy hit 45, got the toupee, drove the red Porsche, and left his family for the young, hot
secretary. We are unable to imagine any of the husbands driving anything with fewer than five seat belts.

“Ron only goes as far as the den,” Ellen says. “He has his Internet porn bookmarked on the computer.”

“Ian has his Cook’s Illustrated,” Rachel adds. “And his—his men’s online fennel club.”

Of the four of us, Renata has the fastest-thrumming engine, as evidenced by her rabid in-the-moment sex-tryst
texting (“omg he flyz in 2nite on red i @ 2 am!!!”). One imagines a string of men toppled behind her in ditches
like crashed race cars. “My problem is, I’m a dopamine freak!” She waggles her hands in the air. “Dopamine!”

“Helen Fisher!” Ellen exclaims, pointing at her.

Fisher, a women’s cult figure and an anthropologist, has long argued that falling in love—and falling out of love
—is part of our evolutionary biology and that humans are programmed not for lifelong monogamy, but for
serial monogamy. (In stretches of four years, to be exact, approximately the time it takes to get one kid safely
through infancy.)

Why Him? Why Her? explains the hormonal forces that trigger humans to be romantically attracted to some
people and not to others (a phenomenon also documented in the animal world). Fisher posits that each of us
gets dosed in the womb with different levels of hormones that impel us toward one of four basic personality

The Explorer—the libidinous, creative adventurer who acts “on the spur of the moment.” Operative
neurochemical: dopamine.

The Builder—the much calmer person who has “traditional values.” The Builder also “would rather have
loyal friends than interesting friends,” enjoys routines, and places a high priority on taking care of his or her
possessions. Operative neurotransmitter: serotonin.

The Director—the “analytical and logical” thinker who enjoys a good argument. The Director wants to
discover all the features of his or her new camera or computer. Operative hormone: testosterone.

The Negotiator—the touchy-feely communicator who imagines “both wonderful and horrible things
happening” to him- or herself. Operative hormone: estrogen, then oxytocin.

Fisher reviewed personality data from 39,913 members of Explorers made up 26 percent of
the sample, Builders 28.6 percent, Directors 16.3 percent, Negotiators 29.1 percent. While Explorers tend to be
attracted to Explorers, and Builders tend to be attracted to Builders, Directors are attracted to Negotiators,
and vice versa.

Exclaims Ellen, slapping the book: “This is why my marriage has been dead for 15 years. I’m an Explorer
married to a Builder!” (Ron literally is a builder—like Ian, he crafts wonderful shelves and also, of course,
cooks.) But what can Ellen do? Explorer-Explorer tends to be one of the most unstable combinations, whereas
Fisher suspects “most of the world’s fifty-year marriages are made by Builders who marry other Builders.”

While a Rutgers study suggests that only 38 percent of married people in America describe themselves as
happy, we stay married for many good reasons. Take, for instance, the otherwise unaffordability of

Some of us stay married because we’re in competition with our divorcing 1960s and 1970s parents, who made
such a hash of it. What looks appealing to us now, in an increasingly frenetic, digital world, is the 1950s
marriage. Writes Karen Karbo, in Generation Ex, reminiscing about her mother’s evening routine of serving
old-fashioneds to her dad by the pool:

At the turn of the millennium, our marriages and remarriages bear almost no resemblance to these single-
paycheck, cocktail-hour unions. Once considered sexist and monotonous, these staid marriages are emblems
of an easier time. What seemed too dull and constricting a mere fifteen years ago now looks luxurious, like
those huge gas-guzzling cars with all that chrome and the tuck-and-roll seats.
Some of us stay married because along with fancy schools, tae kwan do lessons, and home-cooked organic
food, the two-parent marriage is another impressive—and rare—attainment to bestow on our fragile, gifted

Some of us stay married because … what else is there? A lonely apartment and a hot plate?

That said, it’s clear that females are dissatisfied—more and more, divorce seems to be initiated by women. If
marriage is the Old World and what lies beyond is the New World, it’s the apparently stable men (comfortable
alone in their postfeminist den with their Cook’s Illustrated and their porn) who are Old Worlders, and the
Girls’ Night Out, questionnaire-completing women who are the questing New Worlders. They most embody
what Tocqueville described as America’s “restless temper,” or l’inquiétude du caractère. (Interestingly,
according to EnlightenNext magazine, some northern European women are reportedly eschewing their
progressive northern European male counterparts and dating Muslims, who are more like “real men.”)

To work, to parent, to housekeep, to be the ones who schedule “date night,” only to be reprimanded in the
home by male kitchen bitches, and then, in the bedroom, to be ignored—it’s a bum deal. And then our women’s
magazines exhort us to rekindle the romance. You rarely see men’s magazines exhorting men to rekindle the

So, herewith, some modest proposals. Clearly, research shows that what’s best for children is domestic stability
and not having to bond with, and to be left by, ever new stepparent figures. Less important is whether or not
their overworked parents are logging “date night” (or feeling the magic). So why don’t we accept marriage as a
splitting-the-mortgage arrangement? As Fisher suggests, rekindling the romance is, for many of us,
biologically unnatural, particularly after the kids come. (Says another friend of mine, about his wife of 23
years: “My heart doesn’t lift when she walks in the room. It sinks, slightly.”) If high-revving women are
sexually frustrated, let them have some sort of French arrangement where they have two men, the postfeminist
model dad building shelves, cooking bouillabaise, and ignoring them in the home, and the occasional fun-
loving boyfriend the kids never see. Alternately, if both spouses find life already rather exhausting, never mind
chasing around for sex. Long-married husbands and wives should pleasantly agree to be friends, to set the
bedroom aglow at night by the mute opening of separate laptops and just be done with it. More than anything,
aside from providing insulation from the world at large, that kind of arrangement could be the perfect way to
be left alone.

As far as the children are concerned, how about the tribal approach (a natural, according to both primate and
human evolution)? Let children between the ages of 1 and 5 be raised in a household of mothers and their
female kin. Let the men/husbands/boyfriends come in once or twice a week to build shelves, prepare that
bouillabaisse, or provide sex.

Or best of all, after the breast-feeding and toddler years are through, let those nurturing superdads be the
custodial parents! Let the Type A moms obsessively work, write checks, and forget to feed the dog. Let the dads
then, if they wish, kick out those sloppy working mothers and run effective households, hiring the appropriate
staff, if need be. To a certain extent, men today may have more clarity about what it takes to raise children in
the modern age. They don’t, for instance, have today’s working mother’s ambivalence and emotional

In any case, here’s my final piece of advice: avoid marriage—or you too may suffer the emotional pain, the
humiliation, and the logistical difficulty, not to mention the expense, of breaking up a long-term union at
midlife for something as demonstrably fleeting as love.

9* PDF at The Impact of Family
Formation Change on the Cognitive, Social, and Emotional Well-Being of the Next Generation
{must read}

10* Education and

Marital Dissolution Rates in the U.S. since the 1970s. {must read}


Wanted: A Few Good Sperm

By JENNIFER EGAN March 19, 2006
Correction Appended
One day last October, Karyn, a 39-year-old executive, pulled her online dating profile off JDate and, two sites she had been using, along with an endless series of leads, tips and blind dates
arranged by friends and colleagues, to search for a man she wanted to marry and raise a family with. At
long last, after something like 100 dates in the past 10 years and several serious relationships, she had
found the man she refers to, tongue only slightly in cheek, as "the one." It all began last summer, when she
broke off a relationship with a younger man who wasn't ready for children and got serious about the idea
of conceiving on her own. She gathered information about fertility doctors and sperm banks. "Then a
childhood friend of mine was over," she told me. "I pulled up the Web site of the only sperm bank that I
know of that has adult photos. There happened to be one Jewish person. I pulled up the photo, and I
looked at my friend, and I looked at his picture, and I said, 'Oh, my God.' I can't say love at first sight,
because, you know. But he was the one."

Sperm donors, like online daters, answer myriad questions about heroes, hobbies and favorite things.
Karyn read her donor's profile and liked what she saw. "You can tell he comes from a warm family, some
very educated," she said. He had worked as a chef. He had "proven fertility," meaning that at least one
woman conceived using his sperm. Like all sperm donors, he was free from any sexually transmitted
diseases or testable genetic disorders. "People in New York change sex partners quicker than the
crosstown bus," Karyn said. "I'd be a lot more concerned about my date next week." But she especially
liked the fact that he was an identity-release donor (also called an "open donor" or a "yes donor") — a
growing and extremely popular category of sperm donors who are willing to be contacted by any offspring
who reach the age of 18.

The next morning, Karyn called the bank and spoke with a woman who worked there. "She said: 'I have to
be honest. He's very popular, and I only have eight units in store right now. I'm not sure how much longer
he might be in the program,"' Karyn told me. "Most women in New York impulse-buy Manolo Blahniks,
and I said, 'I'll take the eight units.' It was $3,100." The price included six months of storage.

That hefty purchase, and the strong sense of connection she felt to the donor, galvanized Karyn: she made
an appointment with a reproductive endocrinologist and gave up alcohol and caffeine. At work, she took
on a position of greater responsibility and longer hours — with a higher salary — to save money. She
went on a wait list to buy more of the donor's sperm when it became available. (All donor sperm must be
quarantined for six months — the maximum incubation period for H.I.V. — so that the donor can be
retested for the disease before it is released.) She told her parents and married sister what was going on, e-
mailing the donor's picture to her father with an invitation that he meet his son-in-law. She also printed the
donor's picture and kept it on the coffee table of her Manhattan studio apartment, where she sleeps in a
Murphy bed. "I kind of glance at it as I pass," she said of the picture. "It's almost like when you date
someone, and you keep looking at them, and you're, like, Are they cute? But every time I pass, I'm, like,
Oh, he's really cute. It's a comforting feeling."

When I suggested that she must be a type who is prone to love at first sight, she just laughed. "With online
dating, friends used to say: 'What about him? What about him?' I'd say: 'Don't like the nose. Ah, the eyes
are a little buggy. He really likes to golf, and you know I don't like golfing.' There was always something.
If I said this about everyone," she concluded, "I would have married someone about 75 dates ago."

Karyn said she hoped to join a population of women that everyone agrees is expanding, although by how
much is hard to pin down because single mothers by choice (or choice mothers), as they are sometimes
called, aren't separated statistically from, say, babies born to unwed teenagers. Between 1999 and 2003
there was an almost 17 percent jump in the number of babies born to unmarried women between ages 30
and 44 in America, according to the National Center for Human Statistics, while the number born to
unmarried women between 15 and 24 actually decreased by nearly 6 percent. Single Mothers by Choice, a
25-year-old support group, took in nearly double the number of new members in 2005 as it did 10 years
ago, and its roughly 4,000 current members include women in Israel, Australia and Switzerland. The
California Cryobank, the largest sperm bank in the country, owed a third of its business to single women
in 2005, shipping them 9,600 vials of sperm, each good for one insemination.

As recently as the early 60's, a "respectable" woman needed to be married just to have sex, not to speak of
children; a child born out of wedlock was a source of deepest shame. Yet this radical social change feels
strangely inevitable; nearly a third of American households are headed by women alone, many of whom
not only raise their children on their own but also support them. All that remains is conception, and it is
small wonder that women have begun chipping away at needing a man for that — especially after Sylvia
Ann Hewlett's controversial 2002 book, "Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for
Children," sounded alarms about declining fertility rates in women over 35. The Internet is also a factor;
as well as holding meetings through local chapters around the country, Single Mothers by Choice hosts 11
Listservs, each addressing a different aspect of single motherhood. Women around the world pore over
these lists, exchanging tips and information, selling one another leftover vials of sperm. (Once sperm has
shipped, it can't be returned to the bank.) Karyn found both her sperm bank and reproductive
endocrinologist on these Listservs. Three-quarters of the members of Single Mothers by Choice choose to
conceive with donor sperm, as lesbian couples have been doing for many years — adoption is costly,
slow-moving and often biased against single people. Buying sperm over the Internet, on the other hand, is
not much different from buying shoes.

In the 25 years since she founded Single Mothers by Choice after becoming pregnant by accident, Jane
Mattes, now 62, has seen her group's membership conceiving at younger ages (the median age among
members is 36) and more often having second children. But the biggest change, Mattes says, is that the
stigma attached to this form of single motherhood has largely faded. "People used to come into our
meetings literally afraid to walk in," she told me. "We don't see that as much anymore. Everyone seems to
know somebody who did it, which wasn't the case even 10 years ago."

Karyn, who asked that I use only her middle name, never imagined her life unfolding in this way, she told
me over dinner at Caliente Cab, where we sat outdoors on an unseasonably warm November night. She
has big blue-green eyes, shiny brown hair past her shoulders and an ironic appreciation of certain parallels
between her life and Carrie Bradshaw's. She has always known she wanted to marry and have kids. "I
certainly never thought I would be the last one standing," she said. "You feel a little bit resentful, like,
Gosh, how did I get here? Blind date after blind date — why can't it be easy for me like it was for other
people? Right up until I ordered the sperm and made the doctor's appointment, I was filled with anxiety. I
felt sad, overwhelmed. Now I'm completely at peace with it."

In the month since we had first talked, she had seen the reproductive endocrinologist and received a clean
bill of health. Her hormone levels looked excellent. She planned to have her first insemination in
December. Her decision had meshed seamlessly with what had been, until now, a conventional life; her
parents were driving in from Long Island the next morning to take her for a medical test to check that her
fallopian tubes were clear. Of her mother, Karyn said: "She used to call me once a week with a blind date.
Now she'll call once a week with a friend of a friend of a friend who has a daughter who became a single
mother by choice."

Karyn carried a wallet-size copy of the donor's photo between her MetroCard and her work ID: a fair,
sharp-featured young man in a crisp white shirt, his arms crossed. In the past month, she had had a couple
of residual online dates, but now she seemed relieved to let that go. "People would say, 'Oh, it's just a date
— don't expect anything,"' she said, sipping her ice water. "'Just go out and have a good time.' But then
you'd get four calls that night: How was it? What did you think? Did you like him? Why wouldn't you go
out with him again? There was so much pressure. It became a job." Online dating has, if anything, made
the search for a partner more callous and mystifying than ever; disappearing has become so easy. "I
imagine one day when I get to heaven there will be a whole room full of missing socks and men :)," Karyn
once wrote to me in an e-mail message. "I hope the men will be wearing the socks."
Now, as we sat outside, she said: "There's nothing I'd like more in life than to have the whole picture and
to share it all. To have the baby, to have the miniwagon, to have the husband, morning soccer games and
P.T.A. — he's out manning the grill, and I'm mixing the margaritas. But I think if I had to choose today
between becoming a mom or finding the perfect man and I could only have one today, I would choose
becoming a mom. And hope that I have my lifetime to find the other."

Discussion of single motherhood nearly always leads to talk of divorce. More than a third of American
marriages end that way; often there are children involved, and often the mothers end up caring for those
children mostly on their own, saddled with ex-spouses, custody wrangles and nagging in-laws. Considered
this way, single motherhood would seem to have a clean, almost thrilling logic — more than a third of the
time, these women will have circumvented a lot of pain and unpleasantness and cut straight to being
mothers on their own.

Last October, when I visited the Manhattan apartment of Daniela, a 38-year-old German advertising
executive who had recently been inseminated with the sperm of a male friend, her guest room was
peppered with toys belonging to the young son of a visiting friend who had broken up with the boy's
father by the time he was born. "They got a child out of love, and the parents couldn't deal with one
another," Daniela, who asked that I use only her first name, told me. "And now she lives in Germany; he
lives here. He doesn't pay any money if he doesn't see the child. So there's a constant battle over it. The
child is torn in between. She has to deal with the father. I won't have to deal with the father."

Daniela's apartment is neat and spare, with hardwood floors, a basket of colorful slippers by the front door
for guests and an entire wall devoted to pictures of her family in Germany. (She also has a married sister
with three children who lives in New Jersey.) A 6-foot-1 blonde who speaks with disarming frankness, she
came to America 10 years ago with the man she would later marry, only to find that he didn't want
children. After their divorce, she was engaged to another man who kept postponing their wedding — she
still has a set of "Save the Date" cards in her closet. Having always wanted passionately to be a mother,
she decided to use a "known donor," a close gay friend, also German, to help her conceive. Known donors
have some big advantages over anonymous ones: they can contribute fresh sperm, which is more motile
and long-lived than frozen. (As much as half of a man's sperm dies during freezing, which is why sperm-
bank donors need to have extremely high sperm counts.) With a known donor, there is a theoretically
endless supply, and it's free, whereas "washed" sperm, cleared of debris for an intrauterine insemination,
or IUI (recommended for women using frozen sperm because the sperm is placed directly into the uterus
and doesn't have to swim past the cervix), generally costs between $200 and $400 a vial, plus $100 for
shipping, not to mention another $100 if the donor is "open."

The big disadvantage to using a known donor, as Daniela learned when she posted a query on a Listserv of
Single Mothers by Choice (she had been avoiding the meetings, finding them too full of "personalities"),
is that in most states the donor will always have full parental rights, regardless of whatever deal he and the
mother might have worked out in advance. This didn't worry Daniela; she wanted her child to have a
father, even a partial one. "His parents are ecstatic about it," she said of her donor friend as we sat drinking
tea at her dining table. "He's smart; he has a great character; he's a friendly person. I said, You don't have
to pay for the child, but if you want to have it with you or you want to participate, you're more than

An unforeseen hitch emerged at the reproductive endocrinologist's office, where Daniela and her friend
were posing as an engaged couple to avoid having to quarantine his sperm, as required by federal and New
York State regulations before a woman can be inseminated by a man who isn't already her sexual partner:
he had an extremely low sperm count. The doctor "spun" the sperm to concentrate it before placing it in
Daniela's uterus, and she and her friend had already tried three inseminations, the last one a few days
before my visit. She was now in the middle of what is known in fertility parlance as the "two-week wait"
to find out if she was pregnant. She wasn't optimistic. In vitro fertilization might be more successful, but
she has a stressful job and was leery of the intense hormone treatments.

Daniela also found anonymous donors deeply unappealing. "These people don't do that because they want
to help the population, let's face it," she said. "They're doing it for the money and because they maybe
want to populate the earth. A) you're going to have a lot of siblings out there. B) I question what kind of
personality these people can be. You read characteristics like height and ethnicity, what kind of education
— it's the information that you don't get that is much more important. I'm thinking about happiness or
moods, these kind of things."

Sperm banks do try to address the amorphous question of character; many include psychological studies of
donors as well as "staff impressions." Some offer audiotaped interviews in addition to the lengthy written
questionnaires, but Daniela said she felt that these materials would only confuse her. She did have a few
ideas of what she might look for: she wanted a man of her same blood type, O positive. Because she
herself is so tall, she preferred a medium height. (Short donors don't exist; because most women seek out
tall ones, most banks don't accept men under 5-foot-9.) She was also attracted by the idea of a donor of
another race. "I believe in multiculturalism," she said. "I would probably choose somebody with a darker
skin color so I don't have to slather sunblock on my kid all the time. I want it to be a healthy mix. You
know how mixed dogs are always the nicest and the friendliest and the healthiest? If you get a clear race,
they have all the problems. Mutts are always the friendly ones, the intelligent ones, the ones who don't
bark and have a good character. I want a mutt." Her African-American friends questioned this strategy,
suggesting that her child's life would be harder if he or she was perceived as nonwhite, but Daniela said:
"If that's what I believe, I have to go by that. And it might help the world also if more people are doing it
that way."

While many single mothers look for donors whose features and coloring resemble their own, Daniela's
attraction to a diverse gene pool isn't so unusual. A 40-year-old African-American woman I spoke with
wanted a Latino donor so that her child would have lighter skin and nonkinky hair. "I'm the African-
American," she told me. "The child will get that from me." Q., a 43-year-old health-care manager who
attended a yeshiva from kindergarten through high school (she asked that I use only one of her initials),
first sought out a Jewish donor. "Everybody either had glasses, they're balding or their grandmother was
diabetic and had heart disease — typical Jewish population," she told me. Her solution: a 6-foot-2
Catholic, German stock on both sides, with curly blond hair and blue eyes. "He really was the typical
Aryan perfect human being," she said, laughing. "He was a bodybuilder. He played the guitar and the
drums, and he sang. He was captain of the rugby team in college. When I had the in vitro process done,
the embryologist said: 'This is some of the best sperm I've ever seen. It just about jumped out of the test
tubes."' Q.'s golden-curled, blue-eyed daughter has just turned 2.

For the moment, though, Daniela was still hoping that this recent insemination with her friend's sperm
would take. She dreamed of a little girl. And like virtually all of the prospective single mothers I spoke
with, she had every intention of finding a mate after the child was born. "Taking this whole 'I have to find
the father of my child' out of the equation might make it a lot more relaxed and easier," she said. "The
guys are smelling it, and they run." And even if the guy held still, he might not be the one you'd pick — or
even consider — if you weren't desperate for kids. "I see so many women who are in unhealthy
relationships, where they really just try to get married and then have a child and break it off," Daniela said.
"If they would consider this as an option, I think they would be happier, and the children would be

I went to a special meeting of the New York chapter of Single Mothers by Choice a few weeks later, in
mid-November. It had been arranged for members willing to have a reporter present. We met on the Upper
West Side, in a long rectangular rented room whose high ceiling magnified the yelps and stomping feet of
toddlers who had come with their mothers. Women contemplating single motherhood or trying to get
pregnant ("thinkers" and "tryers") arrived an hour later, Karyn among them. It was her third meeting.

The mothers' discussion was mostly practical: a pretty blonde in a black T-shirt that read "Sweet and
Toxic" had noticed a sign in her health club forbidding children over the age of 3 to change in opposite-
sex bathrooms: what would she do in a year when her son was 3? She also wondered about teaching him
how to urinate into the toilet bowl; a friend had suggested throwing Cheerios in for him to aim at. (A
mother of a 4-year-old boy discouraged this practice; it might tempt him to throw other things into the
toilet.) A woman trying to arrange a domestic adoption asked about nannies versus day care.

When the general meeting began, each woman in the largely white group introduced herself. Two were
pregnant; another had twins; one had adopted a daughter from Haiti. One had not been able to conceive
and planned to become a foster parent. Anyone walking into the room would have assumed that the
women with kids had husbands or partners at home, but in three hours of discussion, the only men who
were mentioned were donors, anonymous and known. These women's independence of male partners in
their family-making often brings a corollary reliance on one another — for sympathy and information, for
companionship (Single Mothers by Choice sponsors vacations every year for single mothers and their
kids) and the chance to show their children other families like their own. At times, the relationships can
become even more enmeshed: one mother I spoke with, whose twin sons were conceived using both donor
eggs and donor sperm, gave her leftover frozen embryos to a friend who was having fertility problems.
The friend is now pregnant with a child who will be this mother's own sons' full sibling.

While nearly every woman I spoke with had her own history of romantic near misses and crushing
disappointments, most also saw advantages to proceeding on their own. "This baby will be my baby, only
my baby," Karyn told me that night at Caliente Cab. "The thing I'm afraid of is that after doing this, I
might not want to get married. It seems like a lot of hard work, a lot of compromise. Someone ends up
short, and usually it's the mom, because by the time you get to the child and your husband and the dog,
there's not much left."

After introductions, the group broke into smaller discussion groups, mothers and pregnant women at one
end of the room, thinkers and tryers at the other. Among the thinkers, two women were holding off on
making a decision while they looked for work — something I heard a lot. Such delays put these women in
a bind, though; each month is precious in terms of fertility. "I can't stress enough how much money
worries me in this process," I was told by a 35-year-old Canadian woman who will soon begin trying to
get pregnant. "I'm alone; there's no safety net. If you picture it like the scales, on the one side there's my
money and on the other are the years left to have children."

Karyn had moved from the thinkers group into the tryers since her last meeting. She had brought a bag of
pretzels, which she shared with the others, most of whom were slightly older than she — slightly in real
terms, but through the telescopic lens of a woman's fertility, the difference was vast. "Trying to get
pregnant at age 41 is nothing like trying to get pregnant at age 38," a 41-year-old grimly remarked when
Karyn asked if she had begun trying. "My gynecologist wouldn't even do any of the tests. She said
because of my age, just go to deal with infertility, don't waste any time."

Because many single women have waited years, hoping the right man would come along, and because the
majority use sperm that has been frozen, they are disproportionately at risk for fertility problems when
they finally decide to have children. Many report being stunned that their fertility was so fragile. "I
thought I could have kids until my period ended, and menopause is 50, right?" said another woman I met
at a Single Mothers by Choice meeting in Washington, who began trying to conceive at 44. The sense of
not having been informed, of being too late, is so often expressed by would-be single mothers in their 40's
that it has doubtless spurred some younger women in the Single Mothers by Choice network to act more
precipitously. (I interviewed two women who conceived while still in their 20's.) Still, the near-miraculous
success of some older mothers can give hope — often unrealistic — to those still fighting the odds. Most
doctors refused to take the 44-year-old Washington woman except as an egg-donor patient, but one did —
and she became pregnant with a girl who is now almost 4. Another woman in the D.C. group went through
16 attempts and a miscarriage, using both IUI and I.V.F., before her son was finally born.

At 39, Karyn was still on the right side of this equation, but just barely. "I'm waiting for my next period to
start the beginning of December," she told the older woman. "I'm about to start trying, either before or
after Christmas Day."

But it didn't work out like that. A few days before Christmas, after receiving a string of e-mail messages
from Karyn chronicling her march toward insemination, I found one with the subject line, "Do you believe
in signs?" She had written: "Sit down, ready for this one? I arrived home from work again at 11:30 last
night to be greeted by my doormen telling me how very sorry they were — a steam pipe explosion blew
right through my apartment with a flood.. . .My apartment is destroyed and needs to be gutted.. . .I am
taking all of the events as a sign that this is not the right month to get pregnant."

She planned to wait three months, at which point she would be weeks away from her 40th birthday.

In November, I met Daniela in her Midtown office, which has a modern industrial design and faces east
into what that afternoon was a bleak gray day. As she had feared, the last insemination with her donor
friend hadn't worked, and she had resigned herself to the idea of using an anonymous donor instead. She
had even found two that appealed to her, both from a small Manhattan sperm bank where she would save
money on shipping by picking up the samples herself and carrying them to her doctor's office. As I sat
across her desk, she pulled up the donors' descriptions on her computer. One was Indian: "He's got black
straight hair," she told me, "brown eyes, he's six feet but he only weighs 150. Which is good. If I have a
girl, she wants to be skinny, and if she can eat what she wants, that's perfect. You don't have to get in
fights about food." The Indian donor's complexion was described as "medium/dark," and he had proven
fertility. He had a master's degree in business. He was bilingual, Hindu, single and liked traveling and
music. His family-health history looked good.

The second donor was a mix of Chinese, Peruvian and Italian. He was olive-skinned, 5-foot-9 and
weighed 169. "Thick hair, which is also nice," she said, "because if I happen to get a son, I don't like bald
guys. He's Catholic, which I would obviously like, because I am. He has a very interesting book
collection: he likes Hesse, Henry James, Lorca. Excellent vision. His parents are pretty boring
professionally, so I was a little concerned about that. But when they started their businesses, they probably
didn't have all that many chances, the father being Peruvian and the mother being Chinese-Italian." She
especially liked the fact that he was a full-time student in theater. "He has creative aspirations," she said.
"Those things are hereditary."

Mostly from a sense of obligation, she Googled "sperm" and began scanning lists of donors at other banks,
using O-positive blood type as her first criterion. "This one is a Hispanic fair," she mused. "But Hispanics
can still be very, very fair. Then we have a Dominican-Honduran, black straight hair, olive skin — he is
really too heavy, 220, are you kidding me? Now here we have a Caucasian. Research assistant in
psychology — no. You don't study that if you haven't touched upon it somewhere."

At the California Cryobank site, the donors numbered in the hundreds. "All those Germans," Daniela
murmured, scrolling down. "How am I proving my healthiness if I do the same race again? Black African,
they do have three of them. Look how tall they are. And see how heavy the two O-positives are?"
Eventually she happened on a search engine that listed donors from all of the banks without revealing
which bank they were from without payment. Visibly weary as she scanned the list, she reflected: "I still
like my Chinese-Peruvian-Italian. He seems a little bit more special somehow. From this little bank . . . it's
like a little country. There he is. There he is! Chinese-Peruvian-Italian, full-time student!"

The sheer familiarity of the Chinese-Peruvian-Italian made him leap from the haze of anonymous data like
an old friend. And that feeling counts for a lot. It's no wonder that a number of single mothers I spoke with
used the phrase "I felt a connection" in explaining their choice of donors. Despite the obvious parallels
between shopping for sperm and dating online, there is finally no comparing them — a sperm donor is
providing half the DNA for your child, and whether or not you choose to think about it, he'll be there
forever in the child's tastes and choices and personality. No one wants a decision like that to feel arbitrary.

Daniela had other news: she had met a man she was interested in. It happened during a business trip the
week before; he was meeting friends in the bar of her hotel. "He was so good with his friend's kid," she
said. "I'm, like, 'Oh, you must have three kids.' He said, 'No, just nieces and nephews."' They struck up a
conversation, and she ended up joining his group for dinner. She was honest with him about her plans to
get pregnant, but the news may not have sunk in; he had been calling ever since, eager to see her again. He
was in his 40's, African-American, and had his own business. "It's nice to know that just because you have
these plans, you're not unattractive or undesirable," Daniela said. She felt more at ease with this man than
she had with other men in recent years and attributed this to her decision to move ahead with motherhood.
"It was a completely different feeling," she said. "It empowers one, because you're not relying on
somebody else. You don't have to bring up the big life conversations."

While many women, like Karyn, relish their emancipation from the grind of dating and pursue
motherhood with a single mind, others are intrigued by what romance could mean, absent the imperative
of finding a father for their children. One woman, a 40-year-old graduate student in biology in the
Midwest, told me shortly after her first insemination: "One of the things that was so powerful about
deciding to have a baby on my own was saying, I'm taking charge of this piece of it; I'm not going to wait
around for a guy to give it to me. And my feelings about what I want from men right now are really
changed. I don't actually want a big relationship. Now I want occasional companionship and sex."

On a recent date, between inseminations, this woman noticed the difference. "It was one of these dates
where the guy's just telling you his sad story and his complicated relationship with his mother. In my
previous dating life, I would have been, like, I'm not going to get seriously involved with a man like this.
I'm going to get rid of him. This time I was, like, I think he's hot, so if I just keep listening, maybe
eventually we'll have sex. And we had great sex. It was really hot." At one point, she had sex with two
different men in the same weekend (both times using condoms) not long after an insemination. Observing
her own behavior, she said: "Maybe in six months or a year I'll have more insight about it, but something
radical is going on in my brain about my relationships with men. O.K., so I'm not going to keep trying to
have this picket-fence-y life. I'm waving the white flag. And now I have permission to directly pursue
what I want. It's a very curious and ambivalent liberation, because I would rather not be single. It's not my
first choice."

Daniela told me that regardless of what happened with the new man, she was certain of one thing: she
would go ahead with her plan to inseminate. "I've done the mistake of putting this on hold several times,
and I cannot afford it," she said. We looked together at her November calendar on her office computer;
sandwiched among coming trips and meetings were her expected days of menstruation and ovulation,
noted in German. She planned to inseminate in December, so she would have to pick the donor by the end
of the month. Meanwhile, the new man had proposed coming to New York in mid-December, which
happened to be the time when she thought she would be ovulating. Daniela said she wouldn't feel
comfortable using protection with him while she was going to a doctor's office to be inseminated. "That
would be weird," she said. "But leave it up to destiny? That's a possibility, I think."
I was astonished. Had she thought through the implications of having this man's child? I asked. What if
the relationship didn't last? What if she turned out not to like him at all? Daniela countered that his parents
were happily married, and he had good relationships with his siblings, but what I heard in her voice was
confusion. Then I recalled something she had told me in a previous conversation: "I have this big fear in
my life that I never will be pregnant. You see these pregnant women on the street, and you're, like, How
does it feel? What's going on in your mind, in your heart? I want to feel it!" Remembering this helped me
to understand: it is hard to want something so badly and to try to prevent it.

As it turned out, he didn't visit in December. Daniela didn't inseminate, either. Her Indian donor was out of
stock, and the Chinese-Peruvian-Italian's sperm was in quarantine until early January. Meanwhile, she had
learned that her health insurance had a $2,000 annual cap on fertility treatments that she had already
exhausted on the inseminations with her gay friend.

So it was early January when I finally met Daniela at 8 a.m. outside the Empire State Building, where her
sperm bank is located, to pick up two vials of sperm from her Chinese-Peruvian-Italian donor. She had
hardly slept the night before from excitement, she told me. At the bank, a nondescript lab, Daniela paid
$450 and was given an 18-pound white canister with an orange "Biohazard" sticker on it. She had been
there once before; her donor friend had had to go out of town and left frozen sperm for her. "You walk out
on the street, and you've got the container in your hand," she said, "and then there's all these containers on
two legs."

One such two-legged container was in the elevator when we got on: a workman surrounded by tools.
"You're unbuttoned, you know that," Daniela said, looking at his fly.

The guy's fair skin turned crimson, and he buttoned up, grinning but avoiding her eyes.

She explained, "I think it's better that I tell you now, so you don't go through the day like that."

"If they notice, they shouldn't be looking there," he said in a strong Irish accent, smiling right at her now.

Daniela smiled back. "Are you Irish?" she asked. "I'm German. That's why I don't understand a word
you're saying."

This was flirtation, right? I was still asking myself that question as we left the elevator, but I wasn't sure:
what does flirtation even mean in the context of a woman hauling a canister of sperm to a doctor's office
so he can inseminate her? Or, to put it another way, what's the point?

"He was a sweet kid," Daniela said briskly as we left the building and stepped onto the dusty, bacon-
smelling street.

At the doctor's office, we repaired to an examining room, where Daniela's doctor, an avuncular man in
wire-rimmed glasses, took a sonogram of her ovaries and uterus. "The lining looks very good," he said.
"It's the proper time to do this. We'll thaw out the specimen."

In a different room, he removed a "straw" of frozen sperm from the canister of nitrogen and placed it into
a tub of warm water to thaw. Most sperm banks use plastic vials nowadays, but this particular bank had
stuck with an old system. The doctor left the room while the sperm was thawing, and Daniela filled me in
on the new man. They hadn't seen each other since that first meeting two months ago; trips had been
arranged and fallen through, often because he was short of money. Still, they were in close touch. Three
days ago, she told him on the phone about the planned insemination, and his response was wary. "How do
you react to dating a person that would be pregnant with somebody else?" Daniela said, paraphrasing his
reaction. "Just like I am feeling completely weird carrying that bucket, it must be the same feeling for him
when he meets a person like me." Yet she was hopeful that things might still work out. "If we're going to
be great together," she said, laughing, "we're going to be great together with that Eurasian child."

The doctor came back and placed the straw of clear, yellowish sperm in a slim glass cylinder and removed
a drop to look at under a microscope. "We have very good motility," he said. "This is a good specimen."

Daniela looked, too. "I see lots of them," she said, excited. "Last time I had to look for four."

The doctor left so Daniela could change into a gown and lie down. When he came back, he drew the
yellow liquid into an oversize syringe that tapered into a skinny tube. It is hard to say what Daniela's
chances of becoming pregnant would be; statistics on the success rates of IUI using frozen sperm suggest
that they are between 8 and 15 percent in a given cycle. Daniela would return the next morning for a
second insemination; many doctors believe that consecutive inseminations increase the chances.

Wearing a small miner's light around his head, the doctor went to work. He was done in three minutes.
Daniela lifted her hand, fingers crossed, as he left the room.

A week into Daniela's two-week wait, I heard from Karyn again. She had been living in a friend's
apartment for weeks while the various insurance companies haggled about how much to pay out for the
damage to her apartment. Her computer had been destroyed, along with many of her possessions,
including her file of medical records and donor materials. "That's one thing that made me cry," she said.
"Just to see all the papers with his information and history and his picture. . .seeing it all soaked."

She had resigned from her job — the brutal hours were wearing her down — and said she believed she
had other good prospects. Meanwhile, she had decided to go ahead with her insemination plan. The big
day came two weeks later, in late January. Her mother went with her, and Karyn called me a few hours
after, elated. The next day I received an e-mail message whose subject line read, "I think I already feel a
kick :)."

Over thanksgiving vacation, I took the train to Darien, Conn., to meet Shelby Siems and her 2-year-old
son, Christopher, who had driven down from their home in Marblehead, Mass. Shelby, 44, grew up in
Darien and had come to visit cousins and friends over the holiday weekend. She is part of a rising number
of single mothers who are having second children; when we met in Connecticut, she was four months
pregnant with a second son by the same donor who sired her first. She and Christopher picked me up at
the train station, and we drove to a nearby pizza restaurant that was still quiet at that midmorning hour.
Shelby is fair, with long blond hair and pale blue eyes that are prone to tears. Christopher is also pale, a
watchful, intelligent child with wispy reddish hair. At lunch, he said "please" and "thank you" and rolled a
small green train engine over the laminated tabletop while Shelby and I talked. For a 2-year-old he was
remarkably patient, but occasionally he cried, "Mama, Mama, I want to hold you."

"I'm right here," Shelby said.

Once a journalist for The Christian Science Monitor, Shelby was finishing up an M.F.A. in nonfiction. Her
thesis project is a book about her experience as a single mother, an experience that has been more grueling
than Daniela's or Karyn's will most likely be because Shelby has no immediate family; she was an only
child of older parents who died by the time she reached her early 30's. She inherited money that has
allowed her to go back to school and to support Christopher, but she is alone in the world. In Christopher's
first weeks of life, there were periods of many days when they saw no one but each other.

Shelby does have a boyfriend: a 52-year-old bachelor who works at a pharmaceutical company, whom she
met at a party when Christopher was a month old. "He's been a great person in my life and Christopher's
life, but he's not going to marry me," she explained over the phone when we first spoke. "Some people just
don't want to do that, and he's one of those people."

The fact that Shelby is in a relationship at all is unusual; the majority of mothers I spoke with — even
those with older children — had remained single. Many expressed a willingness to date if the opportunity
were to come along, but they work long hours to support their kids, and when they're not working, they
want to see them. For all the comparisons between being divorced with children and having them alone,
there are critical differences: an ex-husband who spends any time at all with his kids frees up pockets of
time when a woman could potentially see someone new. Even minimal child-support payments would
reduce the financial burden on her, and substantial ones could allow her to work less. Perhaps most
important, a child with only one parent is immensely dependent on that parent, and the mother of such a
child tends to feel her responsibility acutely. It can be painful — and expensive — to leave your child with
a baby sitter after a whole day away, just to go out on a date.

Despite her age — Shelby was 42 when Christopher was born — she was determined that her son have a
sibling. "He has even less of a family than I do, because he doesn't have his whole father's side of the
family," she told me. "The only person he has is me." She wanted to use the same donor again and put the
matter to her boyfriend, who made it clear that he wasn't interested in fatherhood. She began stocking up
on the donor's sperm (most banks keep a reserve supply of each donor's sperm for women who want
second children) when Christopher was still an infant. "I want my son to have a full sibling," she said. "I
want to feel like he has one person in the world who is a complete blood relative after I'm gone. I did not
want my son to feel deprived, that the other sibling had a father and he didn't." To be sure that there was
no chance the child would be his, Shelby and her boyfriend were celibate for the year it took her to
conceive, which she finally did at 43, after eight tries, using I.V.F.

The fact that a child born of an anonymous donor knows only half his biological family concerns single
mothers with more robust families than Shelby's, too. The Donor Sibling Registry, a Web site where
families can register children conceived by donor insemination in hopes of being matched with half-
siblings or even the donor himself, has proved a boon for many single mothers. The site's founder, Wendy
Kramer, estimates that the majority of the 7,400 registered members are single. Recent publicity has
prompted a jump in the registry's membership and matches — more than 1,500 have been made so far, not
just among half-siblings but also among sperm (and egg) donors, 320 of whom are registered on the site,
and their progeny.

Q., the former yeshiva student who ended up choosing the 6-foot-2 German rugby player as her donor,
developed severe hypertension during her pregnancy and had to be hospitalized several times. Her
symptoms lingered even after her daughter was born, and she became preoccupied with what would
happen to the baby girl if she were to die. Her brother and a sister are selfish, she says, and her mother is
elderly. Last fall, she went to the Donor Sibling Registry and got a shock: the Aryan bodybuilder with the
leaping sperm has fathered 21 children (and counting — he is still an active donor), including four sets of
twins. These children are all 3 and under, and their families — four lesbian couples, three heterosexual
couples and six single mothers — have formed their own Listserv, where photographs of the children (all
blond, with a strong familial resemblance) are posted, and daily e-mail messages are exchanged about
birthdays, toilet training and the like. They are planning a group vacation in 2007. "I was elated," Q. told
me. "To quote the granny on 'The Beverly Hillbillies,' I wanted her to have kin. Now here's kin that look
like her; that're in her same age range. I even thought that if I get to know somebody really well from this
group, maybe I would pick one of these other mothers, if they would be interested, to be designated as a
guardian for my daughter."

Q. is one of several people in the group with a keen desire to meet her donor one day. And they aren't
sitting idle; one woman had magnified his baby picture, in which the donor is blowing out candles on his
birthday cake, to the point at which a first name may be legible. Another mother has a hunch about the
donor's provenance based on the way he pronounced certain words on his audiotape. At the Washington
Single Mothers by Choice meeting, I met a woman who had easily identified the donor for her 9-month-
old son using Google. "The person left specific enough information for me to just type in those words and
click," she told the group. "But what to do with that information? I'm bound to keep him anonymous as
per the contract, but what about when my son says: 'What do you know? Tell me anything about my dad."'

When we'd finished our pizza and salad, Shelby drove to a playground. The brightly colored equipment
was empty in the frigid cold, but Christopher bounced in his car seat. "Slides!" he cried.

He bounded out of the car, refusing mittens, and commenced to climb, panting plumes of steam.
Whenever he was in earshot, Shelby spelled out the word D-A-D; lately Christopher had become fixated
on the idea of a daddy. "He goes to a day care, and he's the only child of a single mother in his class. I
think they spend a lot of time talking about Daddy," she told me. Christopher had referred to a neighbor as
Daddy, as well as Regis Philbin. "Interestingly, he doesn't call my boyfriend Daddy; he's 'mamma's friend.'
The other day, I said, 'Someone special's coming to see you today — do you know who it is?' I expected
him to say [her boyfriend's name]. But he said, 'Daddy?"' The single mothers by choice I spoke with
generally hold that the story of their children's origins should be told to them from the time of birth, long
before the child is old enough to understand it. But Shelby feels that at 2, Christopher is too young to hear
that he doesn't have a father.

Shelby's son is part of a population of kids that is only now beginning to be studied, though a 1992 survey
of teenagers raised by single mothers found that they experienced markedly fewer adolescent problems
than children of divorce. A continuing study of a group of children in England, now 2, who were
conceived by single women using donor sperm concludes that so far they are healthy and well adjusted.
But the long-term questions of how these children will fare or about the different experiences of girls and
boys have yet to be answered.

As we watched Christopher tear around the playground, Shelby reflected on her occasional frustration at
the distance her boyfriend maintains from her family. Over Christmas, he would be leaving town for two
weeks to visit his family, and Shelby and Christopher would spend the holiday alone. They had no plans,
and Shelby felt pressure to make Christmas festive for her son. "On the other hand," she said of her
boyfriend, "he's still attracted to me physically through all my body changes, and he and Christopher are
so fond of each other. They have a very sweet relationship." Her boyfriend usually visits on Sunday
mornings. "A huge wave of relief comes over me," Shelby said. She can relax or do dishes or take a nap.
"I feel, like, Wow, this must be what it's like to have a husband every day of the year. I can do my own
thing, but I love to just stand across the room and watch them together."

When I next spoke to Daniela, in late January at the end of her two-week wait, she was on a business trip.
Her voice sounded weak and tired. She had just gotten her period. And the new man had finally made it to
New York, but the visit had been a disaster. "I guess it has to do with the fact that I'm going through this,"
she said. "You kind of protect yourself. He was saying he was one of these what he calls old-fashioned
guys: if his wife is going to have a child, he's going to be in the waiting room until the child is delivered
and washed. I'm, like, wait a second. Don't you think you should go through this together? He said, 'No,
I'm going to faint, and I'm going to throw up."'

His visit to New York was supposedly a business trip, but in the end he didn't have much to do. "He's not
cut out to be a provider, to be a protector or to be a patriarch," Daniela said. "He can't be there when the
child is born; he can't make the living for the family. Maybe what bothered him is that he couldn't offer
what he would like to offer. So he made it, like, taste bad."
I had never heard her so low. "Everything is so hard, and it's so degrading," she said. "You always think
that you'd go through this with somebody that would support you. You don't think about having all the
problems, let alone doing it on your own."

I was humbled by the grueling ordeals many women had undergone on their paths to single motherhood:
years of trying to conceive, hormone treatments, hospitalizations, miscarriages, untold thousands of
dollars spent — all without a partner to buffer the strains and disappointments. And being a single parent
is no easier: whether it's a matter of trying to get a photo taken of you with your child or finding a way to
shower without worrying that you won't hear your baby cry or accommodating a difficult work schedule,
being a single parent can require compromises and jury-rigging that might awe a person with a partner. A
longtime employee of New Jersey Transit spent a year working the 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift, which meant
waking her daughter at 4 and walking her across the street in her pajamas to a neighbor's house. Her
daughter slept on the sofa until the neighbor woke her and took her to school with her own children. "It's
probably harder than you ever think it's going to be," this mother told me. After a moment, she added, "My
only regret is that I didn't do it sooner." It is a measure of how deep the pull toward motherhood can be
that thousands of women from many different walks of life are making this choice, using reproductive and
communications technology in ways that not only break with tradition but also make it seem obsolete.

Daniela did another insemination in early February, this time mingling the sperm of her Chinese-Peruvian-
Italian with another donor from the same bank who had proven fertility. It didn't work. Neither did Karyn's
first try. When I spoke with her early this month, she was preparing to move back into her apartment,
whose renovation would soon be complete. There was still one last chance to become pregnant before her
40th birthday in April. "In a perfect world, I'll get pregnant this cycle," she told me. "I'll start working the
first week of April before I'm officially really pregnant, and we'll live happily ever after."

When I spoke to Daniela a couple of weeks ago, she had recovered from her disappointments and had just
been inseminated again with the sperm of a French-English-German-Scandinavian attorney with proven
fertility. She had also struck up an e-mail correspondence with another woman on the Single Mothers by
Choice Listserv. They had met for a drink and hit it off, and Daniela planned to go with her to a Single
Mothers by Choice meeting. She seemed reconciled to the fact that it might take a while to become
pregnant, but she was no less determined. Her fellow would-be single mother is 36, Daniela told me, but
her situation is complicated by a boyfriend who has children.

"Why don't you tell him you've got some kids, too?" Daniela recalled suggesting to her friend. "They're
just not born yet."

Jennifer Egan last wrote for the magazine about online dating. Her new novel, "The Keep," will be
published in August.

Correction: April 2, 2006

An article on March 19 about single women who try to conceive a child by using donor sperm misstated
part of the name of an organization that provides statistics about the ages of single mothers. It is the
National Center for Health Statistics, not Human Statistics.


Fatherhood by Ross Parke

It has been said that fathers are a biological necessity but a social accident. Fifteen years ago, when Ross
Parke first wrote about fathers for the Developing Child series, American culture seemed to adhere
strongly to the stereotype of Dad the breadwinner, pacing outside the delivery room and peeking through
the nursery window, and Mom the homemaker, warming bottles and changing diapers. Simple--in fact, a
bit too simple. In the intervening years the conventional image of the uninvolved father has given way to
a new stereotype: the father who takes an active part in rearing his children.

The dramatic technological, economic, and ideological changes in society over the past several decades
have reconfigured the nuclear family and redefined the role of fathers. More women now work outside
the home; fewer families can depend on an extended network of relatives for help with childcare; more
divorced fathers assume or share custody of their children. Fathers have become partners in parenthood,
wielding a more direct influence on their children's development. But, Parke asks, is the new ideal of
fathers--participating in childbirth and sharing in the care and feeding of their children--any more
accurate than the earlier uninvolved father stereotype?

Social scientists have long ignored fathers, focusing on mothers as the significant figure in infant
development. But research is showing that maternal caretaking is not biologically fixed, nor are fathers
necessarily restricted to a secondary role in childcare. Turning away from well-worn theories in favor of
direct observation, modern studies have revealed a substantial amount about how fathers behave with
their children, how this behavior differs from maternal behavior, and how it affects children.

In this new book, Parke considers the father-child relationship within the "family system" and the wider
society. Using the "life course" view of fathers that has emerged in recent years, he demonstrates that
men enact their fatherhood in a variety of ways in response to their particular social and cultural
circumstances. And while it is becoming clear that fathers play an important role in their children's lives,
it is also becoming clear that fathering is good for men.


Do Fathers Matter Uniquely for Adolescent Well-Being?

by David Eggebeen Research Brief No. 14, October 2008

The evidence is in and it is clear that fathers do matter for the lives of children. Hundreds of studies over
the past two decades have consistently demonstrated that fathers have a measureable impact on
children.[1] Studies show that infants are positively affected by the interactions and care given by their
fathers.[2] Research has also established the importance of fathers for older children’s well-being. Good
studies have found that the quality of parenting exhibited by the father as well as the resources fathers
bring or don’t bring to their families predict children’s behavior problems, depression, self-esteem, and
life-satisfaction.[3] The reach of fathers has been shown to extend to adolescents and young adults, as
research shows adolescents function best when their fathers are engaged and involved in their lives.[4]
Finally, there is good evidence that fathers play an important role in helping their children make the
transition to adulthood.[5]

Much remains that we do not know about the link between fathers and their children. Yet the first “stage”
of work, that of establishing that fathers matter, is well advanced. The next stage, exploring the unique
contributions of fathers as compared with mothers or other adults, remains less well developed. To date,
debates about whether fathers are essential to optimal child development have taken place without much
anchor in empirical research.[6] Assessing the unique effects of fathers on children is important for several

First, high rates of divorce and nonmarital childbearing mean that about half of children today are likely to
live some of their childhood in a home where their father does not live.[7] As of 2007, 19.2 million
children were not living with a biological or adoptive father or stepfather, compared to 9.5 million
children living in fatherless homes in 1970.[8] While many nonresident fathers work hard to provide for
their children and take parenting seriously, research shows that responsible, involved nonresident fathers
remain rare. In a large number of cases, nonresident fathers are largely absent from the lives of their
children.[9] Given this demographic reality, it remains imperative for family scholars to continue to
research the full “cost” of fatherlessness for children.

Second, an increasing number of children are growing up in households that differ in important ways from
two biological-parent households as well as female-headed households. Certainly, the numbers of children
in multigenerational households, cohabiting-couple households, and other nontraditional living
arrangements can no longer be ignored. Put another way, do children develop optimally when raised by
their father and their mother? Or can any number of adults, regardless of their gender, parent as effectively
as a father and a mother?

Finally, there is considerable cultural pressure today for fathers to be involved in the lives of their
children. What exactly this “involvement” means, however, remains unclear. Should fathers act like
mothers to their children? What does it mean that children might be better off if “there is a man
around”?[10] Research on the similarities and differences between mothers and fathers in characteristics,
behavior, and parenting may help parents better appreciate the distinctive parenting contributions of their
spouse or child’s parent.

To date, research attempts to disentangle the effects of mothers and fathers have been thin. One review of
the literature on the effects of fathers on children identified only 8 of 72 studies that took into account the
relationship between the mother and the child when assessing the effects of father involvement.[11] Most
of these studies have simply “controlled for” (or taken out) the effects of the mother’s characteristics in
their assessment of whether fathers matter. The relationship between the mother’s and the father’s
characteristics and behavior on a particular outcome, however, can potentially take three forms.[12] First,
the father’s effects may be additive; that is, what fathers do may have an effect on adolescent outcomes
over and above what mothers do. It is also possible, however, that the father’s and the mother’s
involvement or characteristics are redundant; that is, children benefit from a father or mother—it doesn’t
matter which one—engaging in certain behaviors or possessing certain characteristics. Finally, it is
possible that fathers have a unique effect on certain outcomes; that is, fathers, but not mothers, are
important for distinct outcomes. Little is yet understood about how the father’s influence is distributed
across these possibilities.

In this research brief, I explore the importance of fathers and mothers for a nationally representative
sample of teenagers, specifically examining whether a father’s human capital, social capital, and role
modeling may uniquely influence his adolescent’s self-identity and behavior.

Sociological Perspectives on Fatherhood

When sociologists think about what fathers do and how they might make unique contributions to the
welfare of their children beyond that of mothers, they focus less on the particulars of how fathers interact
with their children (the province of psychologists) and more on what resources fathers directly or
indirectly provide. Much of the sociologically oriented research concentrates on using survey data to
compare children living in married-couple families with children in mother-headed families. While this
approach has been useful for understanding the advantages for children of growing up in a two-parent
family, it is not very useful for understanding the precise role fathers play because researchers are
comparing unlike situations: children reared by one parent instead of two.[13] To better understand the
unique roles of fathers and mothers, this brief compares the contributions of fathers and mothers within
two-parent heterosexual families to determine if they are unique.
From a sociological perspective, what kinds of contributions to children might we expect from fathers? To
answer this question, sociologists tend to think about what kinds of human capital and social capital
fathers possess and how this might uniquely affect children. Also, because sociologists see both parents as
the primary agents of socialization, they look at the role modeling of both mothers and fathers as
important influences on children.

Human Capital

How mothers and fathers care for their children is strongly influenced by their human capital—the skills,
knowledge, and values that they possess and that are associated with occupational success in American
society. Parents with high levels of human capital, typically indicated by years of education, are more
likely to do the kinds of things that enhance their children’s cognitive abilities and school performance.
They are likely to provide a stimulating home environment by limiting television and encouraging
reading. They are more likely to take their children to museums, libraries, plays, and other enriching
activities. They may choose to live in communities with good schools or sacrifice to send their children to
strong private or parochial schools. Mothers and fathers with high human capital not only encourage high
occupational aspirations in their children but also promote the kinds of behavior in their children that are
associated with success in school.

Most, but not all, studies show mothers and fathers with high education levels have children who do well
in school.[14] Furthermore, most of these studies find that a father’s education affects children
independently from a mother’s education. Although less studied, where fathers have good education,
families have also been found in some studies to have children with positive self-esteem, life skills, social
competence, and cooperativeness.[15] In short, there is consistent evidence that children benefit from the
human capital characteristics of both their parents.

Social Capital

In a classic article in 1988, sociologist James Coleman identified “social capital” as resources embedded
in family and community relationships. The quality of the relationship between each parent and child
represents one important component of social capital.[16] A large number of studies that investigated
associations between paternal supportive behavior and child outcomes found that the overwhelming
majority showed significant associations between father support and measures of child well-being. Only a
few studies, however, took into account characteristics of mothers, and among those that did, the evidence
for father effects was weaker.[17]

Role Modeling

Beyond their resources and relationships, fathers and mothers influence their children simply by who they
are and how they act. Children learn by observing those around them—and parents are the most visible
adults in their world. Children who observe fathers and mothers treating others with respect, handling
conflict in effective ways, and engaging in responsible and appropriate behavior are likely to emulate
these behaviors themselves. On the other hand, children learn quite different lessons about themselves,
how to behave or treat others, when parents treat each other badly, are neglectful or abusive to their
children, or engage in inappropriate or illegal behavior. In addition, fathers and mothers uniquely model to
their children what it means to be a man and a woman. The importance of parental modeling has been
shown in a large number of studies, although only a few studies attempted to assess the effects of both
mothers and fathers simultaneously. Two recent studies that did account for the role-modeling behaviors of
both mothers and fathers show that each parent’s psychological health, drinking behavior, availability, as
well as the degree of marital conflict all influence the child’s self-image and behavior.[18] More research
needs to be done to understand the relative importance of mothers and fathers as role models.
An Analysis Using the National Study of Adolescent Health

Data drawn from the National Study of Adolescent Health (or “Add Health”) provides an excellent
opportunity to examine these theoretical ideas. The Add Health survey is a long-term nationally
representative sample of 20,745 middle and high school students first interviewed in 1995–1996. A second
wave of interviews was conducted one year later, and a third round of 15,170 persons was interviewed in
2001.[19] I looked only at respondents who were living with both biological parents during the first round
of interviews.[20] I focused on the link between mothers and fathers and two adolescent outcomes: poor
mental health (indicated by the number of symptoms of depression) and bad behavior (indicated by
participation in violent or delinquent activity in the past year). Both depression and delinquent behavior
become significantly more common during adolescence and represent major risk factors for poor school
performance, drug and alcohol abuse, and risky sexual behavior.[21]

I used two indicators of the mother’s and father’s human capital: education levels and whether or not they
had worked full time in the previous year. I used two indicators of the father’s and mother’s social capital:
adolescent reports of the relationship quality with their parent and how close they feel to their parent.
Finally, I looked at three indicators of the mother’s and father’s role-modeling behavior: the number of
activities they did with their adolescent, whether they were available for the adolescent at certain times of
the day, and whether the parent engaged in excessive drinking.[22]

Fathers and Adolescent Depression and Delinquent Behavior

I found that the father’s levels of social and human capital, as well as some role-modeling behaviors, are
strong predictors of the likelihood his child will show depression symptoms. Furthermore, the father’s
characteristics and behavior remain statistically significant even when the mother’s human and social
capital characteristics and her role-modeling behavior are taken into account. Specifically, if the father has
a poor relationship with his adolescent, the adolescent reports lack of closeness, the father has a low
education level, and the father does few activities with his adolescent, the more likely both male and
female adolescents are to show depression symptoms, regardless of the mother’s characteristics.

Fathers also matter a great deal when it comes to delinquent behavior. The higher the father’s social
capital (quality of father-child relationship and closeness) the less likely both boys and girls are to engage
in delinquency. In addition, the father’s lack of education is associated with the son’s delinquency, and the
father’s lack of availability increases the likelihood of the daughter’s delinquent behavior. All these
indications of the father’s influence appear to exist regardless of the mother’s social and human capital
and her role-modeling behavior.

Fathers as Complementary and Unique

In my analysis, I found that fathers typically make additional or complementary contributions beyond that
of mothers to adolescent well-being. In almost all of these cases, the human and social capital of mothers
and fathers tended to be additive in nature. In other words, two parents are better than one. In a few
instances, adolescents benefit from having at least one parent modeling appropriate behavior—or suffer if
one parent models bad behavior. For example, lack of one parent’s availability tended to increase the
likelihood of the boy’s delinquency, and one parent’s excessive drinking tended to increase the likelihood
of the girl’s delinquency. In addition, I found evidence that mothers and fathers make unique contributions
to parenting depending on the gender of the adolescent, most often by their particular role modeling. For
example, the father’s, but not mother’s, lack of involvement in the adolescent’s activities was associated
with the girl’s depression symptoms, and the mother’s lack of involvement in her child’s activities
uniquely predicted the boy’s delinquency. The mother’s, but not the father’s, lack of availability and
excessive drinking were associated with the boy’s depression symptoms.

What these analyses clearly show is that mothers and fathers both make vital contributions to adolescent
well-being. In a few instances, fathers and mothers appear to be interchangeable. There are more
instances, however, in which mothers and fathers complement each other in their characteristics or
behavior in ways that benefit children, and in most cases fathers make positive contributions to the well-
being of their children beyond what mothers do.

While this research demonstrates that the well-being of adolescents living with their biological parents is
influenced by both mothers and fathers, significant questions remain. Very little is known about how the
parenting practices, parent-child relationships, and characteristics of the parents or other adults who care
for children in cohabiting-couple families or other nontraditional family arrangements are similar to, or
different from, married-couple families. Until careful, methodologically rigorous studies based on
reasonably representative samples are conducted, we cannot be confident that these nontraditional
arrangements offer the same potential benefits to children as growing up with involved, educated, and
responsible mothers and fathers.


1. For recent reviews of this large literature, see William Marsiglio et al., “Scholarship on Fatherhood in the 1990s and
Beyond,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 62 (2000): 1173–1191; Daniel Paquette, “Theorizing the Father-Child
Relationship: Mechanisms and Developmental Outcomes,” Human Development 47 (2004): 193–219; Ross D. Parke,
“Fathers and Families” in The Handbook of Parenting, 2nd ed., vol. 3, Being and Becoming a Parent, ed. Mark H.
Bornstein (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2002), 27–74.
2. Frank A. Pedersen, The Father-Infant Relationship: Observational Studies in a Family Setting (New York: Praeger,
1980); Michael W. Yogman, “Games Fathers and Mothers Play with Their Infants,” Infant Mental Health Journal 2
(1981): 241–248.
3. Marsiglio et al., “Scholarship on Fatherhood in the 1990s and Beyond.”
4. Cheryl Buehler, Mark J. Benson, and Jean M. Gerard, “Interparental Hostility and Early Adolescent Problem Behavior:
The Mediating Role of Specific Aspects of Parenting,” Journal of Research on Adolescence 16, no. 2 (2006): 265–292.
5. Paul Amato, “Father-Child Relations, Mother-Child Relations, and Offspring Psychological Well-Being in Early
Adulthood,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 56 (1994): 1031–1042.
6. Joseph H. Pleck, “Why Could Father Involvement Benefit Children? Theoretical Perspectives,” Applied Developmental
Science 11, no. 4 (2007): 196–202; David Popenoe, Life Without Father (New York: Pressler Press, 1996); Louis B.
Silverstein and Carl F. Auerbach, “Deconstructing the Essential Father,” American Psychologist 54, no. 6 (1999): 397–
7. Larry L. Bumpass and R. Kelly Raley, “Redefining Single-Parent Families: Cohabitation and Changing Family Reality,”
Demography 32 (1995): 97–109.
8. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Survey, March and Annual Social and Economic Supplements, 2007
and earlier, retrieved 8/20/2008 at Census data
does not distinguish among fathers as biological, adoptive, or stepfathers.
9. Kathleen Mullan Harris and Suzanne Ryan, “Father Involvement and the Diversity of Family Context” in
Conceptualizing and Measuring Father Involvement, ed. Randal D. Day and Michael E. Lamb (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence
Erlbaum, 2004), 293–319; Daniel N. Hawkins, Paul R. Amato, and Valerie King, “Parent-Adolescent Involvement: The
Relative Influence of Parent Gender and Residence,” Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. no. 68 (2006): 125–136.
10. For a fascinating account of the tendency for lesbian mothers to want a male to be involved in their children’s lives, see
Abbie E. Goldberg and Katherine R. Allen, “Imagining Men: Lesbian Mothers’ Perceptions of Male Involvement During
the Transition to Parenthood,” Journal of Marriage and Family 69 (May 2007): 352–365.
11. Marsiglio et al., “Scholarship on Fatherhood in the 1990s and Beyond.”
12. For a related discussion of these issues, see Jeffrey T. Cookston and Andrea K. Finlay, “Father Involvement and
Adolescent Adjustment: Longitudinal Findings from Add Health,” Fathering 4 (2006): 137–158.
13. Pleck, “Why Could Father Involvement Benefit Children?” 200.
14. See Paul Amato, “More Than Money? Men’s Contributions to Their Children’s Lives” in Men in Families: When Do They
Get Involved? What Difference Does It Make? ed. Alan Booth and Ann C. Crouter (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum,
1998), 241–278.
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid., 245.
17. Ibid., 253–255.
18. D. Wayne Osgood et al., “Routine Activities and Individual Deviant Behavior,” American Sociological Review 61 (1996):
635–655; Lauren M. Papp, E. Mark Cummings, and Alice C. Schermerhorn, “Pathways Among Marital Distress,
Parental Symptomatology, and Child Adjustment,” Journal of Marriage and Family 66 (2004): 368–384; Benjamin W.
Voorhess et al., “Protective and Vulnerability Factors Predicting New-Onset Depressive Episode in a Representative of
U.S. Adolescents,” Journal of Adolescent Health (2008): 605–616.
19. A more detailed description of the data can be found in Kathy M. Harris et al., “The National Longitudinal Study of
Adolescent Health: Research Design” (2003), available at
20. N=5,494.
21. Robert D. Ketterlinus, Michael E. Lamb, and Katherine A. Nitz, “Adolescent Nonsexual and Sex-Related Problem
Behaviors: Their Prevalence, Consequences, and Co-Occurrence” in Adolescent Problem Behaviors, ed. Robert D.
Ketterlinus and Michael E. Lamb (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1994), 17–39; U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services, Trends in the Well-Being of America’s Children and Youth: 2003 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government
Printing Office, 2003).
22. Ordinary Least Squares regression was used to estimate the models. Besides the mother and father variables, all the
models included the respondent’s age and race, family income, and parent’s marital status as control variables. These
analyses were all weighted using the wave 1 sample weights, adjusting the sample to be nationally representative.

About the Author

David Eggebeen is Associate Professor of Human Development and Sociology; Senior Research Associate,
Population Research Institute, Pennsylvania State University.

About This Brief

This research brief was commissioned by National Fatherhood Initiative and supported by Grant No. 2006-DD-
BX-K003 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the
Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice,
the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and the Office for Victims of Crime. Points of view or
opinions in this document are those of the authors and do not represent the official position or policies of the
United States Department of Justice.

About the National Fatherhood Initiative

The premier fatherhood renewal organization in the country, the National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI) works in
every sector and at every level of society to engage fathers in the lives of their children. NFI is one of the
leading producers of research on the causes and consequences of father absence, public opinion on family
issues, and trends in family structure and marriage. NFI’s national public service advertising campaign
promoting fatherhood has generated television, radio, print, Internet, and outdoor advertising valued at over
$500 million. Through its resource center, FatherSOURCE, NFI offers a wide range of innovative resources to
assist fathers and organizations interested in reaching and supporting fathers. Learn more by visiting

About the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values
Directed by Elizabeth Marquardt, the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values
issues research briefs, fact sheets, and other material related to marriage, families, and children. Its Scholarly
Advisory Board includes William Doherty, University of Minnesota; Norval Glenn, University of Texas; Linda
Waite, University of Chicago; W. Bradford Wilcox, University of Virginia; and James Q. Wilson, UCLA (Emeritus).

The Institute for American Values is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to strengthening families
and civil society in the U.S. and the world. The Institute brings together approximately 100 leading scholars—
from across the human sciences and across the political spectrum—for interdisciplinary deliberation,
collaborative research, and joint public statements on the challenges facing families and civil society. In all of its
work, the Institute seeks to bring fresh analyses and new research to the attention of policymakers in
government, opinion makers in the media, and decision makers in the private sector.


Mother, May I? Helping Moms Back Off So Dads Can Be Dads

• By SUE SHELLENBARGER June 27, 2009

The benefits of having a positive, involved father are well-documented by decades of research.
Now, scholars are focusing their microscopes on an obstacle to fathers' involvement:
"gatekeeping" by mothers who control or hamper fathers' interactions with their children.

The findings reveal how women and men alike can trigger gatekeeping, which can cause
tension between partners and dissatisfaction with parenting routines. As Father's Day nears, the
research also sheds light on how dads can play a bigger role.

"The more we understand these patterns, the more parents will be able to make conscious and
deliberate choices" about parenting, says Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, assistant professor of human
development at the Ohio State University.

Of course, fathers are free to choose their level of involvement. But negative gatekeeping by
mothers -- grimaces or criticism when men try to change a diaper or feed or play with a baby --
can block out even fathers who believe they should be involved, says a 2008 study in the
Journal of Family Psychology, led by Dr. Schoppe-Sullivan. Gatekeeping can be positive, too:
When mothers encourage dads, the men tend to shoulder more child care.

It's usually moms who do the gatekeeping, but they're not always to blame. Some fathers invite
interference by hanging back or being irritable or anxious. "Moms may think, 'He's not well suited
to have positive interactions with the baby, so I'm not going to encourage that,' " Dr. Schoppe-
Sullivan says.

In other cases, women aren't conscious of their gatekeeping. Some women whose sense of
identity is strongly tied to being a mother may fend off help in order to bolster their self-image,
research shows. Others are simply inclined by nature to bond closely; caring for a baby may be
so engrossing for these women that they crowd out dads, says a 2008 study in the journal
Family Process.

Some ideas on avoiding the gatekeeping trap:

Skills training. Before Matt Edwards, Renton, Wash., became a dad, his brother jokingly
warned that a father is just "the guy who carries stuff," like diaper bags, he says. After Mr.
Edwards and his wife talked about avoiding that pitfall, he enrolled in Conscious Fathering, a
training program offered in 17 states by Parent Trust, a Washington state nonprofit. In the
hospital after childbirth, Mr. Edwards already knew how to soothe his baby to sleep while his wife
recuperated, a good start toward being "a lot more than the guy who carries stuff."

Peer support. Men are quicker to plunge into fathering when supported by other men. In a 16-
week program for 292 low-income California families, fathers were encouraged to get more
involved, says Kyle Pruett, clinical professor of psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center. The
result was less gatekeeping by mothers, more-involved fathers and fewer behavior problems in
their children, compared with a control group, he says. When one young dad tried during a
group session to hand off diapering his baby to his wife, the other men insisted he learn to do
the task himself, Dr. Pruett says; "not only will your wife love you more for it," the other men said,
"but it's a special time with your baby."

Awareness. Simply becoming conscious of gatekeeping and its hazards equips some couples
to avoid it. In the past, Kristen Dennison, Dover, Mass., was tempted to interfere when her
husband Ed roughhoused with their sons, David, 2, and Benjamin, 6, swinging them above the
floor or onto his shoulders. She kept worrying he would drop them accidentally. After some tense
moments, she acknowledged that her husband knew what he was doing and wouldn't let the
boys get hurt.
If Ed's adventures with the boys take an unexpected turn -- as happened recently, when they
were throwing sticks in a frigid stream and David fell in -- Kristen jokes about it, telling Ed he's
"the one who gets to take him to the emergency room and explain what you were doing."

Ed is "a great dad," she adds; refraining from gatekeeping is "like being in the passenger seat
when somebody else is driving. You just have to trust that it's going to be OK."

Devoted dads can reduce risky teen sex Moms help, but an involved father
has twice the influence, new study finds
By Linda Carroll contributor June 5, 2009

When it comes to preventing risky teen sex, there may be no better deterrent than a doting dad.

Teenagers whose fathers are more involved in their lives are less likely to engage in risky sexual activities such
as unprotected intercourse, according to a new study.

The more attentive the dad — and the more he knows about his teenage child's friends — the bigger the impact
on the teen's sexual behavior, the researchers found. While an involved mother can also help stave off a teen’s
sexual activity, dads have twice the influence.

“Maybe there’s something different about the way fathers and adolescents interact,” said the study’s lead author
Rebekah Levine Coley, an associate professor at Boston College. “It could be because it’s less expected for
fathers to be so involved, so it packs more punch when they are.”

Understanding a father's influence in teen sexual behavior is important, experts say. One in four American
adolescents under the age of 15 has had sexual intercourse and, by age 18, two-thirds have had sex, according
to research. The concern is, many sexually active young people aren’t using protection, a contributing factor in
rising teen birth rates. Approximately 750,000 teenagers become pregnant each year and about 3 in 10 teenage
girls become pregnant at least once before age 20, according to government statistics.

For the new study, which was published in the journal Child Development, Coley and her colleagues surveyed
3,206 teens, ages 13 to 18, once a year for four years. The teens, who all came from two-parent homes, were
asked about their sexual behaviors and about their relationships with their parents.

Researchers posed a series of questions about both mothers and fathers, such as “how much does s/he know
about whom you are with when you are not at home?” The teens were also asked how often they interacted
with their parents in activities such as eating dinner, playing games or attending religious activities.

Dad's positive effect

Parental knowledge of a teen’s friends and activities was rated on a five point scale. When it came to the dads,
each point higher in parental knowledge translated into a 7 percent lower rate of sexual activity in the teen. For
the moms, one point higher in knowledge translated to a 3 percent lower rate of teen sexual activity.

The impact of family time overall was even more striking. One additional family activity per week predicted a 9
percent drop in sexual activity.
Child development experts said the study was carefully done and important. “It’s praiseworthy by any measure,”
said Alan E. Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University. “The strength of this study
is that it helps us identify the children who might be engaging in risky sexual behavior.”

Why would dads have a more powerful influence?

“Dads vary markedly in their roles as caretakers from not there at all to really helping moms,” Kazdin said. “The
greater impact of dads might be that moms are more of a constant and when dads are there their impact is

Also, Kazdin said “when dads are involved with families, the stress on the mom is usually reduced because of
the diffusion of child-rearing or the support for the mom."

In other words, dad's positive effect on mom makes life better for the child, Kazdin explains.

The study underscores the importance of parental engagement overall, said Patrick Tolan, a professor of
psychiatry and director of the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

“For one thing, the more time you spend with them, the less time they’re going to be on their own in
places where they can get into risky behavior,” Tolan explained. “Also, if you’re spending time talking to
them, they’re going to get your values and they’re more likely to think things through rather than acting

But simply requiring more family dinners won't necessarily reduce the risk that a teen will engage in
unprotected sex. The families that are spending more time together may be different in some way from those
that are spending less: they may simply be warmer and have closer ties, Kazdin said. If the kids are avoiding
their parents because the atmosphere in the home is tense, adding more together time isn’t going to help,
Kazdin said.

Coley hopes that the study will encourage both moms and dads to keep trying to connect with their teenage
children, even as their kids are pushing them away.

“While it’s normal for teens to want to pull away from the family, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to engage
at all,” Coley said. “It’s extremely important to continue to do things together. And it’s up to parents to set the
expectations and standards when it comes to spending time together. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or

Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and