The emperor penguin dad incubates his mate’s eggs, protecting them with a flap of skin, and when they are hatched he plays a full part in providing for them. Most fish dads spread their seed externally, and take no further interest.
Fatherhood accords with the needs of each species, and the proof of success lies in the fact that they survive and flourish. Their instinctive behaviour accords with the law of their own natures as these have evolved.
So what does the nature of the human species require of fatherhood if it is to survive and flourish?
We can try a little reasonable speculation. The complexity of the human being requires a long period of development between conception and adult independence, so we can infer that long-term parental care is needed. We see this first in the mother, who not only carries the baby from conception to birth but is able by nature to feed it. We also know that there is a crucial period in the first two or three years of life when the child’s basic apprehension of his place in the world is largely set. Am I lovable and competent? Do I trust other people? What is approved behaviour? And so on. The child learns by a kind of radar – the messages to and from its close carers.
What is the father’s role at this stage? At the material level he may have to ensure economic security. But he will also have to be a close carer. Anyone who has fathered girls, for instance, will have noticed how quickly they develop the art of managing men. It is here that the child learns to react in somewhat different ways to men and women. Through both parents, the foundations of relationships between the sexes are laid. The future of its lifetime sexual relationships is to a large extent set.
But of course the process continues and, at each stage of development, the child or adolescent has new things to learn about being an adult. Both parents provide role models. We may hope that these are good, complementary models; but we also hope that they will differ in certain respects because the child needs to learn different things from each of them. Another clue to the natural role of the father is through biology. Thus a zoologist from Mars would notice that, in homo sapiens, sexual activity is not confined to the time of fertility but is used as an important bonding activity. So there is a built-in inducement for the mates to remain together. For humans, procreation is not just an instantaneous episode of fertilisation but a long-term process of two-parent nurturing. He would also notice that, whereas the natural law is imposed willy-nilly on the lower animals, the human animal is free to obey or disobey.
This last distinction is important. When a species acts according to its own nature, it flourishes. But since human beings have free will they can choose whether to flourish or whether to decay. And we would expect to find that getting fatherhood wrong would lead to damage. There is plenty of evidence that this is so.
A recent survey shows some of the effects of poor fatherhood on criminality, and this site gives a broad account of general research. This looks at fatherhood under seven dimensions and concludes, following a review of research studies, that “fathers who do well in most of them will serve their children and their families well”.
This will come as no surprise since our own experience and observation confirms this. For instance, when I was marriage counselling I often found that the death of a father was reported, by both men and women, as a major point of change. The death of a mother was much more rarely reported. I speculate that we take a mother’s approval for granted (valued of course, but seen as the mother’s natural duty). But the father’s approval is gratuitous, and so experienced as more important. Paternal support, living up to one’s father’s expectations, failing one’s father, are all highly charged factors. As one study concludes: “Overall, father love appears to be as heavily implicated as mother love in offsprings’ psychological well-being and health, as well as in an array of psychological and behavioural problems.”
There are circumstances, such as bereavement or a father’s profession, which make the full discharge of fatherhood impossible. And mothers may, often heroically, find ways to mitigate the lack. But this is damage limitation rather than an alternative.
Our society puts a low value on fatherhood. We see this in our high rate of teenage pregnancy, the ease of divorce, the growth of co-habitation, which is notoriously unstable, and the fiscal benefits of single parenthood. Our attitude towards placing a child for adoption in a same-sex partnership, or even allowing a child to be born into a same-sex partnership, needs have nothing to do with any moral view we have of such partnerships. It is simply something to be avoided just as we might avoid placing a child with elderly parents or in a marriage we know to be unstable. The child is less likely to flourish.
You will have seen that I have traced the deep need for fatherhood entirely from what we know about human nature. The only assumptions I have made are that the interests of the child trump the interests of the putative parents, and that we should wish to arrange society in ways that help it to flourish. It is up to those who think fatherhood to be unnecessary to demonstrate their case with the same tools.
Visit the STOP PRESS page to review The Catholic Herald’s strong leading article this week on the outcome of the Second Reading in the House of Commons of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Tell us what you think.