Almost like clockwork, there is a daily knock on our door soon after the county school bus drops its precious cargo off. It’s Casey. Her mom’s at work. Her dad hasn’t been around in years. “Can the kids come out and play?” she asks.
A few weekends ago, however, Casey asked a different question that broke my heart. Hanging out with my kids, she’s seen my wife and I work as a team around the house: helping each other watch our younger ones, doing some basic home renovations, fixing a window pane broken by another neighbor kid’s carelessly thrown rock, and in this case, replacing the brakes on our minivan. As I lay there under the van, she stood watching with my kids and asked, “So this is what daddies do?”
The U.S. Supreme Court got it wrong on Friday when it refused to recognize that marriage laws were designed to keep Casey from having to ask that question and, absent a tragic loss of life or domestic abuse, to keep her daddy there for her. The states made it clear when they argued this case before the Supreme Court that they did not get involved in marriage to dignify the relationship between Casey’s mom and dad or to denigrate any other relationship; the states got involved in marriage to tell Casey’s dad that being a father is important and that a lifelong commitment to Casey’s mom is something that society encourages.
Sadly, Casey is not alone. Since 1960, the number of children in the United States living without a father in the home has more than tripled from around 11 percent to over 33 percent, and the marriage rate has declined over 20 percent. In some inner-city neighborhoods, only one in 10 children have their father at home, and 43 percent of children are now born to unmarried parents. The psychological impacts of being abandoned by, or never even knowing, the man who gave you half your DNA are detrimental, though hard to precisely measure for each child. But the social and economic impacts of growing up without a dad are dramatic and devastating.
Children in father-absent homes are almost four times more likely to be poor than children living with their father in the household. The risk of substance abuse is dramatically higher for children in a fatherless household compared to those living with their mother and father. And children living with their married biological parents test significantly higher in school than those living with a non-biological father. These impacts just scratch the surface of the difficulties faced by children separated from their dads.
Given the harm to children that occurs when fathers and mothers don’t stay together, why have marriage rates declined and out-of-wedlock births skyrocketed? The brief answer is that we as adults have chosen to put our individual desires and feelings first. We fathers have forgotten what it means to sacrifice and love someone else and put their needs over our own desires. No-fault divorce laws enacted during the last 50 years have told us that that’s okay: “If you don’t like it, leave it. The kids will get over it.”
The Supreme Court’s decision on Friday, redefining marriage for all the states, will only compound this problem. Redefining marriage tells society that marriage exists simply to recognize adult relationships and that connecting children to both their mother and their father is not an essential part of marriage’s purpose. Spreading that message in law and culture will inevitably exacerbate the epidemic of broken homes and children raised without their fathers.
In the midst of the ongoing struggle over the definition of marriage, we need to do all that we can to reaffirm in our lives, our communities, and our laws that mothers and fathers matter, that love puts children first, and that a mom and dad committing to a life-long union should be honored. They should be honored because it’s not easy, but it is good. Selfless commitment means sacrifice, and a society that sacrifices for the good of others is a society that will thrive.
As a dad, I know it isn’t easy, but I also know that there is no greater fulfillment than putting down my favorite hobby or giving up my “me time” and rocking my baby girl to sleep or teaching my boys to play ball. I also realize that, regardless of my failures, my kids would be devastated if I weren’t here for them. No court can change that fact or the reality that the lifelong commitment of a husband and wife is good for children and for society. So let’s unite in support of that union and the hope that fewer children will have to wonder: “This is what daddies do?”
Caleb Dalton is litigation counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the marriage cases at the U.S. Supreme Court.