The thing about single fathers is… there aren’t that many of them. But, there are a lot more than there used to be. In 1960, about 1% of households with children were headed by single fathers. In 2011, this proportion jumped to 8% (here). While it’s still a minority of households, an 800% increase in 50 years is nothing to shake a stick at. Single parent households also increased significantly during this period. Single mother households jumped from just under 1 in 10 households with children to about 1 in 4. And while this is a much larger share of households with children, the percentage increase is less extreme.
SIDE NOTE: If you’re anything like me, you might wonder, “Who’s included in the ‘single father’ category?” It’s an important question. About half of all of the single fathers here are those that you might think of when you read the term–they’re either divorced, separated, or widowed and are not living with another partner. This group accounts for about 52% of “single fathers” today (which accounts for about 4% of households with children in the U.S. today). A small group of “single fathers” (7%) are married but living away from their spouse. And about 41% of the “single fathers” reported here aren’t actually single–they’re living with a non-marital partner. This last statistic includes same-sex couples living together as well.
None of that means that single dads aren’t on the rise. It’s just qualifying what we mean by “single dads,” which helps us decide what kind of rise we’re actually talking about. Single fathers are a growing phenomenon – regardless of how we measure the population. But, here’s a fact less often mentioned alongside the growing trend of single fatherhood: the proportion of children living apart from fathers made a big jump over the same time period, too. In 1960, about 11% of children lived apart from fathers; by 2011, 27% of children did. So, while there are dramatically more single fathers today than a half century ago, dads are also more likely to not live with their kids at all today. It’s what the Pew Research Center called “A Tale of Two Fathers.” Simply put, dads are dramatically more likely to be the exclusive parent, but they’re also much more likely to be absent parents. So, they’re both better and much worse than they were 50 years ago.
There are a couple of things that could account for this. For instance, the majority of dads today say that being a father is harder today than it was a generation ago. This could drive more away as they feel less suited for a role that might seem more daunting today than it might have 50 years ago. While about 25% of adults agree that today’s fathers are rising to meet this challenge and are better fathers than their fathers were to them, a full third of adults say that fathers are doing worse (here).
It’s a bit of a different picture, however, when we ask dads how they think they’re doing. About 50% say that they’re doing about the same job their own dad did. But 47% say they’re doing a better job than their own father, which leaves only 3% who feel they are doing worse (despite the fact that they seem to feel other dads are failing in much larger numbers). I call this “the grass is always browner” phenomenon. Basically, there are a sizable group of dads who say something like, “I’m a great parent; but that other guy…” The funny thing is, the “other guy” is likely to be saying something really similar.
Not surprisingly, fathers living with their children are much more likely to rate themselves highly as parents than are fathers not living with their children. In fact, about 9 out of 10 dads living with their children rate themselves highly as parents, and less than 1% of them say they’re “not very good” or “bad” fathers. Conversely, almost 1 in 4 dads not living with their children classify themselves as “not very good” or “bad” dads. But, about 1 in 2 non-resident fathers still qualify themselves as either “good” or “very good” (here). Basically, most fathers think they’re doing a pretty good job – but they’re not so easy on other dads.
This is all pretty consistent with the advice literature available to new dads and fathers-to-be. Much of it assumes the men reading are pretty inept, and as a result, doesn’t set the bar inordinately high. As a side project, I’m currently coding this advice literature for a couple papers about how discourses of masculinity and heterosexuality are used in parenting advice literature for men.
Self-reports on parenting is not my area of expertise, but it’s interesting to note that mothers give themselves higher marks than do fathers. It’s also interesting that mothers working full- or part-time are more likely to rate themselves as “excellent” or “very good” parents than are mothers not working (here). While employment and income continue to play key roles in contemporary men’s beliefs about and performances of fatherhood, perhaps mothers are starting to see themselves as “package deals” too.