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  • Most unmarried dads living apart from their kids fall into the role of “silent bystander.” Tweet This
  • Single fathers who do not live with their kids are overlooked but not unimportant. Tweet This

I was intimate last year with a good number of men. There was Leo the engineer, Jake the construction worker, Brad the investment banker, and one of my favorites—Rico, who was just a youngster, really. There were others as well, too numerous to name.

Of course, I don’t mean intimate in a physical context; however, we did talk about sex—a lot. We talked about girlfriends and live-ins; we touched on love (though many hesitated to call it that) and just a tad about marriage; we discussed birth control and other choices they’d made. But mostly we talked about single fatherhood—the thread that drew us together—and the responsibility of raising a child and making a difference in that child’s life when living apart.

I couldn’t have predicted my involvement with single parents nearly 30 years ago when I began to study family formation. After leaving a corporate career to raise two sons, by coincidence, I connected with Mitch Pearlstein, founder of the Center of the American Experiment. Within months, I conducted the first of 130 interviews with young women that were woven into my 2013 Center of the American Experiment essay, MTV’s “Teen Mom” Franchise: How Do Young Eyes—And Much Older Eyes—Really See Teenage Parenthood?

My goal was to assess the messages viewers took away from MTV’s Teen Mom franchise, the wildly popular reality TV docudrama launched in 2009 that featured high school girls dealing with the hardship and struggles of teen pregnancy. Young women shared freely about birth control, risk-taking choices, parental responsibilities, and public assistance—and why they would or would not have a baby. Only once did marriage come up. Other than yearning for romantic relationships they considered “constants,” to the MTV stars, fathers were mostly considered “silent bystanders” to their stories.

In fact, fathers were so often altogether absent from the equation that I didn’t realize I had shamefully neglected to include young men in my research until long after my focus groups had ended. Hence the new essay released by the Center of the American Experiment: Where the Boys Are: The Unacknowledged Worlds of Nonmarital Fathers.

But writing this essay presented an unexpected challenge: I couldn’t find single fathers. Logic told me that if the United States Census Bureau reports 1.6 million babies are born annually to 1.6 million women outside marriage,1 then a similar number of men should enter the throes of single fatherhood simultaneously and therefore be available to tell their story. Altogether, Pew Research Center cites roughly 14 million single-parent households in the United States where 24 million children are being raised; this pool, too, should have produced plenty more single fathers.2

I quickly learned, however, that identifying men to interview was not easy. It was awkward approaching men casually at the mall or at the park (as I had for my essay on single mothers) and asking their views on the intimate subjects that had been so freely discussed by women. Fathers pushing swings or baby strollers were also less plentiful. Several focus groups arranged through nonprofits were cancelled due to no-shows.

Disheartened, I sought help finding single fathers from Jennifer, one of the single mothers I’d interviewed.

“Single fathers?” she’d asked, puzzled by this term. “Gee, I don’t know any single fathers,” she responded flatly, then added, “I know a ton of single mothers, but I don’t know any single dads.”

Now I was puzzled. “How about Jake?” I asked (Jake is the unmarried father of her baby; I knew they were on good terms). “Or all the fathers associated with the ton of single mothers you mention?”

“Oh!” she laughed heartily, as though a light bulb had gone off, “I never think of Jake as a single father. He isn’t around much. But I guess he is a single father and the others too!”

I learned that my quandary finding single fathers had as much to do with my definition as it did a perceived accounting problem: Just who are single fathers? I mistakenly assumed a single father was generally defined as a father who is not married. Period.

It’s no wonder that contemporary academic literature laments the scarcity of data on single fathers: we simply miss a great many in our tallies.

Like Jennifer, who did not readily consider the father of her baby a “single father,” the Census Bureau does not count him, either. Nor does it count most of the men who become fathers each year outside marriage. It only counts an unmarried father as a “single father” if he is over 18 years of age, is the head of his household, and lives and provides primary care for his own biological, adoptive, or step-children. These qualifiers, which are used for the majority of social science research on single fathers, narrow the pool of so-called “single fathers” to roughly 2.6 million men, less than a quarter of the U.S. households headed by single parents.3 It is a number representative of men who are not only unmarried and meet the above criteria, but who may also be separated, divorced or widowed, and may or may not be living with a cohabitating partner.

Each year approximately 500,000 of the 1.6 million men to whom babies are born outside of marriage are excluded from the documented mix.4 It’s no wonder that contemporary academic literature laments the scarcity of data on single fathers: we simply miss a great many in our tallies.

These overlooked fathers—my engineer, my construction worker, my investment banker and that spicy young student among them—unmarried at the time of their baby’s birth, and who are not the primary caretakers of their children, and who do not currently live with their children or the mother, are the focus of my research. In addition to the four men I highlight in my essay, I interviewed another twenty-some single fathers whose storylines more or less fall in line with theirs. While my project is not at all conclusive, I believe I learned enough to describe common themes about single and unplanned fatherhood that shed light on this widespread phenomenon.

First, most unmarried dads living apart from their kids indeed fall into the role of “silent bystander” (so clearly portrayed on MTV) and unfortunately, I fear, the role of “invisible father.” None of the men I interviewed expected to become a father “at this point.” Not one claimed to lack knowledge about birth control. More than half had been cohabiting with their child’s mother at the time of the birth (a living arrangement that produces just shy of one million nonmarital births each year).5 Yet seldom did birth lead to marriage.

Furthermore, I heard much lamenting about the “dizzying array of legal wranglings” and “forms, forms, forms” that consumed an “unimaginable portion” of their young lives—disputes and forms that would not, of course, have been necessary had the men been married at the time of birth. And several fathers stressed the importance of paternity testing.

The men I interviewed seldom grasped that the choices they made individually were somehow woven into the larger fabric of our society: rates of child poverty, economic mobility, young people’s educational attainment, and more. And they vastly underestimated the U.S. nonmarital birth rate and its impact on individuals and on our nation.

What I learned from my fact-finding mission about single fathers is that the new, loose, and legally complicated pattern of family formation outside of marriage doesn’t necessarily provide the love these men seek. And maybe none of them will find it until they are willing to wait patiently and apply the time-tested rules of family formation: one meets, dates, falls in love, marries, and then has a baby.

Rhonda Kruse Nordin, a Senior Fellow at the Center of the American Experiment, is a Twin Cities author, educator, and public speaker whose research-based offerings provide point-of-view trends and recommendations to strengthen families.

1. Martin JA, Hamilton BE, Osterman JK, Curtain SC, Mathews TJ. National Vital Statistics Report Births: Final Data 2013. Also, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics System, Vol. 64, No. 1. January 15, 2015.

2. Pew Research: American Community Survey, 2014.

3. Belkin, Lisa. “Single Fathers: Pew Research Reports Number of Single Dads Has Jumped in USA,” Huffington Post, 7/2/13.

4. Livingston, Gretchen. “The Rise of Single Fathers: Nine-fold Increases Since 1960.” Pew Research Center: “Decennial Census & American Community Survey Data.” Social Trends, July 7, 2013.

5. Martinez G, Daniels K, Chandra A. “Fertility of Men and Women Aged 15-44 Years in the United States.” National Survey of Family Growth 2006-2010; Division of Vital Health, National Health Statistic Reports, No. 51, Table 11, April 2012.