I spent the night over a large plastic bowl, unable to keep even a sip of water down. Each time I stirred, the fluorescent lights inside the RV would blink on and my father would consider his options. I did not want to miss the deer hunt, no matter how sick I was. Now, if Dad powered up the motor home and drove home, it would mean the end of the hunt for us all.
Decision made, the RV was soon running, and we made the long drive to our small-town emergency room. There, the people looking down on me from above told me not to worry because I didn’t even need my appendix.
Nearly 35 years later, I am a father myself, six times over. I know the difficult task my father had that night. Dad wanted to help me experience the world, but also keep me safe. It’s a fatherly role that many today see as passé, but it’s one my father played well. It is of that moment I think when I read in media editorials that men are in a downward spiral or see fathers portrayed as laughable accessories in TV shows. It all suggests that we can remove fathers from our lives, like some kind of unnecessary organ whose excision might hurt but can be easily overcome. But is the next generation of children really going to be OK without fathers?
I recently spent my own money to field a survey of 1,000 Americans. I wanted to find out if fathers matter and, if so, what kinds of fathers matter most. In my study, I separated people into four groups based on two things: were you raised by your biological father (at least in part), and did the person you call father love the person you call mother? The first line of good news is that the majority of us — 64 percent — were raised by our biological dads. Just short of half of us — 48 percent — were raised by a father and mother we deemed to be in love with each other, at least for a while.
Combine those two variables and you get four groups of people, the largest making up 33 percent of the population, those who were raised by a biological father who loved their mother. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist — or a social scientist — to predict that those people had the best father situations and the best father-related outcomes.
Evidence abounds. If we were raised by biological dads who loved mom, our dads worked harder, provided better and taught us things — like the “importance of hard work” — more effectively than other dads. Dads who loved our moms were much less likely to neglect the family to pursue work goals. They were more likely to support mom, think she was beautiful and treat her with respect. The numbers go on and on as does the rising certainty that not only do dads make a difference in our lives, the most reliable way for dads to make that difference is if they are our biological patriarchs who also demonstrate love for our mothers.
Importantly, the men raised by such fathers are better husbands and fathers themselves. They are much more likely to say that they love their wives and that they get the love they need from their wives. Other research has already shown that once marriages and families begin to unravel, they continue doing so for generations. My study shows how it happens, even among men who value fatherhood to the same degree. Their ability to make the most of the fatherhood they value is tied directly to what kind of dad raised them.
It appears that fathers are not a vestigial appendage after all, which leads to another question of equal import that my study cannot answer: Why do we persist in devaluing fathers — on TV, in the media and in conversation — when the evidence of their value is so clear? I’ll let others debate that, but as for me and my house, where there are five boys I hope will one day become good fathers themselves, we will continue to put good fathering at the top of our to-do list.
James McQuivey, Ph.D. is a media technology analyst by day and a husband and father of six 24/7. He is the author of the recent book “Why We Need Dad,” WhyWeNeedDad.com.