While thinking about Father's Day this week, I took a look at the latest Census Bureau statistics on fatherhood. And I made what felt like a startling discovery: There are far fewer American fathers than I thought.
How many Americans are fathers? Less than half, certainly. But how much less? The Census Bureau reports that there are 70.1 million fathers in the United States. That's only slightly more than one in five Americans.
But there's more to it than that. We're talking so far about all fathers. That includes many who are, so to speak, retired. The kids have left home, and the fathers are no longer engaged in their daily care. I don't mean to say that they stop being fathers, or that they are due any less tribute from their children on Father's Day. If anything, they are perhaps more deserving of celebration; they and their children have reached an important milestone.
But now let's look at the number of fathers who are still practicing their trade daily — I'm going to call them active fathers. Some 24.7 million fathers are part of married-couple families with children under 18. And another 1.7 million men are single fathers. It's unclear how many of those still have children under 18 in the house, but let's guess that many of them do, so we'll throw them into the pool of active fathers.
That gives us just 26.4 million currently active fathers — only about one in 12 Americans.
I'm not really suggesting that fathers are an endangered species. There's nothing in the census figures to suggest that the number of active fathers is declining. But we might argue, as is the case for some rare animals, that we are threatening fathers' habitat.
Fathers thrive in a habitat in which they can earn money to support, or help support, their families. They thrive when they have time to spend with their children, time to read to them, to play Monopoly, and to teach them how to cook, or to build things, or to sing and play guitar. (Each of us would have his own list.) They thrive in a habitat in which they have time to think about how to do a better job of taking care of their kids. And although single parents can raise healthy children, many fathers thrive when they have a satisfying relationship with their wives or partners.
Fathers might not be endangered — but their habitat is certainly threatened.
The grindingly slow recovery of the economy is making it hard for fathers to earn enough to help support their families. Those who do have jobs are working more hours, taking time away from checkers and family dinners. In many families, both parents are working, leaving less time for fathers and partners to work on their relationships with each other.
Let's celebrate Father's Day, and a hat tip — more than a hat tip — to fathers who are working hard to do what's best for their children.
But let's not forget that we have real work to do to make the world a little safer for fathers and families. Fathers are not an endangered species. But perhaps we want to make it a little easier for them to thrive.