National Archives of Canada

Barbara Kay: Don’t sell fathers short: They are as crucial to a child’s well being as a mother

Pierre Trudeau with sons, from left, Justin, Michel and Sacha on Remembrance Day in Ottawa, 1981.

For a recent web edition of The Walrus magazine, editor-in-chief Jonathan Kay wrote a sympathetic (but not sycophantic) reflection on Justin Trudeau, with whom he spent considerable time in his role as editorial assistant for Trudeau’s 2014 memoir, Common Ground.

“The Trudeau I Know,” reproduced in Monday’s National Post print edition, dwells on the trials of Justin’s youth associated with his parents’ breakup, and his mother Margaret’s subsequently erratic presence in his life. Long after other issues he discussed with Justin had faded from memory, what lingered for Jon were “the stories from his childhood.”

He writes: “It’s one thing for daddy to leave. That happens all the time, sadly. But when mommy walks out, that’s something very different. We are conditioned to think of a mother’s love as the one unshakable emotional pillar of a child’s life. When that pillar folds up and walks out the front door, how do you keep that roof from collapsing?”

I suppose I should feel flattered by Jon’s reverence for mothers, since I am his mother. But I don’t. What Jon admits he has been culturally “conditioned” to believe is a myth it is long past time to retire, especially by family courts whose judges, similarly “conditioned,” skew reflexively motherward in custody battles.

I know Jon meant no disrespect to his own devoted father; he was simply channeling our “feeling” culture’s received wisdom that mothers are the indispensable parent, with fathers cast as inessential, but (with the correct attitude and behaviour) valuable aides-de-camp.

In reality, it is a well-documented truth that the often more overt emotional connection between mother and child is only one pillar holding up the solid roof over children’s healthy growth. Fathers are just as important to their children as mothers, even when they do not conform to sensitive New Man standards.

Babies certainly need their mothers more than their fathers. And mothers may spend more time with their children, as my at-home generation of moms did, or may be more intimately bound up with them emotionally, as I was, in their early years. But over time, as unconditional love becomes but one of many factors in successful maturation, parental influence evens out, and the father’s role can, in the crucially important teen years, be the deciding factor between a youth’s inner fortitude and crippling insecurity.

I suppose I should feel flattered by Jon’s reverence for mothers, since I am his mother. But I don’t.

Even fathers who are relatively uninvolved on the domestic front give children a sense that they are protected and supported in unique ways as they negotiate their way through the world outside home. Four million men in North America are single parents and their family roofs aren’t collapsing. Partnered men have for decades been taking on a greater role in parenting (at least those in bourgeois, educated, mostly white circles). Jon Kay is himself a fully engaged parent in his scrupulously egalitarian household. And as I am well-placed to affirm with certainty, his three daughters consider him just as essential to their sense of security and well-being as their mother, even if he has difficulty believing that himself.

It is true that fathers abandon or are exiled by family court from their children “all the time,” as Jon notes. But the fact that fatherlessness is common — moreover widely accepted as normal by certain ideologues and, by trickle-down effect, in certain cultural enclaves — makes it no less tragic a loss for every father-deprived child. About a third of American children live apart from their fathers, and in general, they are not doing well.

Girls without fathers are more likely to suffer low self-esteem, become pregnant or embrace promiscuity, while boys without fathers are at risk for a multiplicity of poor outcomes, notably school dropout, gang membership and imprisonment. In black communities, where the epidemic is most acute, fatherlessness is a far more serious obstacle to upward mobility than racism.

Motherlessness is an incalculable sorrow in a child’s life. But the absence of a living father is the single greatest predictor for a child’s social and economic failure in adult life (children of loved, prematurely deceased fathers, like Trudeau père, often over-achieve in homage). Conversely, responsible fatherhood is the single greatest predictor for a child’s success.

The answer to what kept the “roof from collapsing” in Justin’s case was the fact that he had a strong, consistent and demanding father. Indeed, considering the ambitious and demanding line of work Justin has chosen, it is Justin’s good fortune that his father was the primary parent. Justin is a confident human being, by all accounts an engaged and loving father, and friendly to the world. That didn’t happen by luck. His father was the “unshakable pillar” Justin could depend on, a model of fatherhood our culture should encourage.