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Does a Kid Need a Dad : Anguished parents look to the experts for answers. But studies show only that the debate will continue to rage.

October 26, 1994|SHARI ROAN | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

Ilona Sherman was 43 and divorced when she set about having a child on her own.

"Marriage did not answer my needs. But I wanted to have a child. I was getting older. I wasn't going to wait to meet someone to do it."

She opted for artificial insemination and gave birth to a son, Adam Robert, 16 months ago.

"I think a father is very important, and I would like to get married at some point. But I'm a big believer that if you give a child enough attention and love, that's what is important," says Sherman, who owns a public relations firm in Los Angeles.

Henry Biller, however, takes issue with mom-alone types like Sherman.

"There are lots of (women) who say that fathers are the disposable parent," says Biller, a psychologist and well-known researcher on fatherhood at the University of Rhode Island. "They say, 'Just give us enough money and we'll put the child in a good school.' I don't agree with that. I think you are putting kids at risk without a regular, quality, consistent relationship with a man."

But, he notes, with a hint of resignation: "Despite mounting evidence for the importance of the father-child connection, many people still believe that Dad just provides a little extra and that kids get what they really need from Mom."

Indeed, if you look at childbirth in 1994 in the United States, you might conclude that, after the sperm, the presence of a father is optional.

Births to unwed mothers have jumped a shocking 70% since 1982, according to the 1993 census, with 27% of children under 18 living with a single parent who had never married. And when divorce or death is figured in, about 55% of children will spend some portion of their lives in a single-parent household, almost always headed by the mother.

Clearly, fatherlessness is a social trend to be reckoned with, experts note, especially with so many public policy issues--from welfare reform to child custody judgments--being hashed out with a closer look at what the father contributes to the nuclear family.

Notwithstanding Dan Quayle's point of view, society needs to know: Does a kid need a dad?

*

Single, divorced or widowed mothers tend to cling to the view that a child's overall environment matters more than the presence of a father--and research backs them up, to some extent.

Barbara Gale was a toddler when her parents divorced, and her father faded out of her life.

So at age 42 and single, she thought long and hard about her desire to raise a child on her own.

But she is confident about her decision. She did fine without a father, Gale reasoned, so would her daughter, Gabriella, who was adopted at birth in June, 1993.

Gale, who has her own entertainment company in Los Angeles, is irritated by the frequent theme of politicians who point to single-parent families--which are headed by mothers 86% of the time--as the root of many social problems.

"Have them come to my house," she scoffs. "I don't think my child will lack for anything--emotionally or otherwise."

Other mothers point out that even with the potential drawbacks, life without father is sometimes better than with him.

Bonnie Owens walked out of her home 22 years ago with her toddler, a suitcase and $32 in her pocket. She wasn't concerned about leaving her baby's father behind.

"I thought her being with me and not with a father was more emotionally healthy than being in a two-parent household where there was discontent and a lack of respect," says Owens, a Los Angeles talent agent. "But I had a really great support system. My point of view is that a child will be well-adjusted if they have a good environment. And a good environment doesn't have to be a mother and father."

Zulma Garcia, 16, tried living with the father of her baby for about a year after the child's birth. After they broke up, he stopped seeing the child, who is almost 2 years old. And Garcia is relieved.

"I don't worry about her not having a father," says Garcia, who lives in Los Angeles. "At this point, I think it's best to let it go because of the kind of person he is. I think I'm doing the best for her with him not being around. What's the use of having a father and a mother in the house if they don't get along and there is always mental and verbal abuse? That doesn't mean this child will grow up very healthy."

Research is not clear on whether a stable, secure, loving environment can fully compensate for the lack of a father. But some recent studies indicate that if a mother has other, supportive adults to lean on, the child fares well.

"It's beneficial for children to live with two adults, but they don't necessarily have to be two parents and they don't necessarily have to be people of the opposite sex," says Helen Wintrob, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the State University of New York, who has studied father absence. She is a single mother of an adopted child.

Studies of families headed by homosexual couples, moreover, have found few negative effects on the children.

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