WASHINGTON - News that women increasingly are the leading or sole breadwinner in the American family has resurrected the perennial question: Why do we need men?
Maureen Dowd attempted to answer this question with her 2005 book, "Are Men Necessary?" I responded three years later with "Save the Males."
With each generation, the question becomes more declarative and querulous. Recent demographic shifts show women gaining supremacy across a spectrum of quantitative measures, including education and employment. Women outnumber men in college and in most graduate fields. Increasingly, owing in part to the recession and job loss in historically male-dominated fields, they are surpassing men as wage-earners, though women still lag behind at the highest income and executive levels.
My argument that men should be saved is that, despite certain imperfections, men are fundamentally good and are sort of pleasant to have around. Most women still like to fall in love with them; all children want a father no matter how often we try to persuade ourselves otherwise. If we continue to impose low expectations and negative messaging on men and boys, future women won't have much to choose from.
We are nearly there.
The Pew Research Center recently found that four in 10 American households with children under age 18 include a mother who is either the primary breadwinner or the sole earner (quadruple the share in 1960). The latter category is largely owing to the surge in single-mother households.
This reflects "evolving family dynamics," according to The New York Times, which sounds rather nice -- evolution being a good thing and all. But what it really represents is a continuing erosion of the traditional family and, consequently, what is best for children and, therefore, future society.
Before you reach for the inhaler, permit me to introduce a few disclaimers. First, I'm all for women achieving all they can. Obviously, I'm on that treadmill myself. I've raised three children while working (mostly self-employed and briefly as a single mom). There is no moisture behind my ears.
Second, women have joined the workforce in greater numbers because they've had to, not merely to hear themselves roar, as the Helen Reddy song once described women's nascent self-realization. Children are expensive and one income seldom suffices. Thanks to the recession, many Americans count themselves lucky if even one member of the household has a job. And a single mother clearly has no other choice, though it is increasingly the case that women choose to be single parents as the biological clock runs down.
Nevertheless, trends that diminish the importance of fathers from the family unit cannot -- or should not -- be celebrated. Contrary to the Hollywood version of single motherhood, a trend that began with Murphy Brown more than 20 years ago, single mothers are more likely to be younger, black or Hispanic, and less educated, according to Pew, and they have a median family income of $23,000. In those families where married women earn more than their husbands, the woman is more often white, older and college educated and the median household income is $80,000.
In discussions of Pew's findings, conversations the past few days have veered toward practical questions of men's value. During a recent segment on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," guests -- all women except Joe Scarborough, who looked sheepish and mostly kept his own counsel -- visited the familiar question: Why do women even need men?
The ladies worked earnestly to find positive roles for their hirsute colleagues, noting that men can be useful in family planning, child care sharing, working as part of a team. Although a man's presence was implicit in the hypothetical household, I waited futilely for emphasis to shift to the importance of fathers to their children's well-being. Father, it seems, has become the new F-bomb. Oh, we'll say "F#$&" in a 30-rock second, but "father"? The term, along with the concept, seems to have receded from popular usage, displaced by the vernacular of drive-by impregnators, the inane "baby daddy."
Women, indeed, may not need men, though they seem to want them -- at least until the estrogen ebbs. Women have become more self-sufficient (a good thing) and, given that they still do the lion's share of housework and child rearing, why, really, should they invite a man to the clutter?
Because, simply, children need a father. That not all get a good one is no argument against what is true and irrevocable and everlasting. Deep in the marrow of every human child burbles a question far more profound than those currently occupying coffee klatches: Who is my daddy?
And sadly these days, where is he?