Being A Full-Time Dad Means Being A Husband

 May 30, 2000

Q:  I've just found out I am going to be a father.  I am not married to
the woman who is carrying my child and have no plans to marry her.  Still, I
want to be a part of my child's life.  I want to be a full-time parent.  I am,
however, encountering much resistance from her.

I am looking for advice, something other than preaching about marriage.
Can  you help me out?

A:  When I am in my car, I frequently tune my radio to Dr. Laura
Schlessinger's radio program.  I'm always amazed by the people who call
her show.

    You have to believe her radio audience knows her views on such things
as premarital sex and "shacking up."  Yet day after day, people call
describing how they are living with someone or got pregnant outside of wedlock and
want to know what they should do about it.  Are these callers gluttons for
punishment or what?

    That's the way I feel about this letter.  Anyone who has ever read
more than a couple of my columns has to know my opinion on these matters as
well.  Nevertheless, I frequently receive letters, e-mails and phone calls from
men who have gotten some woman pregnant outside of marriage asking me for
advice on how they can be great dads without marrying the mothers of their

    A couple of years ago, for example, one guy called complaining that
he couldn't see a child that he had fathered out-of-wedlock.  As the
conversation proceeded, he stated that he had fathered another child
out-of-wedlock by another woman who lived in another state and he
couldn't see that child either.  Soon he was confessing to the existence of yet a
third child by a third woman in a third state, and he hadn't seen that
child in over three years.

    What, he wondered, could he do to be a good father?  My answer: If
you want to be a good father, stop having sex with women you're not married
to.  He was at least polite when he hung up on me.  Apparently, my answer
wasn't what he wanted to hear.

    My guess is you're not going to like my answer, either.  Instead of
the "Ten Things You Can Do To Be A Great Unwed Father," what you are going to
get is a little preaching about marriage.

    When I was a kid, there was a popular playground taunt we used to
employ to annoy other boys: "First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes
Jimmy pushing the baby carriage!"  Most young people today, like most young
people through time immemorial, want all three of these things -- love, marriage
and babies -- for themselves.  What is different today, compared to just
about any other time in human history, is that young people no longer believe
there ought to be an order to these three events.

    No need to wait for love to have sex, just hook up.  If a baby
results, no need to worry about getting married.  There will be plenty of time for
that later.  Besides, marriage is just a piece of paper.  It certainly
isn't necessary to being a good "co-parent."  Why, there are plenty of couples
in Sweden who co-parent kids just fine without ever getting married.  Why
not us?

    For starters, as someone once quipped, the reason cohabitation works
so well in Sweden is because a lot of Swedes live there.  This is America.
In America, things just don't seem to work out as well.

    Oh sure, things may work out for a little while.  According to
research by Robert Lerman and Theodora Ooms, nearly six in 10 unwed fathers visit
their children at least once a week for the first two years of their
children's lives.  By the time their children reach elementary school,
however, that number drops to only two in 10 fathers making weekly visits.

    Children don't need involved fathers for just the first couple years
of their lives.  What they need is lifetime fathers.  Marriage may not be a
perfect pathway to a lifetime father, but it is a more certain pathway
than any other.

    My advice, then, is this: Think again about marriage.

    One reason the mother may be rejecting your interest in being a
father to your child is that you are rejecting her.  Perhaps if you express an
openness to committing to her, she would become much more open to your interest in
committing to your child.

    I also encourage you to think more carefully about what it means to
commit to being a full-time father.  What children want and need is a
father who is there for them day in and day out, not a guy that comes around
just once in a while.  Such everyday daddying is most likely to happen within
the context of marriage.  That's why children, if we ever bothered to ask
them, would say they want their fathers to be married to their mothers, even if
the marital relationship is less than perfect.

    Moreover, if you don't marry the mother, you can be pretty sure that
sooner or later, someone else will.  When that happens, that man, and not
you, will be with your child reading bedtime stories, eating dinner
together, throwing a ball around in the back yard, and helping with homework.

    Being an involved father outside of marriage may not be impossible,
but it is certainly harder.  You're lucky.  Your child isn't yet born.  You
still have time to think this through.  I hope you will re-consider the
marriage option -- for your child's sake.

    Want to take the next one, Dr. Laura?

Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative, a
clinical child psychologist, and co-author of several books on parenting
including the Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book (Meredith, 1998)
and the Better Homes and Gardens New Teen Book (Meredith, 1999).  Send your
question about dads, children or fatherhood to: The National Fatherhood
Initiative, 101 Lake Forest Blvd, Suite 360, Gaithersburg, MD  20877, or
e-mail him at

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