Fatherhood is also classically aspirational. It’s a marker of class, pure and simple. Fatherlessness is a real crisis even as fatherhood gains this wild significance. In 2008, 41 percent of births involved unmarried women compared with 28 percent in 1990. Fatherlessness as a condition has been linked with virtually every social ill you can name (the big exception being lesbian families): Young men who grow up without fathers are twice as likely to end up in jail, 63 percent of youths who commit suicide are from fatherless homes, and 71 percent of high school dropouts come from fatherless homes. What these connections mean — particularly whether fatherlessness is a symptom of poverty or a cause — is the subject of complex debate. Neither political party is willing to deal with the consequences of the connections, though. The Left looks the other way, fearing the stigmatization of single mothers and wallowing in the vestigial critique of family structure as a whole. The Right loves to talk about “family values” but lives in a fantasy about what those values are. It is astonishing how much the conservatives of the moment talk about the family and how little they understand about how contemporary families actually work. I suppose they must retain their indulgent vision of 1950s men and women. Otherwise, they might have to ask themselves what the cost of arresting every black man who ever took a puff of marijuana and separating them from their children might mean for those communities. They might have to think about maternity and paternity leave.

If conservatives ever did stop to look at contemporary families and contemporary fatherhood in particular, they might discover a source of great strength. The appeal of fatherhood, its newfound position as a requirement of the good life, is that it is a real duty. It binds you to other people. It binds you, for real, to a woman. It is the only thing that still can. Sex is basically an exchange of pleasantries now. Marriage is instantly reversible, a negotiable contract. But fatherhood is real.

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