That may seem an odd question to some, but it is inspired by a piece over at Slate by Emily Yoffe. A couple of excerpts:
In the last 50 years, there has been an extraordinary decoupling of marriage and procreation. In 1960 about 5 percent of births were to unwed mothers; that figure is now a record high of nearly 40 percent. Out-of-wedlock births used to be such a source of shame that families tried to hide them: Singer Bobby Darin was born to a teen mother and raised to believe she was his sister. But now out-of-wedlock births are greeted with a shrug. Some say they're an understandable response to economic realities. Others say they're a liberating change from the shotgun-wedding ethic that shackled two unsuitable people together for life.
...Some researchers identify out-of-wedlock births as the chief cause for the increasing stratification and inequality of American life, the first step that casts children into an ever more rigid caste system. Studies have found that children born to single mothers are vastly more likely to be poor, have behavioral and psychological problems, drop out of high school, and themselves go on to have out-of-wedlock children.
Yoffe is sensible: she does not advocate keeping all bad, abusive marriages together. But she sees the negative effects, especially economic effects, that single parenthood brings to children. Thus my question.
In an ideal sense, yes, children benefit from having a mother and a father (I am thinking socially here, not biologically). A certain household division of labor, which need not the traditional dad as breadwinner and mom as homemaker, can be good for parenting. When one is working, the other can focus on the kid(s). A male/female paring might be good in that it exposes the child(ren) to different world views (to the extent that there are different male and female sensibilities, which, in a general sort of way, I think there are). But this is the ideal, and not all situations live up to the ideal.
In judging circumstances that appear, for whatever reason, less than ideal, I think the main criteria should be love and attention and care. Those are the most essential parental qualifications. If they can be provided by a single mother, or two mothers or two fathers, so be it. Indeed, it might be better to keep an uncaring biological father out of the picture, if doing so will allow a single mother to give her child(ren) the love and attention and care they need. If a father's presence disrupts or diminishes the love and attention and care children require, then he is not needed.
The converse would also then be true. There could be situations where a mother is the problem. If a father can do the job better by himself, if the mother is abusive or addicted or whatever, then there is nothing magic about keeping her around. Yes, such separations can be painful for children. They should only be considered if (and I am sounding mighty consequentialist here) the the amount of love and attention and care would be increased. That might be a hard calculation to make but it would, I believe, serve the "best interests of the child(ren)."
If there is an economic cost to single parenthood, that might be addressed by public policy. We should not maintain relationships that undermine love and attention and care on economic grounds alone. In those cases where it can be clearly demonstrated that single parenting is better for the child(ren) than a traditional dual mother/father arrangement, then some sorts of educational and/or insurance programs for the child(ren) might be enacted to address the shortfall. It would have to be carefully crafted so as not to create a significant incentive to single parenthood. But neither should loving and caring single parents necessarily have to bear such significant economic costs.
But what about the young woman who decides to have a child with no thought of marriage. Is she acting recklessly and subjecting herself and her child to likely poverty? Perhaps. Yoffe has the statistics that suggest this is the case for too many young women. Should we somehow disallow such pregnancies (as if we could)? This is where I will make my usual turn: What would Confucius say?
First the obvious caveats. In his own time, Confucius obviously assumed a traditional household division of labor (with perhaps a couple of concubines thrown into the mix). Child rearing was assumed to be women's work, and husbands were supposed to provide material support and moral guidance to the family. But that was then. This is now. What might a modern Confucian perspective be on single parenthood?
The first Confucian question would be: why are you having this child? If it is simply a matter of "being cool," then she should be dissuaded, as much as that is possible. Some number of young mothers and fathers may see a child as a status symbol, as something that marks their own significance and importance in the community. Those, a Confucian would say, are bad reasons to have a child. We should have children in order to create a new web of loving relationships through which we define our duties, which we then carry out conscientiously (i.e. through "ritual"), as a means to realize humanity in the world. It is a social-moral thing, not a personal-status thing.
I imagine few young people actually think in those terms. I didn't when I was contemplating our children. And that, Confucians would argue, is a broader failure of society and elders. Young people need to be taught, they need to be educated on matters of humanity and duty and ritual. Their parents should be doing that, fathers as well as mothers; and, as Mencius reminds us, so should the public schools. That may seem an old-fashioned and, perhaps outmoded idea (moral education in public schools) but that is what Confucius would say.
Now, if a young woman was truly thinking of having a child in order to expand humanity in the world, then a Confucian would not necessarily stop her. Again, it might be ideal to have two parents, of whatever genders, but the main thing would be the commitment to and actual performance of the duties of motherhood. If she can provide the love and attention and care the child needed, then there is no substantive reason to criticize her.
In the end, then, a Confucian might answer "maybe not," if asked "do children need fathers?"