Thursday, June 14, 2007

I'm reposting this from June, 2006:

In March, a nationwide study of depressed mothers found that successful treatment of depression in the mothers often eased or prevented depression in their kids. When the treatment didn’t work, the opposite was true—the kids were more likely to become or remain depressed.

It was an impressive demonstration of the emotional links between mothers and their children. But what about fathers? The depression study, led by Dr. Myrna Weissman of Columbia University, didn’t say. Nobody looked at whether fathers had anything to do with the mental health of the kids. Why?

Mothers were easier to study, the researchers said, because they were usually the ones who brought the kids to the clinic for pediatric care. Besides, fathers aren’t as likely as mothers to get depressed. So they didn’t talk to the fathers.

As a father, I took this personally. I have three grown children, including a son who has suffered from bipolar disorder, and a daughter who has suffered from depression. (The third suffered from something that doesn’t have a name—being the brother of two kids with these illnesses.) I’ve spent countless hours agonizing over whether my fathering made things better or worse for my kids. Weissman and her colleagues didn’t say outright that fathers don’t matter. But by trumpeting the connection between mothers and children--and omitting fathers from the equation--that’s exactly what they implied.

It wouldn’t be so bad if this were the rare study that ignored dads. But the practice of ignoring fathers is widespread in research. In May, for example, another study looked at drug use, psychiatric illness, and violence among mothers of 2,756 children followed from birth until they were three years old. The study’s authors, led by Dr. Robert S. Kahn of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, found that if mothers had problems in those areas, the kids had problems, too. What about the fathers? You won’t find out from this study.

Scientific journals are filled with countless other studies like these. That wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t affect us. But it does. This widespread neglect of the father-child bond among researchers reaches into our collective, popular notion of what it means to be a father. Fathers, the research seems to be saying, aren’t really necessary.

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