Mama says, 'Go to church'

Here's a rather predictable news flash: American mothers want the fathers of their children to stick around, help with the kids and go to church. There's something else that united the participants in "Mama Says," a recent survey from the National Fatherhood Initiative -- 93 percent of them believe America is suffering from what researchers called a "father absence crisis." An earlier survey by the non-partisan group found that 91 percent of American fathers affirm that stark judgment.

The survey didn't include many religious questions, but the role of faith in American homes and marriages kept rising to the surface.

"What the religious questions revealed to us is that the mothers who were the most religious were consistently the mothers who were the most satisfied with the jobs that their men were doing as fathers," said Vincent DiCaro of the National Fatherhood Initiative, which is based in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. "If you look at the whole survey, it's clear that mothers think that strong religious values help dads be better dads."

If there was a surprise in the survey, he said, it was the high value that American mothers in general placed on "churches and other communities of faith" when it came time to name resources that could help fathers improve their parenting skills.

As expected, "very religious" mothers were strongly pro-church. However, the value of fathers seeking parenting help from religious institutions also received a "very important" nod from 72 percent of the mothers who said they were "not very religious" and from 58 percent of those who called themselves "not at all religious."

The "very religious" mothers in this survey were different in other ways, too.

They were more likely -- 69 percent compared to 51 percent for others -- to believe that mass media consistently portray fathers in a negative light.

The "very religious" mothers also seemed to value what the researchers called "communitarian" values, while less religious respondents offered more "individualistic" views on parenting issues. This was consistent with the views of "very religious" fathers in an earlier study.

Finally, added DiCaro, the mothers who identified themselves as "very religious" were the ones "who continue to believe that the role that fathers play in the home is irreplaceable. ... The really religious mothers are the only group that still feels that way, which is certainly a comment about how many people view fathers in America, today."

Since the survey focused on the beliefs and perceptions of mothers, it didn't provide new information about the actual role that religious faith plays in the faithfulness and effectiveness of the fathers themselves, both in their roles as parents and husbands. It did not attempt to show cause and effect.

"Still, it is of some interest that the higher the religiosity of the mother, the higher, on average, was her evaluation of the parenting of the father," noted sociologist Norval Glenn of the University of Texas, one of the authors of the final report. "I think it is reasonable to assume that the reason for that is that the more religious mothers generally were, or had been, married to men who were also high in religiosity.

"This relationship held even when the parents were no longer living together, and this suggests that religiosity helps men be better fathers even when they don't live with their children or the mothers of their children."

Woven through the entire study was the painful reality that, for many American mothers, brokenness has become the new reality in their homes.

For example, 84 percent of married mothers said they were "very or somewhat satisfied" with the parenting of the fathers they were evaluating. However, that number sank to 23 percent when the mothers and fathers were not living together. This is, the researchers concluded, the reason why the rate of satisfaction that African-American mothers expressed when evaluating fathers was only half that of white mothers.

It is easy to find the bottom line in this survey, said DiCaro.

"It is undeniable that the most satisfied mothers were those who had fathers who were living with them, under the same roof with their children," he said. "Once again, marriage is the great equalizer, and that's true for blacks, whites, Latinos and everybody. It certainly equalizes how fathers do as fathers, at least in the eyes of the mothers."