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Kirk Bloir
Single, custodial fathers are men who have accepted the primary responsibility of rearing their children (having sole custody a minimum of 5 days a week, on average). While much public and research attention has been paid to single, custodial mothers over the years, relatively little attention, of any kind, has focused on single, custodial fathers. In order to gain a more informed understanding about the diversity of the American family, the following overview of single, custodial fathers is presented.


In 1995, the number of family groupings with children under the age of 18 was slightly more than 35 million households, a 25% increase from 1970. In 1995, single parent households made up almost 31% (11 million)of the total family groupings with children under the age of 18. Of those 11 million single parent households, 15% (1.7 million) represent single, custodial father households, a 330% increase from 1970. In 1995, 2.5 million children lived with only their father. This large increase seems to be the result of a combination of several factors. First, the introduction of no-fault divorce laws, gender-neutral criteria, and greater attention being paid to children's wishes in the court systems make it easier for fathers to gain custody when they seek it. This, coupled with the explosive divorce rate, accounts for some of the rise in single, custodial father households. Second, is the behaviors of mothers. Many women choose to pursue career or personal goals over family interests and favor father custody. Additionally, some mothers with psychiatric, or physical conditions are not able to care for their children. Third, the increase in joint custody arrangements may also contribute to the increase in single, custodial father households. Also, mothers remarry and relinquish custody, or one parent moves and the child moves too, creating a de facto single custody arrangement. Finally, fathers today are more willing than fathers in the past to become full-time caretakers of their children. The vast majority of fathers who have custody gained it by mutual agreement, rather than by a court battle.


Single father families are diverse. Some are formed by the death of a wife or partner, others by divorce, or by a never-married father assuming custody of his dependent child.

The Composition

Single father households may be comprised of a father and his children only, a father his children and a cohabiting partner, or a father, his children and extended family. The most common household pattern is a father and his own children. Roughly, 55% of the children in father-only families live in this type of arrangement (25% are only-children, the remaining 30% have one or more siblings). Another 36% of children living with their single father also live with their father's cohabiting partner. Thirty-four percent live in a multigenerational household. Since 1960, the proportion of never-married father-only families has increased from virtually none, to more than 28% of all families in 1990. In contrast, the proportion of widowed fathers has declined from 32% in 1960 to less than 6% of all families in 1990.

Unique Qualities

Single father families are distinct from both married families and single mother families. Single father families are less likely to be poor and these fathers are more likely to be in the paid labor force than female-headed families and single-mothers. However, single father families tend to be poorer and have lower labor force participation than married fathers. Single fathers tend to be younger (under 30) than married fathers, but not as young as single mothers. Single fathers have fewer children than married fathers, but more than single mothers. Single fathers are more likely than married fathers to live in households with relatives or other unrelated adults, but significantly less often than single mothers do. Hispanic, African-American, Asian, and Native American children are more likely than Euro-American children to reside in single father families. And single father families today are more likely to have young children present, yet very few receive child support payments from the mother.

Issues of Concern for Single, Custodial Fathers

The largest concern expressed by single fathers is over childcare, as it is with most working parents. Childcare concerns are most stressful for single fathers with children between the ages of 5 and 11. Men feel that they are judged, as well as judge themselves, by their success at work and often have strong internal conflicts over managing work and caring for their children. Work-related issued connected to childcare that cause the most stress are arriving late or leaving early, missing work, having to reduce work and work-related travel. Single fathers also struggle with establishing and being comfortable with an appropriate level of intimacy, especially with their adolescent daughters. Finding and maintaining a support network is also challenging for many single fathers.

Kirk Bloir

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