It was the third of September
That day I’ll always remember, yes I will
Cause that was the day that my daddy died…
Papa was a rolling stone
Wherever he laid his hat was his home
And when he died all he left us was alone
Few issues define the cultural divide as sharply as one’s stance on family structure. Senator Ron Johnson, for example, in a presentation I heard at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, placed the blame for America’s fiscal and other woes on single parent families. (This didn’t go over so well at a workplace that is overwhelmingly female and with more than a few highly successful single parents.) A fascinating recent article in Pediatrics may shed some light on this debate, or may simply generate more heat.
Researchers from Michigan and Princeton looked at the association between loss of a father and telomere length, a chromosomal marker of stress that is itself associated with a variety of adverse health outcomes. (Telomeres shorten with age, and when they become sufficiently short cells die. Thus telomere length has been called a “biological clock.”) In this study, children who lost a father for any reason had significantly shorter telomeres than those who had not. This effect was strongest for the death of a father, somewhat less for incarceration, and least for separation or divorce. And it was stronger for boys than for girls.
Traditionalists might use this as evidence for the superiority of raising children in a two parent (specifically, mother and father) home. But not so fast. This study only examined those children who started out in a home with a mother and father, and then lost the father. Loss and absence are not necessarily the same thing. Also, at least for loss due to separation or divorce, nearly all of the effect (95%) is explained by lost income. So one could as easily say this is evidence for the superiority of a living wage, and equal pay for men and women.
These findings also support the need for a change in the mass incarceration policy in this country. The millions of men in prison – many of them men of color – are leaving behind millions of children who we now know suffer not only emotional but biological damage as a result. This public policy crisis is creating a public health crisis.
One other tidbit in this study was intriguing. The effect of loss of a father on telomere length was strongest among those children with a genetic variant in molecules involved in processing certain neurotransmitters. How one copes with adverse events, like the loss of a parent, isn’t simply a matter of one’s character, or the strength of one’s support system. Biology may not be destiny, but it sure tilts the playing field.
A rolling stone may gather no moss, but it can sure leave a lot of havoc in its wake.