Yesterday was Fathers’ Day–but a disturbing study by two psychologists concludes that in the minds of many child-rearing professionals, fathers simply don’t exist. The words “mother” and “father” are gradually being replaced by the unisex “parent”–and “parent,” in most cases, refers to the mother alone.

Linda M. Fleming and David J. Tobin of Gannon University in Pennsylvania studied every child-care handbook published during the 1990s that was still in print by 2001 and published their findings in the journal Psychology of Men & Masculinity. The Washington Post reports:

“They found that only 4.2 percent of the paragraphs in these books referred to fathers — and nearly a third of these references were negative….

“When they examined the accompanying photos and illustrations, women outnumbered men 3 to 1. Even when the paragraph referred to a ‘parent’ or used some other gender-neutral term, the message often was clearly intended for mothers. ‘For example, when discussing stress management techniques for parents, suggestions would include going to the spa, getting one’s nails done, or talking with a girlfriend,’ they wrote.

“What these child-care mavens did write about dads was nearly as disturbing as the fact that they wrote so little, Fleming and Tobin found. ‘Fathers’ roles were predominately ancillary to mother and often portrayed as voluntary and negotiable,’ they wrote, and perpetuated ‘outdated cultural expectations’ of fatherhood (or the absence of any expectations at all).”

The books may reflect the sad truth that nowdays more than one-fifth of all babies live in households without their biological fathers (the number jumps to 58 percent for African-Americans). Yet it is distressing that the lack of a father now seems to be a cultural expectation, at least in the minds of child-care professionals.