Separation of parents is rough, but if you can’t find a way to be there for your children, it will impact their lives one way or another.
Whether a father is apart from his child as a result of divorce, non-marital childbirth or job relocation, his absence impacts the child and our society beyond what we can observe at the moment.
My father was absent for most of my life. He and my mother were divorced when my sister and I were toddlers. There were no legal restrictions on his visitation. He was living locally but didn’t ask to see us. My mother was careful not to give us her opinion of him, so we initially expected that he would ask to visit, or surprise us at the home of his parents, where we visited often.
Having been a fatherless child and a divorced single mother, I served as a volunteer advocate in my adulthood for fathers separated from their children. I have shared my perspective on why it would be significant to each man and his child that he asserts his right to visitation, and I followed-up with helping the men prepare their legal cases.
Whether or not the parents are united as a couple and reside in the home together with the child, each parent has value to the child and by extension to our society. When a father chooses to be absent from the life of his child, the impact is long lasting in ways he may not be aware. While this is also true in cases of absent mothers, and for boys as well as girls, I was a girl with a mother and no father. So, my personal perspective is that of a fatherless daughter.
Fatherless (or “daddyless”) daughters are women who grew up without an active father, usually one who was absent by what appears to be his choice. This appearance of his choice to be absent is the key to the complexities of the girl/woman’s questions about her value to their relationship. As is true of many in my situation, I developed a fatherless daughter syndrome that would affect my self-esteem and my relationships with men over the years.
For girls, her relationship with her father sets the stage for her search for a husband or mate. A father conditions his daughter to how she will allow a prospective husband/mate to treat her and speak to her. She learns by the love of her father that she is loveable and worthy of the love of a man whom she hopes is as good as her father. Rarely will she consider it possible to have the love of a man who is better than her father.
If the father does not communicate his reasons for being absent, the girl may consider that it is her fault. That it is something she said or did to keep him away from her–she does not consider that the father is keeping away from her mother. If the father does not demonstrate love for his daughter, she will consider herself unloved and worse, unloveable. Later, in her search for a mate, not having had her father’s love, she will feel devalued and will settle for a man who does not demonstrate love.
In his 2012 article published by Psychology Today, Professor of Social Work Edward Kruk, Ph.D. reports findings of a collection of research on the subject of fatherless children, a few of which are as follows:
- Fatherless children tend to have a sense of abandonment and a related sense of physical vulnerability, feeling unsafe more than children with residential fathers.
- They become a bully as a defense mechanism.
- The children have diminished self-esteem.
- They are less likely than peers with fathers to graduate high school, attend college, or enjoy a lucrative profession.
Any one of those points alone is significant. The combination of these few that I’ve listed can deeply root the problem such that healing the mental health of the adult child is often as complex as healing a physiological disease. One bundle of consequences Dr. Kruk reports is quite serious, and is something I know first hand:
“[P]romiscuity and teen pregnancy (fatherless children are more likely to experience problems with sexual health, including a greater likelihood of having intercourse before the age of 16, foregoing contraception during first intercourse, becoming teenage parents, and contracting sexually transmitted infection; girls manifest an object hunger for males, and in experiencing the emotional loss of their fathers egocentrically as a rejection of them, become susceptible to exploitation by adult men)”
If we can heal the relationship between non-residential fathers and their children, and, as a result, reduce the incidents of this bundle of consequences alone, our society will be a healthier, happier place to live.
As a mature adult, I have come to realize that the way we respond to life affects our results more so than what other people do “to us”. I know I would have done well to respond to my fatherlessness in a healthier manner, not to take personally his absence or his actions that seemed inappropriate. But since the body of evidence shows I was not alone in my response to my fatherlessness, it behooves us as a society to help fathers and the mothers of their children to bridge the gap of communication, to facilitate the demonstration of the father’s love and care for the child.
Just as I, as an adult, have taken responsibility for my response—my thoughts, feelings and actions—to my father’s absence, I ask absent fathers and the mothers of their children to objectively observe their own response to their situation and make changes where necessary, for the sake of the child.
- Work on responding (being mindful and deliberate) versus reacting (in survival mode, fight or flight).
- Find a healthier way to separate the relationship between the adults without separating the non-residential parent from the child.
- Encourage and facilitate demonstrations of love and care for the child from or on behalf of the non-residential parent.
It is important for the adults involved to carefully communicate to the child that each parent loves the child. If the father can say to the child something age-appropriate along the lines of, “I love you and will always be your father/daddy. I miss you while I’m away, and I think of you every day! Your mother/mommy loves you, too. Because I know you are in good hands with Mommy, I feel it is important for me to stay away for now while I am working on fixing my situation.”
Reading this, or better hearing it in person followed by a hug, the girl will be able to consider that his absence is not her fault. IF the father is not able to say his truth, the mother or other respected and beloved adult should say it on his behalf, in a tone of sincerity, and with no hint of disrespect for the absent parent.
There are times when the conditioned response to “Daddy loves you” will be “Well, he sure has a funny way of showing it.” Soften the blow with something situation- and age-appropriate, such as this: “Sometimes adults don’t know how to show love. Sometimes they have had bad things happen that confuse them and they aren’t sure of their feelings or how to express them. The important thing for you to know is that it is not your fault that Daddy is away.”
In my 40 years of life after my parents divorced and before my father died, he and I spent maybe a total of 10 hours together. Total. When my father was on his death bed, he and I spent some time together to make peace and say goodbye. Two years after he passed, I resumed my study of psychology. The writing assignments allowed me to work through my issues, allowing me to dissipate my sense of fatherlessness. My father’s body has died and, at long last, I have since felt closer to him than when he was alive.
Photo: Flickr/ Hamama Harib