Updated: May 25, 2019
It’s much easier to become a father than to be one.
My father worked a lot when I was growing up. He was a hard worker who provided for his family but didn’t have much time to come to my extracurricular activities. I played basketball in high school. I remember a game that my father came to. I saw him walk into the balcony. Ironically, I was being substituted into the game as he walked in. The referee blew the whistle. My teammate inbounded the ball to the point guard, and the point guard passed it to me. The way the play was set up, I was supposed to pass the ball back to the point guard. In my head, I said, "No thanks coach. You can bench me for the rest of the season, but I have to show my dad I can play.” This was my opportunity to show my dad that I was good, I knew how to play, and even more importantly that I had value. I drove to the basket like there was no tomorrow. I jumped as high as I could like I was Dwayne Wade with a resolve to score. I scored!!! I had 2 points for the whole game. My coach took me out, but it was complete. My dad knew I could play. That one moment was cemented in my heart and mind forever. It highlighted the power of a father’s approval and a child’s desire to prove their worth and value. Fathers are able to make emotional investments in children from which they can withdraw for the rest of their lives. That day boosted my self-esteem, and I walked with a little more confidence. It sounds silly, but it is amazing to me how motivating and empowering a father's approval is to a child. Kids just want to know they are wanted, that they have value, that they matter, and that they are loved. When a child is fatherless, many times devastating things happen as a result of not having that validation and sense of belonging. Fatherlessness is an issue that is plaguing our country. 1 in 3 children in America grows up without a father. The reasons for fatherlessness vary. It can be due to death, divorce, or abandonment and the particular details surrounding each situation can be even more complex. Either way, they all cause emotional pain and leave scars. Many times, it’s not what happens that hurts (abuse, trauma, witnessing addiction/dysfunction in the family, etc.) but what should have happened or what was missing (love, appreciation, teaching boundaries, healthy praise, etc.) that causes a lot of pain that ends up manifesting itself in unhealthy ways. Here’s a list.
Effects of Fatherlessness
1. Self-Esteem/Self-Worth Issues
The pain of fatherlessness is the same, but the impact is different for sons and daughters. For sons, an absent father takes away self-esteem. Sons never see a benchmark or barometer for manhood. For daughters, an absent father takes away self-worth. Overall, fatherlessness leaves a feeling in hearts that suggests that the child is defective or inadequate in some way. There are often continual patterns of insecurity, confusion, and sadness.
2. Relationship Issues / Fear of Rejection, Abandonment, Commitment
A father teaches a daughter what to expect from men. A father teaches a son how to treat women. When those lessons are not learned, many relational mistakes are made. One young man told me that his standard of how to treat women came from what he saw in movies and TV shows. In light of what’s on TV these days, that’s pretty scary. One woman told me that she would not have dated half of the men she dated if she had a good father in her life who could show her how to spot nonsense from a mile away. Fatherless women are left without a model for what to expect from a man. There’s also tremendous fear of commitment because the feeling of abandonment and rejection is known all too well. Some people sabotage the relationship because they are uncomfortable with the vulnerability of an intimate relationship or they leave abruptly because it’s better to leave than to be left. These cycles exist for men and women and it’s often about the avoidance of pain.
There is a sadness and fear that comes from fatherlessness. These are the primary emotions but oftentimes the secondary emotion, anger, which is more socially acceptable but is not exclusive to men, generally manifests itself in 2 forms, uncontrollable anger or depression. The unresolved feelings of anger show up as rage when the anger is externalized and depression when it’s internalized. Our social media age has done a great job of capturing these moments of violence. Whenever a fight breaks out, there are cameras that come out instead of some form of intervention or outrage at the state of the violence in communities. The depression occurs when the anger becomes internalized and no healthy outlet is used for its expression.
Every fatherless child has a hole in their soul that is the shape of their father. That hole is a void that is oftentimes, filled with negative things like drugs, alcohol, overeating, overspending, etc. Youth are more at risk of substance use without a highly involved father or father figure.
5. Promiscuity/Teenage Pregnancy
Teens without fathers are twice as likely to become involved in early sexual activity and seven times more likely to get pregnant as an adolescent. My experience as a social worker and my discussions with educators, therapists, and other social workers, confirm that fatherlessness plays a role in promiscuity, particularly for young girls who are oftentimes, left to handle the weight of the decision to be sexually active.
6. Academic Performance/Dropout Rates
Students living in fatherless homes are twice as likely to repeat a grade in school. More than half of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes. Father involvement in a child’s academic life is associated with the higher likelihood of a child staying in school and performing well academically. A good father is there to provide structure and discipline to keep a child on track.
Exercise – How Is Fatherlessness Showing Up in Your Life?
This is a really important exercise. If you can and feel comfortable, find a safe place or person like a support group or a trained, experienced counselor to hold space with you. The question to answer is ‘how has/is fatherlessness shown/showing up in your life and/or in the lives of people you know?’ Use the list above but don’t feel restricted to the list. To be sure, the symptoms of fatherlessness are greater than the list here but this is a common set of symptoms. Truth is vitally important here. Try your best to be extremely honest here because without truth, there is no healing, no change, and no freedom. Taking these steps are important to seeing how we can begin to heal.
Ways to Heal from and Deal With Fatherlessness
1. Find safe places to acknowledge your fatherlessness, grieve the loss of your father and also learn to forgive. It’s preferable to do this in a support group around this particular issue or with a counselor who understands the issue of fatherlessness. I’ve found that when you can provide definition and reason to your life experiences, there is greater potential to bring a solution. Use Chapter 31 and 32 as guides for grieving and forgiveness.
2. Remember that your father’s leaving had nothing to do with you. The reasons for a father not being there can vary, but it has nothing to do with your worth or value. You are not defective. It is not your fault. Don’t see yourself as a victim. You can become a survivor. See chapter 34 for what it means to be a survivor.
3. Be the best person you can be in spite of not having your father. Identify the deficits of fatherlessness in your life and put things in place to deal with what you didn’t get. For example, if you never learned how to manage money, take a class on money management. If you don’t have healthy relational skills, see a coach or a counselor. Begin reading, taking classes, or seeking professional help for areas of your life where you didn’t receive but should have received guidance.
4. Reconnect with yourself. It’s a great and important step in the healing process to learn to face yourself - your best self and your broken self – your bold self and your bruised self. Part 1 on self-awareness is a great starting point for discovering or rediscovering who you are. I encourage you to do the work.
5. Do the work above and continue to revisit this list. Then if you feel comfortable, use your experience of fatherlessness to provide the support and affirmation to others that may not have received it. What I’ve observed is that fatherlessness leaves a yearning for relationship. When I first started mentorship, I noticed that my mentees didn’t just want information. They wanted relationship. They wanted to talk about how their first interview went. They wanted someone to show them how to budget their money and talk about their experiences with money, not just walk them through the mechanics. It's the relationship that’s given and in that, there’s a healing that takes place. It’s where they can be honest about their fears, pains, frustration, hopes and joys. One of the positive things that come from fatherlessness is the birth of ministries by fatherless people that exist to help other people by giving what they didn't get. In this way, one can subsidize what was not received through surrogate fatherhood. Find a way to serve as a surrogate father for someone else. You can mentor and coach through a lot of different programs like Big Brothers Big Sister or the Boys & Girls Club. Go to www.bbbs.org or www.bgca.org.