Every large scale long-term study of family life is showing that the absence of fathers is the biggest challenge facing Western society today. It appears that the absence of father is ‘bigger than anger, aggression, alcohol, drugs, crime and underachievement by children, because it is the biggest single contribution to all of these troubling behaviours shown by children.’ When separation occurs up to thirty per cent of fathers cease to have any involvement in their children’s lives. There is also the reality of thirty per cent of babies being born to single mothers and no paternity being followed through on. The physical absence of fathers leaves children having to face and cope with the abandonment by their biological fathers; it also means that they have the absence of male role models in their lives. After all, if it is true that the first and most important woman in a boy’s or girl’s life is his or her mother, it is also a fact that the present father is the first man that the male or female child experiences. When the most important woman in your life abandons or neglects or violates you, it is difficult for that child, male or female, to trust any other female. Equally, when a father is absent, his children, boys or girls, will struggle to trust any other male.
It is important to realise that a father who is present in a family, can be as absent as the father who is not physically present. I have worked with many children who complain of their fathers ‘never being there for them – too busy to take notice of their presence.’ In many ways these children experience greater hurt than the fathers who have totally disappeared.
A crucial question needs to be asked: how is it that so many men walk away from a child that they have fathered? I suspect and know that some of these men are absent from themselves – have little regard for themselves – and their abandonment of their children mirrors their abandonment of themselves. This latter abandonment of self originated in the troubled family of origin. One would have to ask the question: did their fathers abandon them and did their mothers overprotect them – which is also an abandonment! Men who feel good about themselves do not abandon their children; neither do they act irresponsibly in their intimate relationships with women.
A new book on fatherhood draws attention to the essential role of fathers. The book, First Coach, For Good Dads who Want to be Great Dads, (published by Veritas) considers in detail the responsibilities of fathers. There is a lot of good advice given to fathers to how best love, raise the self-esteem of and communicate clearly with their children. There is also a lot of sensible guidance on fathers being consistent; how to establish definite boundaries around their own responsibilities and how best to discipline children’s challenging responses without jeopardising the relationships with the child or inducing fear. The book also guides fathers on how to help children learn from the inevitable mistakes they make.
The book is aspirational in nature; it doesn’t address the serious issue of why father do not typically meet the criteria for effective parenting and how that situation can be remedied. If it is a loss for children when fathers do not parent effectively, it is also a loss for the father themselves. In my experience, a father (and, indeed, a mother) can parent his children only to the extent that he parents himself. It is the responsibility of each of us as adults to examine the nature of our relationship with Self and where we discover a lack of caring, nurturing, belief and support of our Self, to set about the remedying of that poor inner relationship. The source of adult self-esteem difficulties lie primarily – not totally – in the experiences of our first relationships – with father, whether present or absent and with mother, generally present, but not necessarily effective. Parents always do their best, but their best is determined by their interiority. When as adults we have not addressed and resolved in what ways a father and mother were not able to be there for us - in the ways that are needed for independence and self-reliance to emerge - the patterns are often repeated with our own children.
When fathers read the book The First Coach and scan the lists of ways they need to be with their children, it would be wise to first check whether they engage in the suggested behaviours towards themselves. Whether we like it or not, how we are with ourselves determines how we are with each other. This is true for father, mothers and all other adults.
Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist and is author of several books on practical psychology, including Self-Esteem, the Key to Your Child’s Future.