My father died on May 20th, which has afforded me a lot of time – perhaps too much – to think about fathers and mental health. With Father’s Day approaching, I thought it appropriate to talk about the role and importance of fathers in our lives.
For me, writing about fathers is difficult because I had a complicated relationship with my father. I was conceived outside of a long-term marriage, and my father’s presence in my life was erratic at best. My relationship with him was created through a combination of fantasy, projection, and disappointments—fantasies about how different my life would be if he loved and was present for me; projections about who he was, his capacity to care for and support me, and how good his ‘other children’ had it. And finally, I experienced a lot of disappointments: missed birthdays, waiting for him to call or visit, and him being unavailable during some of the most vulnerable times in my life. In almost every encounter, I found myself disappointed because I wanted something that he could or would not give me.
My relationship with him has had a significant impact on my development and other relationships. And even though I have invested in healing the wounds my father’s absence left in my heart and soul, his death has unearthed unhealed scars and wounds.
While my experience has been painful, I know that statistics show that most fathers are involved in their children’s lives.
Although marriage rates are declining and more children are growing up in female-headed households, fathers’ rates of staying involved and engaged in their children’s lives continue to increase and grow. For example, a 2016 CDC study on fathering cited in Josh Lev’s article Myths About Black Fatherlessness Hurt the Fight Against Racism found that most African American children grow up with their fathers actively involved in their lives. Only 1.7% of African American children grow up in households where their fathers provide minimal support. When fathers take part in the care and wellbeing of their children, they play a more active role in their children’s lives.
The number of black fathers that stay actively involved in their children’s lives is impressive, considering the structural inequities - health consequences that can lead to premature death, incarceration and police contact, economic stressors, etc.- they must overcome.
Fathers can be absent in a number of ways, such as being physically present but emotionally unavailable. Some fathers never get the chance to be involved in their children’s lives, while others simply choose not to. And then there are fathers whose circumstances (death, incarceration, other separations) physically remove them from their children.
Fathers play an essential role in a child’s development from birth. The data about the benefits of having a father who provides emotional support to the child’s mother and maintains his own health (mental and physical) is compelling. Having an active and involved father is associated with higher IQs, better academic performance and verbal skills, delayed sexual activity in girls, and less ‘delinquent’ behaviors in boys. When a father is present in a child’s life, it promotes healthy exploration and safe risk-taking. Engaged fathers who spend quality time with their children are one of the best protective factors and the essential counterbalance to mothering.
Fathers, please know that your role is essential for your children’s success, mentally, physically, emotionally, academically, and vocationally. Spending quality time with your children has an immeasurably positive impact on them, their mothers, and the larger community.
If you are a mother, please never discount the importance of fathers. Make room for them, value their contributions, and encourage their involvement in the lives of (all) their children. Also, accept that fathers will do things differently—which isn’t wrong. That is the point- that fathers will respond differently.
If you are a Daddyless Daughter or a Fatherless Son, acknowledge how you feel about not having a father. Continue to remind yourself that your situation isn’t personal. There are books, support groups, online resources, TED Talks, and other resources that can help. Talk about it. Also, remember that a lot of your healing will happen in the context of relationships.
Finally, remember: “A good father makes all the difference in a child's life. He's a pillar of strength, support and discipline. His work is endless and, oftentimes, thankless. But in the end, it shows in the sound, well-adjusted children he raises.” – Julian Marcus published in. ‘Just Men’