Whilst the landscape has changed in how we perceive fathers and their role, there are still times in which we, as a society, continue to underestimate and undermine – even if in subtle or subliminal ways – the importance and value of fathers in the lives of our children. Speak to enough men who have been estranged from their kids – not because of a lack of love for the children themselves, but through a breakdown in relationship, a lack of belief in their capacity to parent, or (rightfully) because their own behaviour puts their child’s safety at risk – and it’s clear we have work to do in getting this right.* In this Father’s Day article I’d like to focus on the majority of men who are doing their best to parent their sons and daughters in a positive way and to consider how it is that some men have ‘lost their place’ in the family and as fathers, where that is the case.
One reason is because men have literally been taken away from their families. Throughout history women have been left on their own with the children while men went off to war or worked in far-off, often dangerous, places and this continues today, occasionally with the roles reversed. We know that many men come back from their time ‘away’ either ‘shell-shocked’ and numb or exhausted and unavailable. Stepping back into a home life that has ‘survived’ without them can present challenges for everyone in re-integrating or including dad in the ‘swing’ of things, particularly as kids enter their teen years. Far from being the ‘King of the Castle’, men can feel displaced, at times unappreciated or unwelcome in their own homes, even if only from their own perspective.
Coming home to a partner who has held the reigns alone and is herself in need of respite from the demands of doing it all; potentially bringing back ‘less’ of the man he was when he left, makes the much longed-for re-connection with family difficult or disappointing at least. The father who began as physically absent may then withdraw emotionally, taking himself away again, thereby unintentionally relinquishing or surrendering his place in the family, modelling for his son what it is to be a man disconnected from himself and those he loves, possibly leaving his daughter without the father whose job it is to protect her, leaving empty the place that belongs to him. Not to mention the impact it has on the relationship with his partner or the child who may step into their father’s ‘place’; taking on a burden beyond their years! Can you see his (and their) innocence?
So … just because we can raise children without fathers, doesn’t mean that there aren’t consequences, sometimes spanning generations, for men, women and their children when men are excluded from their place as fathers, or for our society when we devalue the contribution dads make.
Another obvious cause is relationship break-up, the seeds of which are often sown when the couple are not able to see what’s really going on or how to address it in time. If, on separating from a partner, a man refuses to protect or provide – both love and material goods – for his children to the degree that is possible within his means, he will ultimately feel ‘weaker’ than a man who accepts that responsibility and continues to parent his children in partnership with his ex. The key is for both mother and father to distinguish between their relationship with one another, which has ‘ended’ in its original form, and their relationship with their children from whom there is no separation.
I know many women will say they’ve always supported their children to be in touch with their fathers and never said ‘bad’ things about them. However … how we think and what we feel about someone speaks so much louder than the words themselves, particularly when the separation has not gone well. Without ever uttering the words, a mother – or father – can unintentionally inculcate their child with the same feelings they have about their co-parent. This will either have the child ‘agree’ with what is really being communicated, and, to avoid disappointing the mother, refuse contact with the father. Or, perhaps after a period of doing this, take the opposite position by ‘siding’ with their father, leaving the mother bereft and baffled as to what happened. This occurs because the ‘rejection’ of the father by the mother, or other ‘trusted adults’, is also unconsciously a rejection of the father within the child. And of course … the same can be said about the father in relation to the mother!
Remember … forbidden fruit is always sweeter! Allowing your children to love both their parents and letting them know that you love the part of their mother or father that lives within them – even when you no longer ‘love’ your ex – is fundamental to ensuring that least harm is done.
Finally, when fathers die, especially when they or the children are very young, the pain can be so great that talking about them or ‘keeping their memory alive’ with pictures and traditions may be difficult. Facing loss means continuing to include those who have passed on even when things change and a new father figure comes into the family. Even if the child doesn’t or can’t have contact with their father for whatever reason, what is critical is that they know who their father is, that it is okay to love him and that they can make a place in their heart for him!
* More on how to address the issue of Family & Domestic Violence upcoming.