I grew up without a father. He didn’t leave in a flurry of domestic arguments or a long and painful divorce. He didn’t gradually phase out weekend visits or abruptly stop phoning to speak to his little girl. He was just never there. I have seen him in passing twice in my life. The first of these was when I was about five; he said, “Hello, little girl.”
In a 2013 report by The Centre of Social Justice, it was discovered that a million children in the UK were growing up without fathers, and the rate of single parent households has been rising steadily over the past 40 years. In this same year, approximately 3 million children were being brought up primarily by their mothers.
I’m of Afro-Caribbean descent; African-Caribbean children are twice as likely to grow up in a single-parent household than their White British counterparts. ‘Baby father’ – a term my mother refused to use, settling instead for ‘father’ – is a Caribbean term that presumably exists due to the prevalent absenteeism of fathers within the Black community.
However, I’m not here primarily to address the negative stereotype of the ‘absent’ Black father. We have enough of that in mainstream media, with suggestions that the prevalence of absent Black fathers is fuelling crime in the Black community. In her article for the Guardian, Tracey Reynolds asserts that “many non-resident Black fathers are actively involved in parenting and family life, fully committed to their fathering role, despite the statistical data officially recording them as ‘absent’.’
I don’t want to debate whether Black fathers are more likely to be absent or not. My father was the epitome; never having been present in my life. But I cannot attribute this to his blackness. Instead, I want to explore the effects of the ‘absent, uninvolved’ father on the child. What, if anything, makes them different to people brought up by two parents? How does it affect them mentally and socially?
The focus of this phenomena in the media is often on that of Black males growing up without fathers and the effects this has on their development. ‘How do you avoid repeating the cycle of absent fathers when you haven’t learnt how to be a father from your own father?’ ‘Can single mothers turn boys into men?’ ‘Are absent fathers to blame for the underachievement of Black boys in school?’ Yet there is limited research into the effects of absent fathers on Black girls. The research I did find suggests the opposite foci from the media – growing up without a father may hold a greater impact on girls than boys.
Effects on mental health
Since the beginning of my adolescence, I have experienced mental health issues. I have always been wary of attributing these to my father, or lack of one, but it is difficult to ignore. Those who have grown up with an absent father are overrepresented in a wide range of mental health problems, particularly anxiety and depression (of which I suffer). The suggestion is that ‘both parents are required for children’s mental health development’.
Obviously, people can experience mental health problems, despite having two parents. Yet, a lot of our self-worth is developed from the love of our parents. I felt like I wasn’t loveable enough for my father to stay around and I have had to live with that all my life.
When it comes to the social effects of growing up without a father, I might have been lucky. I never descended into delinquency and crime – 85% of youths in prison have an absent father. I managed to maintain a good academic performance – 71% of high school dropouts are fatherless. However, I was not as lucky in other areas.
Compromised emotional security is common for people with absent fathers, comprising bouts of self-loathing and diminished self-concept – seemingly the result of being abandoned and ignored by a parent. I do often fall into the trap of experiencing a general sense of dissatisfaction with myself and my abilities. I am incredibly dismissive of my achievements and often looking for success to prove I am worthy.
The absent parent is the ultimate abandonment. I definitely have a fear of rejection and abandonment, which will often result in me rejecting an individual before they have a chance to do it to me, thereby protecting myself. I have a crippling need to be liked, yet this is a regularly accompanied by a disdain for people – an anger that they are ‘making’ me vie for their attention and approval.
Effects on romantic relationships
Some suggest that the relationship women have with their father is the blueprint for their future relationships: ‘it’s the first relationship a daughter has with a man and therefore teaches her how a woman should be treated’. I feel I approached this statement from a different angle. I have always been aware of how I don’t want to be treated. In a sometimes unforgiving manner, I had a complete lack of patience for men who treated me in a way I deemed unfair or unloving. I would reject them straight away. Because of this, I have only had two serious relationships, the last of which resulted in marriage. Thankfully, I have married a man who adores me and treats me as such.
The template of the strong woman
Above, I attributed my success in avoiding delinquency and poor academic performance to luck. The luck I referred to was the luck of having a wonderful mother. A lot of writing around absent fathers seems to suggest that the parenting provided by a single mother is somehow inadequate.
My mother brought me up singlehandedly; she didn’t have the emotional support of a partner during the difficult times (and there were many of those). My mother couldn’t give up and have someone else pick up the slack; she had to keep on going. She couldn’t rely on anyone financially and often worked two jobs to support us. I have the utmost respect for her because of this.
From my mother, I have learned the importance of my independence. She fought to get me in to good schools. Scrimped and saved to ensure we could go on holidays. She had to deal with pitying looks when she arrived alone to parents’ evenings. She taught me what it is to be a strong woman.
My missing piece
People say you can’t miss what you never had, but I completely disagree. I have always missed not having a father. Something is always missing from me; there is always something making me feel not quite whole. I’ve watched my friends grow up with fathers and know that the jealousy I felt stemmed from missing what I felt I should have had too.
I don’t think I’ll ever grow out of wanting my father to see how well I am doing, wanting him to know that despite him not loving me, I grew up to be a female capable of love. But I feel growing up without a father has made me a stronger, more mentally aware individual.
Words: Mel Green
Image: Silvia Carrus