The Absent Father

Disconnected Dads, Confused Kids

By Stephen Johnson, Ph.D.
As printed in Whole Life Times, August 1993

Humanity is at the end of a double millennium. As it speeds toward the completion of its second thousand-year period of recorded history, the epic experiment known as civilization reveals certain bitter truths with which we must contend.

It is very apparent, for example, that contemporary culture has become intensely fast and explosively hot. The lack of “enough time” places inordinate stress on people as we scramble to catch up or move ahead in order to avoid falling behind or going down and out. Raging conflicts around the world in Bosnia, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Africa and in the urban centers of America signal a lack of compassionate understanding and balance necessary for sustained harmony and peace.

In our country, the melting pot of the world, cultures collide while emotional tension runs rampant in a strained attempt to blend divergent ethnicity into a homogenized sameness. We desperately need a common ground for all. The middle is falling away, and there is more polarization between the haves and have-nots. The spaces between people that at one time buffered the sharp edges of distinction exist now to a much lesser degree. Radically different people are losing the ways to maintain connection with each other devoid of anger, envy, hatred, injustice and cruelty.

Carl Jung said that one sign of maturity is the ability to hold greater and greater opposition without coming apart. The period of time we are entering is one of more and more exposed conflict; therefore, we need to be able to exercise this maturity if we are to withstand the intense heat generated from this cross-cultural collision. If the heat’s too high, people can get burned up in the melting pot. These days, their ashes can be found everywhere.

In our country, prior to the industrial revolution when it was common for three generations to reside under one roof, there was a built-in support system. Basic survival needs secured a bond among the various family members. The personal tensions of the individuals were cooled and absorbed into the larger matrix holding the family together. The inherent value system, which was based on age-old traditions, was customarily passed from the elders to the youngsters. Each family unit had its own rituals, lore and myths that created a foundation for the rites of passage from childhood to adulthood and provided a unified sense of belonging.

The age of industrialization, however, set in motion the wheels of change that have altered the course of history. Men left their homes to seek work many miles from the common thread that historically united grandfathers, fathers and sons. This was a tribal thread that had once woven the males into the fabric of lineage of men that had come before them. Older men had always initiated the younger boys into the ways of men, guiding them to find a balance point deep within their masculine souls. As these rites of passage began to diminish, we also began to lose our myths and rituals that served to hold our people together. The collapse of the mythic world and the demise of initiatory ceremonies and rituals has contributed greatly to the free-floating anxiety that is pervasive throughout our country.

In fact, today in our culture we face a crisis within our communities that is essentially at the root cause of the nuclear family structure. It is a crisis of fathering. I feel that this is singly the most important element impacting our overall quality of life. In the America of the 90s, men have been choosing to disconnect from their families on a massive scale, and at far higher rates than other industrialized nations. Men have been drifting away from family life, creating a danger of our becoming a fatherless society. This is especially true in minority communities where poverty rates are the highest. Fifteen million American children, one quarter of the population under 18, are growing up today without fathers. This is the greatest social catastrophe facing our country.

With a divorce rate of over 50%, it has begun to look like the traditional nuclear family is on the verge of becoming a phenomenon of the past. Perhaps the breakdown of the nuclear family, during a time of intense multiculturalism, is required in order to shape-shift smaller family units into a new and necessary extended spiritual family capable of adapting to the Earth changes we are encountering. However, at this point, one-third of the nation’s children will go to bed tonight without their biological father in the next room, and most of them won’t see their fathers the next day. About 40% of the children who live in fatherless households haven’t seen their fathers in at least a year.

The absence of fathers also goes a long way in explaining the gulf between black and white America. It has been almost impossible to equalize opportunities between the races when a black child is three times more likely than a white child to live without a father.

Two of our nation’s most serious problems are crime and unwed teenage pregnancy. Studies show the most reliable predictor of these manifestations is not income or race; it is family structure. Unwed pregnant girls and criminally-oriented boys tend to come from fatherless families. 70% of imprisoned minors have spent at least part of their lives without fathers. Gangs feed on fatherless boys. Random and serious violence can be correlated to fatherless families.

Without men around as role models, fatherless boys create their own destructive rites of passage arising out of the rage they feel over being abandoned. Boys who lack a steady male role model are prone to aggravated doubts about their masculinity and often respond with hyper-masculine behavior. Many urban boys have turned to weapons for defense and a sense of power because they have no other tools for establishing success. Fatherless girls often experience low self-esteem and turbulent romantic relationships as they search for the ideal father substitute. Additionally, a study reported in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in 1988 found that youths who attempted suicide, the second leading cause of death in the 15 to 24-year-old age group, differed little in terms of age, income, race and religion. However, the researchers found that they were “more likely to live in non-intact family settings”.

Fathers provide a form of child-rearing distinct from that of mothers and just as essential to a child’s development. Fathers play crucial gender-specific roles in the intellectual and emotional development of their children. Children with healthy and functioning fathers tend to do better in school, are less prone to depression or other emotional conditions, and are more successful in relationships.

The role of the father is to lovingly contain the energy of the family and to embody the rituals and traditions that help create a sacred space. He needs to appropriately hold the space so that the individual self-expression and positive growth will be championed for all the family members. Fathers also have primary roles in the building and maintenance of healthy communities. When individuals have a strong sense of interdependence with their communities, there is less angst and chaos. Families and society flourish through co-creatively supporting each other.

Before fathers will come home (or stay home, for that matter), society must decide that fathering is a cultural idea worth defending. We need to reverse the declining value placed on the family structure. The future of fathering, the family, and the global village is to a large extent going to be determined by the overall healing of the wounds to the masculine soul, the changing of widely held negative notions of what it means to be a man, and the reconciliation and balancing of gender relationships.

When a man has attained a state of balance or wholeness, when he has his own spiritual center, he naturally wants to give something back to his community. In other words, personal satisfaction tends to inspire one to a life of service. The longing to make a contribution to the world arises from the willingness to be part of the solution rather than a victim of the problem.

Counseling and educational programs for men and women and children who love them have helped many to come to grips with their lives. This has also served to create an awareness regarding the concerns that are endemic to our community. At the Men’s Center where I work, our commitment to community renewal is expressed through our desire to support fatherless or high-risk boys. A cadre of individuals has joined together in a stewardship program which has become known as our Mentor Project. It features a collective of men volunteering to shepherd one or more boys longing for the trusted companionship and guidance of a safer older male. Mentors share their knowledge of balanced masculinity, their vocational expertise and their wisdom concerning life. As someone to look up to, they are models providing a bridge to a successful and rewarding lifestyle. The real gift that a mentor has to offer is the nurturing of the mentee’s soul.

This month, seven fathers, an African Shaman, and a Dance Chief of the American Indian ways will convene in a secluded area to perform rites-of-passage for 13-year-old sons. This two-day retreat will serve as a symbolic initiation ceremony marking the boys’ entry into the domain of conscious masculinity. The creation of a threshold with which these younger men can experience a demarcation between na•ve boyhood and mature manhood will give them something to remember. It’s a symbol of caring between the fathers and the sons. It references that their fathers wanted to impart some knowledge that they attained regarding what it means to be a man. My hope is that more and more men will want to initiate their sons into a balanced and soulful masculinity. And we need more good men who are willing to initiate fatherless boys as well.

I am convinced that it would make a vast difference to the world if we would envision ourselves as godparents to the children around us, doing what we can to create a safe and loving environment for them. This form of stewardship can be very healing to our community. We are between the sunset of an old era and the dawning of a new time. We need to become Earth stewards dedicated to doing what we can to revitalize our culture, infusing it with more compassionate and loving ways. We stand at the brink of a critical passageway leading to a world that can work for everyone if we choose to walk down this challenging path. It’s not going to be easy, but a concerted effort on our part could make all the difference in the world.