Last weekend was father’s days on both sides of the pond, which is unusual, as mother’s day is always different in the states from France. Not being a father, I am writing this from a perspective as a therapist who has dealt with a lot of fathering issues , and or course as a daughter and as a mother who had to face them within my self and with my own children.
Volumes have been written about mothering and the effect of maternal child separation, and pathological mothering, but in comparison , there has been only been a trickle regarding fathering, and especially the impact upon children deprived of a consistent and healthy relationship with a father.
Fathering has been in the shadows in so far as pointing out the importance of this essential relationship in the developmental aspect of children. The consistency and quality of fathering or lack of ,has multiple implications on children, with father loss having the most impact.
All of us have “bio” fathers obviously, but not everyone has a “life” father that takes on parenting and nurturing a child. Fathering has a lot more to do with that unique male way of nurturing, than just providing that needed sperm!
One point , I do want to make clear from the beginning, is that a child, for whatever reason, comes into life without a “life” father due to being a sperm donor child, or a child that has been abandoned prior to birth by their “bio” father, therefore never known to the child,or in a lesbian couple, actually suffers much less , from that of a child who “had” a viable father at birth but suffered neglect, abuse or father loss during their childhood.
In these instances, a loving single mother, loving female partner, or male relative, or stepfather can be wonderful substitutes to some degree. Although no single mother, however loving , can replace a father, they can certainly soften the effects of a loss.
This is not meant to devalue in any way fatherhood with its unique masculine way of parenting, but not all children have the opportunity to experience childhood with a healthy and available male father. One can argue decades that children need two different genders for optimal growth, but research so far has not shown this, and this is not this the scope of my article.
This article instead will focus of the impact of fathers on the psychological development of their progeny, whether in a committed relationship, such as marriage or not. Divorced fathers can maintain wonderfully full and nurturing relationships with their children, despite the inherent hardships separation and divorce entails.
Mothering may be the cornerstone or cement, to the very psychic connectedness and viability of a child, but that conjoint parent , called a father, has an incredible impact upon the child’s sense of self, self-esteem and relationships that a child will have for the rest of their lives.
Besides providing another perspective of parenting in the traditional sense, fathering , will have different implications depending on the sex of the child. This impact on little girls and little boys is different.
I once gave a talk on the “wounded women”, to a packed audience, that resulted in much media response. The whole presentation was in what ways fathering can affect how women grow up to see themselves and how they will relate to men as an adult.
A father mirrors back to his little girl how she will grow up expecting other significant males in her life to respond to her. In other words, it is the father that offers the very first male relationship in a female’s life.
If the father is present throughout her life, but unavailable to her emotionally, then the little girl has a good chance of growing up with the notion or expectation that males will not respond to her emotional needs, nor really value her presence nor femininity.
These shadow dads, as I like to call them, are fairly numerous. They are often too preoccupied with their professional pursuits, narcissistic, or in the case of divorce too involved with pursuing other women. The end result is emotional neglect and a loss of consistent nurturance.
Women, who have suffered from shadow fathers will unconsciously project that men in her life will emotionally abandon her, and withhold love as her own father did. This maladaptive way of protecting herself, can ultimately lead to failed relationships and real abandonment.
A little girl who had a father that she remembers, but was later abandoned by him, usually internalized that abandonment, even sometimes blaming herself for not being lovable enough, and can grow up being fearful that all future males will probably do they same. This sets up some real unconscious negative projections that often play out in mature women, who have developed little trust in males, and might even unconsciously seek out males who are unable to invest in a committed relationship.
I have often noticed in young teens and some adult women, who have suffered from this tragedy, a tendency of becoming promiscuous with men. Driven by a voracious need to have male relationships and be loved and valued by men, they prematurely use their sexuality as a way to get those needed attachments initially which can result in being used, misinterpreted, and even sadder, devalued in the end.
Little boys derive their sense of self and their self-esteem from their dad. Young boys are constantly looking to their father for male interaction that will validate their young manhood. This identification is essential and constitutes a framework that little boys will build upon that will determine how they see themselves .
Of major concern is that the little boy is mirrored back consistently unconditional love, approval and encouragement from the father. This is internalized and becomes the foundation of a boys self-esteem.
If a boy grows up with a shadow father, or a critical and demeaning father, that rarely validates him, he will suffer by feeling generally inadequate and unsure of himself. This translates also to how he will projet other males in general to relate to him as an adult.
This poorly formed self-esteem in males can often lead to a constant striving to “prove oneself’, or being a driven overachiever, which is precipitated by the unconscious need to finally some day obtain his father’s approval and affection. I have seen many men who have suffered in this way, constantly trying to prove to themselves and the world their self-worth.
Worst is abandonment, as in boys they can often feel totally devalued as men and with a self-depreciation that may open them up to total under achievement and possible delinquency. Having no male anchor to nurture them, they can end up angry and resentful, especially when deprived of a loving available mother, who might be exhausted from being the total breadwinner.
Unfortunately in American society, there is a subcultural tendency in some marginalised African-American men, most who have been abandoned in their own childhood to repeat the abandonment of their own children. This abusive behavior has been passed down throughout generations resulting in very negative socioeconomic implications.
Fathers also serve as models on how men should react and relate to maintain healthy relationships with women in their lives. A father who is abusive to his wife, or chronically unfaithful , or devalues her, mirrors back to his son these abusive behavioral traits that some sons will incorporate in future relationships with women.
Because women can never replace the uniqueness of fatherhood, in the case of abandonment or loss; seeking out healthy male relationships for their children, can often serve as wonderful replacements, even if they don’t live within the household. I have seen patients who were beautifully nurtured by stepfathers, grandfathers and even uncles.
Honorable and real men honor, love, provide for, and protect that which proceeds from their own flesh. To be a father is a blessing that survives and surmounts all the vicissitudes of life. To be called father and have children rush into your arms with love and glee are certainly life’s most cherished treasures and joy.