We Rise by Lifting Others: Coping with My Father’s Absence

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Publication Date
October 9, 2020

My parents were teenagers when they had me. An only child, I grew up feeling like I was a mistake because of the stories I heard. Neither of my parents had the skills, knowledge, or wherewithal to parent successfully. They could not provide the parental, economic, or household stability a child needs to flourish. Nonetheless, my mother, despite her age, the damage she survived, and lack of resources, did her best. My father’s story was different. He was incarcerated on and off from the time he was a juvenile. By the time I was born, he had already developed an addiction to alcohol and heroin. In his arms was still my favorite place to be. My parents divorced and my father exited my life before I turned 6 years old.  Despite his absence, I still can recall vividly how it felt to be held by his 6’ 4” frame and broad shoulders--like I was towering above the world nestled in the safest place possible.

 

Our home was filled with chaos, as one might expect of a household being run by teens and young adults. It was also weighed down due to economic insecurity and a lack of healthy male role models. I did not take my father’s absence well. It was then that I became withdrawn, and “tapes began to play in my head” that told me he left because I wasn’t good or lovable enough. My main coping mechanism was to engage in fantasy. And for years, my Barbie dolls were my solace. I created a family with a wonderful stay-at-home dad (“Dave”) who had three girls who adored him. The family story I created was complex. It involved divorce, remarriage, children struggling in school and in life. But through it all, Dave was the family rock who solved every crisis. It doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to figure out that I was creating the father (and family) I longed for.

 

Research shows that children who grow up without involved fathers often face myriad problems, such as poverty, behavioral problems, an increased likelihood to abuse drugs and alcohol and to drop out of high school. I managed to graduate from high school. But began to head down other paths of escapism in my early 20’s when my father overdosed and died. It was then that I knew I needed help to deal with his absence and death. I began working with a social worker who, among other things, strongly encouraged me to enroll in college. This changed my life. It allowed me to obtain mentors—my advisor and other professors—who believed in me and strongly supported my aspiration to obtain a college degree. And I did just that. It took me five years. But I was the first person in my family to get a bachelor’s degree, and I graduated summa cum laude and continued my education to earn a Ph.D. I thought these accomplishments would make me whole, healthy, and healed. I was wrong.

 

Although I have been able to clean up some of the debris of my father’s absence, I still carry some residual effects with me every day. I’m not complaining. In fact, I feel fortunate that I’m not bitter or resentful toward my father or other men, that I am not callused. The tender open wounds remaining have led me to a fulfilling career in the fatherhood field that started in graduate school. It has been healing work for me. It has given me the opportunity to be a part of a mission larger than myself and my life. This work has helped me release those old “tapes” playing in my head. It has afforded me the opportunity to develop a new perspective on my father and his life…and my own worth. Don’t get me wrong, some days I feel defeated before I even begin, but I’ve learned through the years, that if I take life one day at a time and do the next right thing, most days my mistakes are minimal and the old tapes stop.

 

I am grateful for the wonderful male and female mentors throughout my career in the fatherhood field. I’ve been exposed to men trying to be the best fathers they can be, good men who are real instead of imaginary. Men who give me hope for all the children who need them. Men who do for me what my father never could—remind me that I’m good enough. On my best days, I’m more than good enough. I’m able to see my life and my parents—and most importantly myself--from a transformed perspective. I am successfully supporting the efforts of fatherhood programs to strengthen families and, on a personal level, I’m able to help others on their road to recovery from father absence and other painful life issues.