In this podcast Damian Harman, Robert Falzon, Peter Gabauer and Damien Price shared about fatherlessness. Many who listened to this podcast or are reading this reflection are not fathers; some by choice, some by life’s mystery. Much of what the following reflection engages with is true for the other significant relationships in our lives. So while this discussion will have fatherlessness as its focal point – reflection upon its key messages will impact the journeys of every man seeking to be his best self.
Fatherlessness is a deeply painful issue in our society whose impacts rolls on from one generation to the next. It occurs when a father is not there for their child either physically or otherwise. It might mean that Dad is physically absent and/or simply that he has checked out. Maybe life hasn’t quite turned out as he expected and it has become a real slog: a battle for purpose, identity and balance in the roles of his life.
The perfect father does not exist. This isn’t a guilt trip for anyone who isn’t perfect – because that is all of us. This is about men striving to be the best fathers they can be rather than fading away when things get tough. This is about all of us, as fathers, remembering that it isn’t about us at all – it is about our children.
We get more training on how to run our VCR – three manuals written in 14 languages – than we do for the most important job of our lives. Our best training is the modelling that comes from our own fathers. As such, we will always be imperfect fathers, persevering with our own gut feelings and passion to be the best dad we can be.
The biggest issue with following the modelling that we receive is that often our families need to be raised in their own unique ways and we must be flexible and adaptable to their changing needs. Getting the balance right is so important. Too often we focus on our role as provider, thinking that getting the best job that earns us the most money is how we can be a great father. The demands to fulfill our role can be overwhelming, often meaning we neglect the other roles that we perform as husband, mentor and friend to our family.
While writing his books on the topic, Robert Falzon enlisted the help of Dr Peter O’Shea to gather the following statistics on Fatherlessness.
One in three families in Australia are fatherless
40% of our teenagers grew up without their biological father in the home.
Over a million Australian children go to bed tonight without their father and it’s mostly one parent and it’s mostly the mother.
Fatherless homes account for:
63% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes (U.S. Dept. Of Health/Census) – 5 times the average.
80% of rapists with anger problems come from fatherless homes –14 times the average. (Justice & Behavior, Vol. 14, p. 403-26)
85% of all children who show behavior disorders come from fatherless homes – 20 times the average. (Center for Disease Control)
71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes – 9 times the average. (National Principals Association Report)
75% of all adolescent patients in chemical abuse centers come from fatherless homes – 10 times the average.
What is it about fatherlessness that leads young people to become one of these statistics? Without a father, children are often left with their questions unanswered and a pervasive sense of never being good enough. It isn’t just absence that defines fatherlessness. Some fatherlessness occurs when fathers are present, but are harmful, violent, angry, alcoholic fathers that are absent in both their ability to answer and the way they take things from their children. The data on fatherlessness would suggest that this may sound familiar for a significant portion of our audience.
When we think about how to be the best father we can be, the question that has to sit in our hearts is: Whose needs am I meeting in all that I do? Because the number one thing that a man needs to do is learn to love those he’s being given to love the way they need to be loved. And that’s not an easy task, by any means! It is hard work. Importantly, it is this hard work that can change the trajectory of our children and family away from the realities of fatherlessness.
So many young men think they’ve got to be the ideal Dad. They’ve got to be perfect, tick all the boxes and live up to a particular image. They need to pay the bills, provide a home and make sure their family is safe and secure. Yet, as a father or a male role model, when you can give the affirmation and unconditional love required, you’re good enough just as the man you are.
A lot of men underestimate the impact of the role that they play as a dad and, in the process dilute the role down to that of the material and financial provider. However, we can forget that those things don’t matter as much to our family without the attention, affirmation and love from us, too. Our children hunger to be noticed and loved by their Dad, creating a sense of safety, security and confidence that goes far beyond our financial support alone. They want authentic engagement with their father that helps them to grow into themselves and navigate their world.
“My dad was a hard-working man… He came from an era where fathers didn’t say much – they were solid and often absent men. His silence and absence said to me that I’m not good enough. I don’t have what it takes to be a man. And these are not cognisant things, they are interior things. But there was no fatherly voice to change my interior monologue. Am I lovable? Can I be loved just for who I am?”
We all carry our own inner monologue, often filled with self-doubt. The danger is that when we as fathers remain silent and distant, our inner monologue is repeated in our sons and daughters, placing the burden of breaking that cycle onto the next generation of our families rather than resolving them here and now. It’s up to us to become aware of our own inner monologue and how it impacts both ourselves and our family and reclaim our space as a father. It’s up to us to break that cycle and foster positive and empowering inner and outer worlds for our children in the ways that we communicate our love for them. Our admiration and love for our children must shine through in response to what they do and, most importantly, who they are. And while we might do this imperfectly, the important part is that we improve on what we were given.
My father left the family home when I was three. So it was Mum and I at home. Through my teenage years I really yearned to know what it is to be a man and I was consistently looking for male figures to take an interest in me. There were some teachers that would take an interest in me and it meant a great deal to have that attention from a male figure in my life. As a teenager I lacked a lot of confidence; I was pretty much rudderless and tended to follow the group. My lack of identity even continued into my adult life. And I think that continued into my adult life.
When I left school I joined the police force and have been there for three decades now. At 35, an opportunity arose for me to join an elite tactical unit and I took that journey, long and arduous as it was, and worked within that unit for 8 years. Looking back, I think one of the things that motivated me at the time was I still had those questions:
“Am I good enough? Do I have what it takes?”
While I might have answered those questions with my work in the elite tactical unit, I feel as if they are still there for me. I feel as though I needed to hear those answers from someone else instead. I think we need those questions answered by our father, having him there to help you identify who you are and to know within yourself that you can do and achieve what you want to. Underneath all of our achievements is just a need for that father figure to just say, I love you. We need to feel that answer not just in our minds, but deep within ourselves. That’s the power of hearing those words spoken aloud.
It’s taken a long time to heal and it’s obviously still an ongoing process. However, I have the support of some great and solid brothers to help me confront the issue of Fatherhood. That has meant forgetting my father. I did see him in hospital before he died of brain cancer, but I’ve never been able to have any dialogue with him. So my own Christian faith and prayer has been important in allowing me to forgive him. The fact that he wasn’t there for me is not for me to carry.
As a father now, I try not to take myself too seriously and I focus on being an encouraging presence in the life of my children. I have learned a lot from the fathers around me growing up and continue to do so from the other fathers I see in my life now. I always watch how other fathers interact with or discipline their children and I get a lot from that.
One thing that makes me feel quite sad is seeing men who, as they and their children get older, are still holding onto some anger as it creates such a hardness about them. Forgiveness of our past hurts is so important. So I think you have to learn to forgive and let go – there is no value in bringing that anger and hurt into your relationship with your children. What we don’t resolve, we project – we all have to do that work to avoid projecting our own deep sadness and anger onto our children.
There is a great quote by G.K, Chesterton where he writes:
Regarding your article ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’
We can no longer excuse ourselves from becoming the father that our children need us to be because of the pain we feel about our own fathers. If things are wrong with the world, the first (and sometimes only) thing that we can change is ourselves. This is all part of our journey of manhood and fatherhood – recognising that we are in control of our own behaviour and responses and doing the work on ourselves so that we can be better men for the ones we love. If we want to be the best father and husband we can be, we are responsible for making that happen. This could mean a change of focus on that material world that we so often get stuck in, to being clearer about our values and how we actively embrace and live them out daily.
Have you ever noticed yourself making a smart-ass comment to your children and instantly regretting it? Or maybe the kids are having some noisy, silly fun while you’re trying to get some work done and you snap at them in the hope of some quiet. These are the moments where you could employ the Five Second Choice. Take the five seconds before responding to ensure that what you give to your children is in line with the kind of father you want to be for them. The five seconds might change your response to your children, or it could allow you the time to communicate honestly and openly how you are feeling in a less abrupt and more authentic way. Communicating with your children when you aren’t feeling on top of your game helps them to see that you are real and you are human, giving them a great role model for how to communicate and work through tough days. This strategy can even be useful when being asked for advice. Taking five seconds to think, or even to acknowledge that you don’t always have the answer is all a part of giving your children your most authentic response.
A great default response that we can all work on is to simply laugh at ourselves and with our children. Too often, we are the serious man whose role is to provide, punish and protect. This man misses out on the authentic relationships with his children: the fun, the silliness, the authentic and vulnerable expression that comes with it.
Making an impact for your children means getting on their level and into their world. This could be quite literal for our younger children. Time on the floor, engaging in things that they are interested in allows them to feel your presence, attention and love. For our older children communicating these things may require a bit more nuance. It could be a simple pat on the shoulder to let them know you are there and that you see them. It could be the courage to tell them you’ve noticed they aren’t feeling themselves and that you are always there to chat things through. It may mean taking time away from work emails or the television to kick a ball, play some video games or listen to their favourite music together. Wrestling with your children and helping them explore their own strength can leave your children with treasured memories of your smell and your touch. Above all, they need us to be real rather than perfect – authentic in our presence and our words. While we may get it wrong from time to time, gifting our presence and giving voice to our imperfect love prevents our silence from becoming deafening and defining.
Without the manual on being a great father, we are all a work in progress in this most important role. While we may not always get it right, persevering is what is important. Investing time in each of our children individually can help to understand what each of your children is interested in, but also what it is that they need most from you. One might need regular chats over a coffee; another some time kicking a footy or watching a show together; some just need us to waste some time with them. What is important is tailoring your presence with that child to suit their individual interests and needs so that they can experience their father most authentically.
Within this world of technology and social media, spending this time with your children may mean kidnapping them! Get them away from the phones, the computers, the television. Get them out into the bush or the beach and teach them how to light a campfire, ride a surfboard or set up a fishing rod. Giving your children the space to not only get in touch with nature, but to engage with the wisdom and patient loving of their father builds memories for our children that reinforce what it means to be loved.
Damian Harman said, most beautifully, on loving his children authentically:
“Often, I would love my kids the way I needed to be loved. They didn’t need to be loved that way. Most of them needed time with me. Life is so busy and intense and love has a speed. And it’s not mine. Love has a speed. And it’s the speed of the person you want to love. I had to learn and slow down to the pace where love became love again, and not a task that I was trying to do. And the business of life was and still is an enemy for me. But my children, my children want me to be at their pace at their place and their space so that I could experience them and they could experience me and then they would say: I feel loved. Love those you’ve been given to love the way they need to be loved.”
One thing that can help us to regularly impart our wisdom and love for our children in ways that build great memories and relationships are through our traditions and rites of passage. Our traditions could be as simple as being a hugging family or Friday night take away and board games. We could take annual holidays or put up Christmas decorations together. Some of these traditions may be more important to you and some may resonate more with your children. The important point is that they are carved out space that your can congregate as a family to remind yourselves who you are and of the love you have for one another.
As a father, providing a rite of passage for your children is a great way to pass on your wisdom and help them to feel valued. It could be through a fishing or camping trip that teaches a few life skills and some resilience, or through a father-daughter date to highlight how a man should respectfully act towards women. The wisdom that you offer will rarely be solely verbal. Our presence and our actions with our children offer them concrete evidence of our love for them and a role model to follow.
As men, we often forget we are also HUMAN. No one is perfect and each one of us has our own feet of clay. All of the Supermen we see in our lives will have their own kryptonite or pain and scars of their past. As we go through our lives, our priorities will change and things that used to matter may no longer mean as much to us. It’s so important that we focus on living in the present and making the most of the things we have now. If we are carrying those past hurts and pains – potentially the unresolved anger or sadness towards our father – it can be hard to do this! Holding onto our anger and resentment is much like drinking poison and hoping that someone else will die! We must work to let go of our hurt and forgive: forgive life, forgive our fathers and, most importantly, forgive ourselves. This forgiveness allows us to begin a new and truly authentic phase of our life. And that is a gift, not just to us, but to our children – the imperfect, slightly broken, but truly authentic and loving father that they need in their lives.
For some of us it may mean going to their burial place and spending some time saying the things you wanted to say and placing your hand on his tombstone and forgiving. Maybe it means writing a letter to your father, putting a stamp on it and posting it. Let the letter go wherever you want it to go – the important part is that you have said all that you wanted to say and put it out into the universe.
Sometimes, we will realise that we are the father who needs to be forgiven. Just as making the effort to forgive our father and ourselves is important and liberating, asking your family for forgiveness when you know you have been your imperfect self can be humbling and set a great example of humility, integrity and responsibility for our children to follow.
This journey of fatherhood is not one that has to be done alone! Find two or three men, and commit to being journeymen together. Be vulnerable, share your wounds, share your life. Find a community of brothers, a band of brothers that are going to love you warts and all, and share your life with them and become authentic with them. Learn together how you can best be the men that your children need you to be.
Fatherhood is not easy, but by God, it is an adventure! Being a dad is about being in a relationship with your children. Sometimes you will need to say no. Sometimes you will need to push your children and let them know they are capable of more. Sometimes you will be agreeable, sometimes you won’t be liked. But through it all, you must love fiercely and unconditionally, and you will be loved in return.
Rob, Damian, Peter and Pricey