A Child Needs the Emotional Presence of a Father
By Israel Helfand, M.S., Ph.D.
From The News-TImes, March 11, 1992
The first time I called my Dad to invite him out for dinner, my Mom answered the phone. I said, “Hi Mom, let me talk to Dad.”
My Mom said, “What’s wrong?”
I said, “Nothing’s wrong, let me talk to Dad.”
“Something must be wrong. Tell me.”
“Nothing’s wrong.” I said. “Put Dad on.”
My Dad finally came to the phone. He said, “What’s wrong? Do you need money? Are you in trouble? What’s going on?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” I said. “I thought it would be nice for you and me to spend some time alone together.”
“Why?” he asked again, a bit more agitatedly. “Are the kids OK? Is your wife OK?”
“Yes. everything is OK,” I reassured him. “I want to spend some time alone with you.”
“OK,” he said. “But why don’t we bring the women?”
I said, “Because that wouldn’t be you and me spending time alone together.”
He was confused, but we went out. That was almost a year ago. Now I go out with my Dad on a regular basis. I see him more now than I ever did in my childhood, and it feels very special.
A father is a role model in a child’s life. For a son, he is a role model of what it means to be a man. If the father is emotionally and physically available to his son, he grows up with a warm, secure feeling. Unfortunately, our society dictates that men spend long hours away from home, and children grow to maturity without the emotional or physical presence of a father.
It has been estimated that fathers spend an average of 37 seconds a day with their infant sons, and one hour a day with their adolescents. These figures are for intact families. After divorce, 50 percent of adolescent children have no contact, 30 percent have sporadic contact and 20 percent see their father once a week or more. Average it all out and fathers spend approximately 10 minutes a day with their children. Samuel Osherson, in “Finding Our Fathers,” says, “We have been sitting on a psychological time bomb within the younger pneration of men and women now coming of age… I believe that the psychological or physical absence of fathers from their families is one of the greatest underestimated tragedies of our times.”
Because of the workplace orientation of our society, boys who grow up in relatively healthy family environments are raised as rivals to prepare them for a life of competition in the real world of men.
In a family without a father’s presence, that message gets distorted. The boy begins to look toward his peers more for life’s initiations, for acknowledgment, and for validation. A 13-year-old boy is not necessarily the healthiest to validate an 11 or 12-year-old boy’s behavior. In the cities in particular, we’re finding initiations in terms of gangs of kids where rape or carrying a gun or stealing or taking drugs is part of the initiation. It’s a very different initiation than a loving rather would give to a son.
By society’s standards today, men who grow up without the presence of father believe they are leading productive lives. The reality is that we have to look at how they are defining success. If they’re defining success by a good job, career progression or money — yes, But if success is defined in terms of psychosocial and spiritual achievement, then the answer is no.
Alexander Mitscherly observed and studied fatherless men over the last 30 years. He discovered that when a boy did not see his father work, and did not spend time with his father, a hole, or a space, opened in the boy’s psyche. This hole was not filled with a sense of his father being a white knight or a hero. It was filled with a sense of demons, of suspiciousness of older men, and of insecurity.
When a father is not present for a son, the son learns to be more dependent upon his mother. He carries this dependency upon women into his relationship when he gets married, and he is needy. This man, who is really not a man, but an old boy, psychologically speaking, is married to a woman from whom he requires a tremendous amount. He needs her to be his best friend, his lover, his confidant, his critic (if she does it right), his maid, parent to his children, his social director, and so on . Many times wives, like mothers, feel overwhelmed. They feel that their time isn’t their own, their body isn’t their own, and their mind isn’t their own. In some cases. divorce is an extreme form of a woman seeking her individuality from a needy husband.
We have to do the work that our fathers never did. If our fathers were wounded by their fathers’ absence, abuse or neglect, and they never addressed it, owned it, worked on it, or even talked about it, then in order to change the cycle, we must do some of these things. The father who works can share with his son that he wishes he could spend more time with his son. Most men would give their right arm to have heard that from their fathers.
At dinner with my Dad one evening, I shared with him some of the work that I’m doing with men, how men sacrifice their family life to work long hours to provide for their families, and give them what they never had. I went on to explain how their children grow up resenting it. He asked me if I was upset with him for working long, hours.
I said, “Yes! I was upset with you. I missed you. I wanted you to be around more. And when you were around, it was pretty clear to me that you had already given all you had at the office and there was nothing left for me.”
He looked at me and said, “You know, I would have never thought of that.”
I got the distinct impression that he was saying something else to me. He was saying, “I don’t envy you and your generation because you’re more of a generation of thinkers than we were. You not only have the responsibility of providing for your family, as we did, but you also want to be emotionally present. Good luck. I don’t know how you’re going to do it.”
Yes, Dad, you’re right. Doing it. That’s our challenge.