Fatherless and broken

I’ve found it really difficult to engage with all the probably welcome public discussion and solution-seeking about fatherhood that culminated on Father’s Day two weeks ago. I can’t get past the starting point of almost all of it.

Fathering can be a wonderful thing in a child’s life. And God knows we urgently need to figure out ways to get more men to take responsibility for parenting the children we shoot out between our legs in pleasure. But the children who grow up without active fathers are not by definition damaged or incomplete. And we have to stop starting our conversations about revitalising fatherhood from that point, hush this re-emerging chorus about “broken families” I thought we had silenced in the 1970s. Else I just can’t bear to listen.

Children with active fathers in their lives have better outcomes, sure. But so do children with parents with higher education and incomes. And neither children from working poor families nor those who grow up in family forms that do not include a resident father deserve to be fed the deficit psychology some of our brightest male minds are peddling. If anything, children from other family forms need messages that counter stigma they will encounter from the ignorant.

Why have we returned to this public discourse about family pathology—oh, let’s admit it, AfroTrinbagonian family pathology? Is it a product of this new idea of male marginalization—male opinion leaders who feel men have been left behind by feminism’s empowerment of women and are fashioning fatherhood into something powerful and essential? They may not use the same words, but it’s eerily resonant of Christian evangelical efforts to restore men to their rightful patriarchal place as father-leaders. I heard the President give a Father’s Day backhand slap to mothers who do their best to raise their children alone, saying they could never be as good as fathers. Is this all just code for putting women back in their place? I think the reason is more complicated than that.

How much of this new wave of pathologisation of fatherlessness is merely a performance? At a major spoken word competition last year, one of the winners presented an evocative lament about an absent, wutless father (in the first person, like most spoken word)—with his cheering dad in the audience. In the real-world Caribbean family, the model two-parent formation hasn’t been normative over most of our cultural history, and our families are looking less and less like that. My friend Cathy Cohen, an African American scholar, talks about how bad the Obamas have been for Black families and public policy in the United States. Because their position as the US’s “first family” represents this yearning for respectable Black family as real, it shuts down efforts by Black political leaders to acknowledge and make policy based on what Black families actually look like.

So how come the nennen and godfathers who raised so many of us have all of a sudden become so bad for us? What is all this depth of mourning and anxiety about fatherlessness about? A friend from a “two-parent” home and I were chatting recently about the realness of some of this in the lives of many men we know. I’ve worked with and been in intimate relationships with men who hold rage about their missing fathers, men with addictions, with criminal records. But I don’t see any difference between that rage and their rage about other things they feel robbed and cheated of in life, because of their race or poverty or sexuality or even physical attributes they didn’t choose. A contributing father might have meant more money, more access, one more nurturer growing up.

But I wonder if their rage isn’t more about what we teach them about fatherlessness and what it means for their wholeness and dignity. If it isn’t our message, fundamentally, that’s the thing that is doing them injustice, robbing them of the very things we say we want fathers to provide for them.

This isn’t academic for me. My father left when I was five. So I’ve wrestled with all this stuff of fatherlessness and anger and longing and regret. It’s one of the reasons I’ve chosen not to parent (though it’s not the only one). And I don’t want other young people to grow up feeling “fatherless”.

Building a more nurturing, vulnerable and mature masculinity has got to be a shared goal in getting men to play more active roles in both parenting their own children and raising the village. A lot of that village work has been left to women, and Carmona is right that more men need to teach—as well as cook, and make a range of roles and work safe for younger men. But the way to foster greater male parenting and nurturing isn’t by stigmatising and devaluing the families that are living up to the responsibility of raising children in whatever form they can, and the children who are being lovingly parented within them, in favour of some ideal. We undermine their development when we perpetrate the culture that their families are deficient. They are the Caribbean families we have. And they are valuable families, each of them.

Fathering is good for children. Absolutely. But just like kids can grow up whole without having laptops or trips abroad or private school education and the best of everything, they can grow up whole without fathers. Or with two.

Forging the liberty to love: one nation…many bodies…boundless faith.

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