I’ve been repeatedly invoking my belief that the clues to adult behaviour lie along the childhood spectrum. When I recollect my past in these columns, the responses tell me that I am touching chords. Many have written and called to share how they too have been affected.
I am always struck by two things: how common these experiences are; and how many people feel isolated, thinking that nobody would understand because nobody else has felt what they have.
We’re conditioned to be silent; to block it out and move on for fear that speaking about things will condemn us to the judgements of others.
Some take it on the surface and suggest that I am just idly meandering down nostalgic byways; sharing personal stories for entertainment. Those aren’t casual excursions. I have been trying to encourage readers to reflect on how early experiences have shaped their perspectives and the way they experience the world as adults.
If I have to dig in and dredge up to try to illustrate what I mean, then I am prepared to do so. I understand why I abhor violence precisely because I consciously looked into the past to find the root. Many of us cannot bear to do so as it can be an extremely painful experience. Revisiting unhappiness could never be a simple journey, but sometimes it can help us to understand why we do what we do in our lives today.
A recent conversation about a particular kind of fatherhood reinforced what I’ve been saying. It wasn’t about an absentee father—not in the sense that he was nowhere in the picture. It was about a man who left his family to pursue a different path, but continued to impose himself, like an unwelcome dictator, in their lives. He had removed himself, but had not disappeared.
For years, the impact of the absentee father has been discussed. It is not new; neither is it a local phenomenon. This society has tried to evaluate what role the loss of a male figure—a role model—plays in the process of growing up.
The focus is often on the impact on boys and the resulting concepts of what constitutes masculinity. That notion of masculinity had been constructed within the realms of power, control, ownership and superiority. It goes back a long way, and still exists.
We struggle now because those ideas have been challenged. The power dynamics have changed, and there is resistance at several levels. Sometimes it leads to meaningful debates; but frequently it descends to bitter and quarrelsome exchanges; and too often ends in violence.
Regional statistics tell us that we live with a very high percentage of single-parent homes headed by women. For all kinds of reasons these women have been left with the responsibility of bringing up children; more often than not without financial help.
The absent father is not always anonymous; but he does not present the figure of a positive role model. What value would his presence have brought?
He has left behind a world of bitterness; a cauldron of rage that simmers at the unfairness of this life of hardship; and often a rejected heart that bleeds in solitary pain. He becomes the reference point for all ‘evil’.
These mothers, these souls left to soldier on; what face might they be wearing under these circumstances? In frustration and despair what songs do they sing to their hapless children?
“You just like your father!”
It is a slap; not a compliment. Sons and daughters face the brunt of these forms of verbal abuse on a daily basis. One thoughtless action; one forgotten errand; one misguided deed—any of these can provoke an avalanche.
“You just like your father!” That is the opening line for any manner of follow-ups. “You lazy, you good-for nutten, you doh care about nobody but yourself; you doh help; you ungrateful…”
You can fill in personalised additions.
“No matter what I do, all of allyuh will always be for your father!”
She is doing what she can; but what can she do?
The point is that children are not just affected by the absence of one parent; they are also subjected to outbursts triggered by the volatility of the situation and the temperament of the parent left behind.
What is the message of the daily word?
Essentially it comes down to this: your father is bad. You are like him; so you are bad. This applies to sons and daughters.
But there are other aspects—there are no simple scenarios or explanations. A child sees the struggles of the parent, maybe not all the elements, but enough to form an impression, and feels helpless.
The child might wonder why things have to be so unfair, so hard for the parent. Is it because they were weak and vulnerable?
The child might resolve that they would never let themselves get into that position; might decide that they have to be hard and unfeeling to get by. Or they might feel rage at the world; a world that is capable of such injustice.
A child might look out and see others chirping along with a veneer of happiness, and want to erase it viciously.
What a child might not know—because nobody talks about it—is that under the veneer everyone has a story. A story that should be told.