Healing the Wounds of Father Loss
Written By: Mark Smith
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In my experience as a therapist, I have discovered that one of the most common and powerful root-causes for all sorts of "dysfunctionality," for both men and women, is having been abandoned by their fathers during childhood. Father abandonment is almost epidemic in proportion. Affairs, divorce, depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, relationship addiction, sexual addiction eating disorders, workaholism, materialism, issues with trust, unrealistic fears, etc., can all be caused by father abandonment. Sensitive male leadership that is loving, consistent, hands-on and nurturing has been tragically rare in most families in past generations.
In my estimation, the most encouraging characteristic of this generation, from a mental health perspective, is the prevalent new breed of active, connected, committed, present fathers. They are now the rule, rather than the exception. A whole generation of children are now growing up knowing how it feels to be nurtured consistently by their fathers.
Common symptoms of father abandonment in men include workaholism, obliviousness, self-centeredness, grandiosity, unaccountability, addictive behavior, rage, control, and then, ironically, abandoning their own children. Stereotypical traits in father-abandoned women include being addicted to attention from men, low self-esteem, issues with jealousy, food addiction, depression, and a pervasive feeling of emptiness. Many women are also now joining their brothers in trying to win dad's attention through achievement and workaholism.
Women who were abandoned by their fathers invariably instinctively select a mate who ultimately abandons them as well. This is one of the most common patterns that we see in alienated marriages. Getting rid of husband #1 who abandoned by having affairs is not the answer because then these women instinctively select husband #2 who abandons by being workaholic, and then husband #3 who abandons by perhaps playing too much golf. Women like this unconsciously seek to be abandoned so that they can indirectly process their issues of father abandonment with their husbands.
There are so many different ways that fathers can abandon their children. For the most part, in this article I am not referring to men who actually leave the home. Fathers can abandon their children by over-focusing on a variety of both good and bad things: TV, work, alcohol, gambling, sports, hunting, fishing, computers, pornography, household projects, reading, etc.
How well were you fathered? How much truly quality, intimate, child-focused time were you privileged enough to bask in with your father? How has your lack of quality fathering affected your adult relationships and your parenting style? The scripture tells us that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children and upon the children's children to the third and fourth generation. If your father was not there for you, for whatever reason, you can tell yourself that it hasn't affected your adult life, but you would be fooling yourself to believe that. The love that we received or didn't receive as we grew up serves as the foundation of our personalities. At this point in the game, is it actually possible to heal such deep childhood wounds? It is possible, but it is neither fun, nor easy. Know that you are far from being alone in having this issue. Actually, almost everybody you know probably has some experience with father abandonment.
At Family Tree Counseling Associates, our approach to the business of therapy might be considered somewhat unorthodox by some. We believe that we can best teach our clients about the process of emotional healing by sharing openly from our own family experiences. The feedback that we have received about this practice has been overwhelmingly positive. It helps the client to see the therapist as a human being rather than as a distant, cold, authority figure. In that spirit, I would like to share some of my own journey, with the hope that it might be helpful to some of you in your efforts to understand and resolve your father issues.
I certainly would be counted in the ranks of the father abandoned. As I was growing up, my father was a nice, passive, distant, extremely distracted figure who seemed much more interested in playing bridge, watching sports, reading the paper, and avoiding my mother at all costs than he was interested in me or my siblings. I have only one memory of ever going someplace with him alone; he took me with him once to give blood. I felt so special that day to be introduced as "the #2 son," and to be given juice and cookies. When we did talk, it was about our beloved Pittsburgh Pirates. I don't really remember missing him; it was just the way it was.
However, when I grew up and had my own children, a growing sense of hurt and anger towards my father began to come up for me. He still was emotionally cut off when he was around me. It was as if a bubble of narcissism surrounded him twenty-four hours a day. I couldn't help but take it personally. He continued to ignore me, ignore my children, and put his addictive behavior first. I was bitter, and I would occasionally criticize, and even rage at him. Finally, I resigned myself to being as emotionally cut off from him as he was from me. To be completely honest, I questioned whether or not I would attend his funeral, were he to die.
At a recent conference a concept jumped out at me; the speaker said that we ourselves could heal wounds and become healthier and more individuated if we took the initiative to repair the emotional cut-off in the relationship within our families.
My father grew up in Butler, Pennsylvania. His mother was 14 years old when he was born. From what I could gather, his stepfather was mean and abusive to him. When my father joined the Air Force at age 18, he never looked back. I remember only one visit to Butler during the entirety of my childhood. He indicated to me that there really wasn't anything good whatsoever with the whole town. He had two brothers and three sisters who might as well have fallen off the face of the earth. I knew nothing of what made him into what he was.
If I was to gain some understanding and perspective concerning my father's flaws, I was going to find it in Butler, Pennsylvania. So, during the recent July 4th weekend, a friend and I took off on our motorcycles for Butler. What I found there was a long lost piece of myself.
My Aunts Ginny and Nellie and their husbands were gracious enough to meet with me. I'm sure they thought I had arrived from outer space. Within a few minutes of making their acquaintance we were knee-deep in painful family history. They explained that my father held a grudge against all of them, and against the town itself. They explained that he had never in his childhood ever really had anybody to protect, nurture, and love him. They explained how his biological father denied over the phone that he was his father. They told a heart-wrenching story of how my father's stepfather had once thrown a glass baby bottle, of all things, at my father's face, causing a cut. It also caused hate.
My Aunt Ginny gently pleaded with me to be gracious, forgiving, and understanding with my father. She said that he could not be a father because he had never had one. She said that he always wanted just one thing-to be left alone. His need for that has not changed. They told me that no family was really close. They also said that my father had loved my mother with all his heart (at least as much as he was capable).
It was a wonderful trip. I got what I was looking for. It is interesting how issues and themes reoccur in families. I had always been very comfortable with Appalachian folk. It turns out that I'm one of them. I learned a fun new word-"youins". I was inspired to learn that my long lost relatives had been praying for us all these years, and that we shared a common faith. Mainly, I gained a peace within myself from the trip. At long last I was able to forgive my father. As a result, I am sensing a greater connection with and neediness for closeness with my three kids. A large chunk of my father abandonment wounds were worked through by connecting with about the only part of him that was available to me: his, I mean MY, family.
Are there any broken branches in your family tree? We are who we came from. In the classic book focusing on how one generation impacted the next-Roots-when Kunta Kinte observed all the slaves around him who had completely lost their African sense of identity, he vowed within himself that he would never let his descendants forget who they were nor what family and tribe they had come from. I hope that my words might stir you to look deeply within. There is a little kid in all of us who needed a daddy. What kind of legacy are you leaving as fathers, men? Your children need you desperately. Our actions reverberate through generations. If you had some things come up for you concerning dad issues that you need to explore, give us a call. Let's talk.
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