Insight News

Feb 13th

Growing Up Without a Father: The Impact on Girls and Women

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In his book, Life Without Father, David Popenoe, wrote: “Growing up without a father may be a root cause of many social ills—from crime to academic failure.”  In a sense, it is easy to assume that fathers play powerful roles in the lives of their sons and daughters.  When I think of my father, words like “tall, funny, strong, handsome, religious, available, patient, protective, wise, respected, tender-hearted, safe, responsible, and loving” come to mind.  He was twenty-two years older than my mother was and was sick most of my life (with coronary disease).  He had six heart attacks by the time I was six years old. 

My father and mother raised five boys and two girls and were married for over thirty-five years before he died.  I never once saw him hit her or curse her out, although he was the brunt of many of her “less mature” tirades around the house.  Though a quiet man, when he said something (anything) that indicated that he was not happy with us, his quiet voice was raised just enough to be as scary as a lion’s roar.  We all calmed down when he got angry (even my mom).  He had a way of letting us know that we had gone too far and easily warned us to back down.  Just as equally, if you were one of his children you would realize that he would shout when he was filled with the Holy Ghost, hug you and say he loved you, or jerk you up off the floor by your collar, if you started acting like you’ve lost your mind, talked back and went “crazy.”  At the same time, he could tear up (without shame) at movies like “The Imitation of Life” or when one of his children did something disappointing or when one of us made him proud.  My father was a real Black man.  We all loved him and felt very much loved by him.  While we were lucky enough to have the type of father that we had, many children have not been as fortunate.

According to a new Pew Research survey (2010), seven-in-ten respondents (69%) tend to agree that a child needs a father in the home to grow up happily.  Only 27% disagree with this statement, and 4% are not sure.  Survey respondents were also asked how important it is to have a mother in the home.  Their agreement that a child needs a mother in the home was only slightly higher—74%.  Although several successful people describe growing up without having their biological fathers around, the presence or absence of a father in the home is of critical importance when it comes to learning the successful navigation of different areas in life.  President Barak Obama and Dwayne Wade are examples of successful people who have managed to make it in life “in spite of” the absence of their biological fathers.  Yet, my friend and colleague, Eric Mahmoud, CEO of Harvest Prep School, frequently shows a social learning videotape that supports the notion that even male elephants only learned how to act like male elephants when older male elephants were available as role-models to teach them the appropriate behaviors. 

Despite their importance in the home, researchers have described the decline of fatherhood as one of the most basic, unexpected, and extraordinary trends of our time.  In 1960, only 11% of children in the U.S. lived apart from their fathers.  By 2010, that share had risen to 27%.  Additionally, fathers’ living arrangements are strongly correlated with race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status as measured by educational attainment.  Black fathers are more than twice as likely as white fathers to live apart from their children (44% vs. 21%), while Hispanic fathers fall in the middle (35%).  Among fathers who never completed high school, 40% live apart from their children.  This compares with only 7% of fathers who graduated from college.

On the average, just over half (55%) of men with biological children are married to the biological mother of all of those children.  An additional 7% of biological fathers are cohabiting with the mother of their children.  On the other hand, Black biological fathers are far less likely than white biological fathers to be married to the mother of their children.  Some 36% of Black biological fathers are not married, compared with 59% of whites.  Among Hispanic biological fathers, this share is 50%.  Similarly, fathers under age 30 are less likely than older fathers to be married to the mother of their children.  Yet, more than half of fathers ages 20-24 (53%) and 25-29 (62%) are still in a relationship—marital or cohabiting—with the mother of their children.

Now days, there is a lot of discussion about the role of men in the lives of their sons.  On the other hand, there is much less mention of the roles of fathers in the lives of their daughters.  One example of someone who has looked at the roles of dads in the lives of girls was the producer of the documentary, Daddy Hunger, Ray Upchurch.  In his film, Daddy Hunger, Mr. Upchurch courageously addresses the absence of fathers in the home and the community as he looks into the lives of convicted murderers, pimps, single mothers, and fatherless children. 

Likewise, psychological studies addressing the impact of fathers on both the biological and emotional development of girls show equally compelling evidence that girls are in need of fathering.  For example, in one study, a team led by psychologist Bruce Ellis of the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, England, followed more than 700 girls from preschool to age 17 or 18, monitoring 10 different aspects of their lives including family income, behavioral problems, exposure to violence and parenting styles.  The study confirmed that teenage girls raised without fathers are more likely to suffer from depression, drop out of school, and have other behavioral problems.  In another landmark study published by ScienceDaily (Sep. 27, 1999), researchers revealed that a young girl's relationship with her family--especially with her father-- may influence at what age she enters puberty, according to Vanderbilt University researchers.  The study looked at 173 girls and their families from the time the girls were in pre-kindergarten until they were in the seventh grade.  Girls who had close, positive relationships with their parents during the first five years of life tended to experience relatively late puberty, compared to girls who had more distant relationships with their parents.  More specifically, the researchers found that the quality of fathers' involvement with daughters was the most important feature of the early family environment in relation to the timing of the daughters' puberty so that girls growing up in father-present conditions reach puberty later than girls growing up without a father present.  

The information is important because multiple studies show that when girls reach puberty younger, they become sexually active earlier and are more likely to get pregnant in their teens.  Daughters of single mothers are 53% more likely to marry as teenagers, 111% more likely to have children as teenagers, 164% more likely to have a premarital birth and 92% more likely to dissolve their own marriages.

Researchers have found that when girls entered puberty later, they generally had fathers who were active participants in care giving; had fathers who were supportive to the girls' mothers; and had positive relationships with their mothers.  However, it was the fathers' involvement, rather than the mothers', which seems to be paramount to girls' physiological development.  The researchers believe that girls have evolved to experience early socialization, with their biological "antennae" tuned to the fathers' role in the family (both in terms of father-daughter and father-mother relationships) and that girls may unconsciously adjust their timing of puberty based on their fathers' behavior.

In her paper, “Fatherless Women: What Happens to the Adult Woman who was Raised Without her Father,”  Gabriella Kortsch, Ph.D. reports that  girls who live without a father do so not only due to death, abandonment, or divorce, but also due to physically present fathers who are emotionally absent.  She concludes that fathers may be also be absent over lengthy periods in other ways due to factors such as clinical depression, chemical addiction, terminal disease, or because of workaholism.  She further adds that, at times, parental alienation occurs in some fashion because the parents cannot get along with each other or the father is a disappointment to the daughter, as might be the case in a weak or ineffectual father.  According to Dr. Kortsch, such differing types of absence in the girl's life may have major consequences of varying kinds, since healthy development requires some type of positive paternal role model.

Dr. Kortsch believes that “a little girl needs to see herself reflected in the love she sees for herself in her father's eyes.”  This is how she develops self-confidence and self-esteem, a healthy familiarity with what a positive expression of love feels like, and an appreciation for her own looks and her own body.  Likewise, having a father present is how she develops immeasurable skills that will help her become assertive, proactive, productive, and creative as she grows into adulthood. For example, an often-overlooked dimension of fathering is how these skills are passed on through play.

From their children's birth through adolescence, fathers tend to emphasize play more than caretaking.  Paternal play is both physically stimulating and exciting.  It frequently emphasizes teamwork and competitive testing of abilities.  In fact, the way fathers play affects everything from the management of emotions to intelligence and academic achievement.  It is particularly important in promoting the essential virtue of self-control.  At play and in other realms, fathers tend to stress competition, challenge, initiative, risk taking, and independence.  Mothers, on the other hand (as caretakers), tend to stress emotional security, and personal safety.  Father's involvement seems to be linked to improved quantitative and verbal skills, improved problem-solving ability, and higher academic achievement for children.  Men also have a vital role to play in promoting cooperation and other "soft" virtues.  Involved fathers, it turns out according to one 26-year longitudinal research study, may be of special importance for the development of empathy in children.

Kortch further surmises that the early lack of a father is often played out in relationships.  Girls who have not been assured of their value often find it difficult to relate to men in healthy ways.  Girls looking for male attention may inappropriately over-value the attention of men.  We sometimes call them “fast” or promiscuous because they are looking for love in “all the wrong places.”  Sometimes, these girls are especially prone to abuse or victimization because they are so “love starved” that they tolerate relationships with poor boundaries.  For example, one teen-age girl that I saw in therapy said: “I like J.J. but he has two baby’s mommas…Although he stays with one of them, when they fight, he comes and stays with me.  I know he likes me the best…I just wish he would help me out with diapers sometimes.”

Another route chosen by women who have absent fathers in their lives is that they often fall in love with an older man and thus end up marrying a “daddy.”  My mother often said that her father was absent when she grew up and that it led to her marrying our dad because she wanted someone wise to take care of her. He said that he married her because he grew up without an education and she was a schoolteacher and was constantly learning with her around!  According to Kortch, as these May-December relationships evolve, if the man is emotionally mature, he will be able to allow his partner the necessary space and freedom to grow in some ways that are emotionally and psychologically necessary in order for her to become her own woman.  If, however, the man is not aware, and sees his wife’s search for growth as a threat to the superiority he felt upon marrying a young, and as yet undeveloped woman, he will attempt to stifle her and to manipulate her psychologically by making her believe she is worthless, silly, or, “needs professional help in order to calm down and behave like she used to before."

Kortch concludes that another possible outcome of growing up fatherless is that women will avoid relationships totally, or avoid the engagement of their emotions.  Example of this behavior include the maiden aunt, who dedicates her life to her nieces and nephews, or who becomes a teacher and dedicates her life to her career; the nun, who dedicates her life to God, or the prostitute, who, although she may engage her body, rarely engages her emotions.  Another example is that of the eternal seductress, who needs to remain in control by seducing the man and never actually involving her own feelings, like one of the characters in Tyler Perry’s film, for Colored Girls.  A slightly more difficult to recognize version of the same scenario is played out by the woman who consistently has relationships with married men who never leave their wives for her.  On an unconscious level, Kortch surmises that this suits the fatherless woman just fine because it gives her the perfect excuse never to have to commit herself totally.

When I think of my budding sexuality as a girl, I often think of my own father, who used to call me “chocolate drop.”  Even though boys tended to favor my sister, who was light-skinned, my father constantly reminded me that I was beautiful and smart.  I liked boys…they liked my sister.  Sometimes at dances, they would walk up to her and ask for a dance, when she declined, they would not even ask me (and I would have said “yes”), but, instead they would move on another dark skinned girl (with a reputation) or to the next girl with light skin.  One day I was so saddened by the lack of male interest that I went home in tears and cried for hours because of the blatant and rude rejection that I had experienced.  Luckily, when my father came home, he quickly tried to comfort me.  He said: “BraVada, boys are like this.  If they like a girl, they will pick her up and take her to movies and bring her back home on time--those are the kinds of girls they marry.  Then, after they drop her off, they go get the ‘other’ kinds of girls who will be with them in the back seats of their cars.”  He stopped me in my tracks when he asked:  “Which girl do you want to be?  The one they disrespect or the one they marry?”  He went on to tell me how precious and valuable I was and why nobody “in their right mind” could fail to see that.

Later, as I graduated from college (the night my father died), the last thing I recall him telling me was how beautiful I was and how proud he was of me…He said that he had waited all of his life to see a Garrett graduate from college.  I carried the voice of my father as I graduated as the first African American to get a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Texas Tech University.  I carried the voice of my father in my heart as I repeated my marriage vows to my husband twenty-four years ago.  I still carry the voice of my father in my spirit-every single day of my life.  I conclude this article by saying that girls need their dads, if they are good dads.  Being a father to a girl is more than creating a baby; it involves nurturing the spirit of someone who will live life in an opposite space than yours and leaving her with power, love, light, hope, and a feeling of being special and cherished by you.

BraVada Garrett-Akinsanya, Ph.D., L.P. is a Clinical Psychologist in private practice, serves as President of Brakins Consulting and Psychological Services, and is the Executive Director of the African American Child Wellness Institute.  The mission of the African American Child Wellness Institute is to promote the psychological and spiritual liberation of children of African Descent by providing culturally specific mental health services and by developing culture-based, holistic wellness resources, research, and practices.  Dr. Garrett-Akinsanya warns that this column should in no way be construed as constituting a therapeutic relationship through counseling or advice.  To forward a comment about this article or to make an appointment, please contact Dr. Garrett-Akinsanya by email @ This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or by telephone at 612-302-3140.


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