Deadbeat Dads: The Traumatic Impact of Male Privilege

My Dear Readers,

The position I hold within the mental health community is a special one.  I am a clinical traumatologist, which means that I specialize in treating and studying trauma and its impact upon the human psyche.

Trauma in and of itself is unique. There are actually nine different types of trauma that a person can experience on a daily basis, and many of these types can occur simultaneously.

As both a healthcare provider and a member of the African-American community, I often assist others in responding to external traumatic impacts such as racism. However, I am choosing the year 2015 to focus on the impact of male privilege within the African-American community.

The reason for this focus is simple.  Trauma can be as deadly as a malignant cancerous tumor.  Unprocessed trauma can have long-term negative psychological effects.  So, what interests me is exploring how unprocessed trauma intersects with male privilege in the African-American community, and whether these effects are limited to just the African-American community.

First, let’s define the term.  Male privilege is a term for social, economic, and political advantages or rights that are made available to men solely on the basis of their gender. A man’s access to these benefits may also depend on characteristics such as race, sexual orientation and social class.

Male privilege occurs in communities regardless of race, so male privilege is not limited to the African-American community.  However, the impact of privilege manifests itself particularly in the African-American community as lack of access to education and opportunity, and the inability to achieve one’s full potential, both on the men themselves, and others who are impacted by their actions.

There are very few who would deny that racism has prevented African-Americans from full access to the places where key political, economic, and social decisions are made.  This denial, coupled with the way that black men are viewed and have historically been dealt with, has placed the African-American community in “survival” mode.

It is in this survival mode that the community has closed in to protect its males and in doing so, has granted benefits to them that have been denied to them by the larger and predominantly white society.   As the resources in the greater society available to black men decline due to the effects of incarceration, severe mental illness, drug addiction, homicide, and others, the African-American community continues to absolve men of specific responsibility and in doing so, reinforces male privilege.

This is having a devastating effect on and exacerbates traumatic outcomes within the African-American community by damaging the interpersonal relationships between men and women, and extending its harmful impact to children and adolescents.

This phenomena is better understood from the voice of a woman who, in telling her story, speaks on how male privilege has impacted her family.

Below is such a story………

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Dear Dr. Kane,

I hope you can help me.  I really don’t know what to do.  I am a black woman and the single parent of three children.  I have a son in college, a 14 year-old daughter, and my youngest, a girl,  is 4 years old.

I know that there are many other women in my situation, but I am writing out of concern for my children.  They have not seen their father since I divorced him two years ago after discovering he had an affair that resulted in another child.

Although we have three children together, my ex-husband was able to manipulate the system and was only ordered by the court to pay $500.00 per month for child support. Can you imagine, $500.00 a month when we have three children? It is even more sickening that he has refused to pay that.

In the two years since we divorced, he has not been consistent in his payments. In fact, the last payment I received from him was in November 2014 for the grand amount of $1.17.  You read that right—he sent his three children $1.17 which, if divided three ways amounts to $0.39 per child!  As a result, I provide for my children as much as I can on my elementary school teacher’s salary.

For a person who was too impoverished to pay child support, he’s spent thousands of dollars fighting for joint parental and decision rights and court ordered visitation.  Now that he has it, he refuses to contact his children regularly or be involved in their lives whatsoever. Although he lives no more than five miles away, he has not seen his children in two years.  My four-year-old has started to call one of the dolls she plays with “Daddy,” and lately, she has been calling her older adult male cousins “Daddy” as well.  When I sat her down and reminded her that these relatives were her cousins, she only smiled at me and did not respond.

I am also worried about her older sister.  She is a “daddy’s girl” and has taken it very hard that her father has refused to contact her.  She has become emotionally withdrawn and routinely isolates herself in her bedroom.  I am thankful that at least she continues to maintain excellent grades.    However, I know that my daughter is deeply hurt by her father’s actions.  When I ask her if she has contacted her father, she becomes silent.  I have attempted get him to contact her but he refuses to do so.  Instead, he tells relatives that I have turned the children against him.  I have never said anything negative to the children about their father.  Although the four year old is too young to understand, my other daughter is devastated by the lack of contact.

He does not do anything for his children.  There is no acknowledgment of their birthdays, and there are no gifts from him for Christmas.  He failed to attend his daughter’s graduation from middle school.  He refuses to pay any part of the cost of tuition and books for her private school.

Due to my financial situation, I was forced to sell the home we shared as a family, and we—my two daughters and I—are now residing with relatives. My teenage daughter lives in a room the size of an extended closet.  My four-year-old shares a bedroom with me.  She recently said to me, “I lost my daddy when we moved from the old house.”

I wish he would act like a man, act like a father.  Where is his sense of responsibility? What can I do?  For their sake, should I reach out to him again?

Pulling My Hair Out, Tacoma WA

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A WORD FROM DR. KANE 

As a traumatologist, I see a number of possible issues that face this family, both as individuals and as a whole.

The Female Parent

As I read, I can hear the guilt and powerlessness she feels regarding how the children are being affected.  She may begin to constantly question her choices in men, and as a parent, she may attempt to use herself to fill the place of the children’s father or seek out men to replace him.

As you can see from her letter, she is an excellent provider and role model for her children. She will often sacrifice her personal wants and needs to seek economic success for her children and encourage them not to copy her failures, particularly in choosing men.

It is feasible that that she will have trust issues when it comes to men and will  consciously and unconsciously communicate these concerns to the children.

The Eldest Son

The eldest son may feel shame regarding the actions of his father towards the younger children.  He may seek to “man up,” or elevate himself psychologically to the status of “man of the family,” as well as seek to distance himself from the traits he sees in his father.

As a young adult, he will become the protector of his younger female siblings. Like his mother, he will also sacrifice his personal needs and wants to protect them from further injury from other men, including their father. He will work hard to serve in the father role and will take on such duties as escorting his siblings to activities that require the father’s role or involvement.  He may be the one who, when the time comes, walks his sisters down the aisle of matrimony in his father’s place.

He will have to learn to balance his own unresolved feelings of anger and resentment towards his father with his commitment to being there for his siblings and finding himself as he enters adulthood.   He may also have difficulty developing intimacy with women as he seeks to prove to himself that he is not a “loser” like his father. He may have a sense of ongoing bitterness and unresolved anger that will last a lifetime as he continues to reflect on the reality of his father abandoning the family.

The Adolescent (Daddy’s Girl)

Not enough concern can be stated regarding this specific individual.  She may do well academically and excel in sports activities on the surface, but she will continue to harbor deep psychological pain due to her father’s abandonment.

She will be successful in masking her emotions, but it is highly likely that she will have deep and intense trust issues regarding relationships with men.  Such feelings will no doubt impact her ability to form interpersonal relationships with others, especially men.

The 4 Year-Old

Of all the individuals involved, this one is the most vulnerable.  She was two years old when her father abandoned the family.  Unlike her siblings, she only has fading memories of him.  As those memories continue to fade, in calling out “Daddy” to other men, she may be seeking to maintain some loose association with him.

Her comment regarding losing her daddy when the family moved from the old house shows that she is acknowledging the loss of her father, and as a result, the little memory of him that she has.  Her mother’s concern that “daddy issues” will be a continual presence in her life even as she enters adulthood is a very valid one. She may very well seek out father figures in her intimate relationships as she moves towards adulthood.

Concluding Words

There were several reasons why I chose not to write in my usual format for the Visible Man for this week’s entry, but the biggest one is that I wanted to focus on the impact that follows when a man uses his privilege—in this case, his ability and willingness to just walk away from the family he created. By doing this, he has not only increased the suffering of the four people directly involved, but he has created trauma in them that they will take into the larger community and into their interactions with others, creating more traumatic experiences for those they may encounter. From there, the trauma continues to spread, like ripples in a lake.

It is my hope that this blog will be a wakeup call to the numerous African-American men who have walked away from their families, showing them the impact of their actions, and as a call to action for political, social, and economic leaders within the African-American community to recognize and support those who are suffering in silence and the impact that mental trauma such as this has on the larger community.  The time to do something is NOW.

To Deadbeat Dad:

You have utilized your privilege to abandon your family. As you age and become frail, you may want and need the attention of the same children you have left behind. You will one day regret the way you have treated your children. You cannot hide from the truth of your actions.

As fathers we can make mistakes, and given the opportunity we can also take actions and learn from such mistakes.  Do not use the demise of your marriage as an excuse for abandoning your children.  This is not an error that can ever be corrected once your children have grown.

“To err is human” is a common expression, but we should not believe there is always room for error. In some cases there is no room for error. None.

One day, when you are fragile, you may have to ask your children for a glass of water.  If it is too late, you may have to understand how your actions have caused them to turn their backs to you.

Until the next crossroads…the journey continues…

 

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