And Their Daughters
“Fighting Fatherlessness From Prison”
It was four years to the day since I had any contact with my daughter, Nikki. She was born months after I was sent to prison. Throughout the first six years of her life, Nikki and I spent nearly every weekend together in the prison visiting room. Nikki’s mother never loved me, nor I her, but money is important to single mothers and in her mind taking my daughter to spend time with me each weekend ensured that she would continue receiving enough to get by. I cherished those visits. Nikki did too. I was devastated when the Bureau of Prisons, for no apparent reason, decided to transfer me across the country and 2,500 miles from my home in New Jersey.
The visits ceased. The trip to Colorado simply wasn’t practical even when funds were available. It took me some time to deal with my loss, salve another emotional wound, and find a place to put the scar. At the new prison, convicts were dropping like flies and survival began to preoccupy my thoughts.
After several months, I stopped thinking about Nikki altogether. I could not meet the exigencies of penitentiary life while simultaneously dealing with the psycho baggage of losing a daughter, whom I only loosely had to begin with. This loss of my daughter chalked up as another reason to personalize my fight against the manner in which the U.S. deals with its social problems. I marched on.
This past New Year’s Day, however, I had arranged a telephone call with the now 10-year-old Nikki. We discussed school, her mother and sisters, and the man whom she refuses to call ?Daddy? and how he does not in her mind compare to myself. I listened more than I spoke and finally asked Nikki if she was happy with my gifts. Nikki replied that she was and began to reminisce about our last visit together four years ago and the present I had given her that day, which she still has.
Nikki began to cry and, when pressed, in the shaking voice of a repentant sinner, asked me why I no longer wanted her to visit. I nearly vomited and couldn’t answer for there was no truthful basis to her question. Apparently, when questioned about our lack of visitation, Nikki’s mother took an easy out telling Nikki that I did not want to see her. Avoiding the fact that her mother had outright lied to her, lest Nikki be left with no parent to trust, I explained that things were much more complicated, that I am very far from home, and that if we were to have visits where I am now incarcerated they would take place through a telephone and security glass. Nikki replied that she didn’t care. In truth, neither did I.
I did my best to assure Nikki of how special she is to me and how much I love and missed her. Then I lied to her. I told her that I’ve thought of her every day, which it turns out was only a partial lie as I have thought about her every day since. Changing the subject, she told me of a boy from school who had hit her, to which I nearly responded that he must like her but did not for fear that she may begin to misinterpret hurt for like. We said good-bye and promised to write. For a certified therapist, I did not handle the situation well.
Afterward, I replayed our conversation in my head - our lives over and over in my head - and realized that for all of the attention I had given to how having my daughter stripped from my life affected me. I never fully considered its permanent impact on Nikki.
I can admit that as a man I would never on my own have come to understand the various ways in which my absence may be devastating my daughter and her emotional growth and future. Were I to draw from my psychology schooling, still I would have failed to connect the proper dots in appropriate ways. After endless further research, I continue to be astonished over my ignorance. We are abusing our children with our absence, and boys and girls do respond to this abuse differently.
The male and female egos, with exceptions, generally operate fundamentally different. The average male ego, when confronted with loss or rejection, be it actual or perceived, does not naturally resort to self-evaluation. Rather, the rejected male attempts to identify that which is wrong with the rejecting individual instead of himself (an external reason for rejection) and, if that fails, takes the position that the rejecting individual is in any event unworthy of him. Thus, the male ego externalizes rejection through deflection and displacement.
The female ego, however, internalizes rejection. When confronted with rejection, actual or perceived, she often searches for flaws in herself, and will often find them, usually imagined as a basis upon which to rationalize and validate the rejection.# To the child and even adults lacking firm emotional intelligence, the absence of a father, whatever the reason, is often perceived as abandonment and rejection. A majority of the daughters of incarcerated fathers are asking themselves what is so wrong with them that they have been rejected by their fathers. Worse yet is that many have created answers. There are two statements, the truth of which I am comfortably certain:
1) Fatherlessness can and often does permanently damage daughters of absent fathers, and 2) From behind prison walls, incarcerated fathers can take steps to alleviate and possibly reverse at least some of that damage.
For the fatherless child, trying to sort out and deal with the psychological and emotional aspects of being rejected by one’s own father is an impossible task. How a fatherless daughter decides to understand and contextualize that absence, however, may result in life-long psychological traits and characteristics attending a variety of possibilities
Myriad factors relate to how a child deals with fatherlessness, including the presence or absence and permanence or transience of a surrogate father, familial structure and support, what she is told about the father and his absence especially from her mother, the presence or absence of siblings, the age and/or emotional intelligence of the child at the time the father becomes absent, the duration and quality of the relationship between child and father prior to his absence, and post-absence contacts. Surely this list is not exhaustive, but intended to assist in understanding that a variety of complex factors determine how the seed of fatherlessness will result in covert emotional trauma and grow into overt actions. Often, the fatherless daughter continues to contextualize and recontextualize the absence and perceived rejection subconsciously and throughout her lifetime. It appears that dealing with the issues consciously is the only means of warding off and recovering from the damage of fatherlessness.
One of the most basic and easily identifiable results of fatherlessness is the search for a father substitute, be it longing for a father-daughter relationship or specifics such as paternal love, approval, acceptance or protection. It does not appear relevant whether or not the absent father rationally could or would provide these things if he were present. The loss to the daughter is equally as real whether actual or merely perceived.
This search may lead to a variety of destructive behaviors, including eating disorders,, sexual promiscuity and the obsessive desire to have a child of one’s own from an early age. Fatherless daughters have a significantly increased rate of involvement in and of staying involved for fear of losing the seemingly accepting abusive mate/father substitute and reliving Daddy’s abandonments and rejection over again.
Moreover, fatherless daughters are prone to becoming not only victims of but masochists for abusive male dominance and sexual oppression. The pimp-prostitute dynamic is one of classic example. Many will physically abuse their own children, especially daughters. Few develop in the opposite direction, forsaking, hating and abusing men (often a son). Given these relationships with men, most will go on to have children who will also become fatherless, thereby perpetuating the cycle. And father-daughter and mother-son relationships during childhood development directly correlates to cross-gender relationships and social skills in adulthood.
The psychological turmoil of fatherlessness may also manifest itself in a variety of other ways, most notably the obsessive drive to please everyone at one’s own expense (often to complain afterward in martyr fashion), chronic fatigue syndrome, perfectionism, andaddictive personality disorder.
The majority of psychological and emotional responses to fatherlessness in women are of a depression variety. Self-hatred and feelings of worthlessness lead to higher drug abuse and suicide rates in fatherless daughters. With loss and often perceived abandonment and rejection comes shock, anger and bitterness, feelings of betrayal and unfair treatment, insecurity and the quest of the child to determine what is so wrong with her that she has been abandoned by her father or what it was that she (or her mother) has done to make him leave. Daughters with masculine egos tend to fair better in the short-run as they are more likely to aggressively displace or deflect those feelings, blaming others or even and usually more appropriately the absent father. In the long-run, however, the effects are equally destructive to these children.
Obviously, a full treatment of child development in the face of fatherlessness cannot be given here. Fathers are encouraged to do their own research. What I hope to offer incarcerated fathers is enough information to give them the most general sense of the potential havoc and destruction being visited upon their daughters and the motivation to take preventive and reparable action.
Too many incarcerated men have showed their prowess at manipulating and taking advantage of psychologically and emotionally traumatized women. I do not, of course, suggest that imprisoned fathers manipulate their daughters. What I do suggest is that those fathers draw from that experience in a wholesome manner for the task of understanding and to ensure that their daughters do not develop into such a woman.
The first and obvious task for the prepared father is to contact his daughter and to consistently maintain that contact. Worse than making no contact whatsoever is making contact that is not maintained. Stepping into or returning to a daughter’s life only to again abandon her merely exacerbates the potential for damage.
Whether contacting a daughter for the first time or reconnecting after a significant absence, it is appropriate and in some cases necessary to first seek permission from a present parent or guardian. I suggest a simple explanation from the father of how he plans to maintain contact (visits, phone, mail, etc.) and the motivation for his wishing to do so (daughter’s psychological/emotional welfare). Where the daughter is in some form of mental health program, it is extremely appropriate to contact the treating mental health professional for guidance, feedback, and advice.
A daughter who perceives herself as abandoned or rejected or who has suffered severe emotional trauma over her father’s absence may be skeptical and reject her father’s attempts at contact. In such cases, I suggest that the committed father nonetheless continue to write consistently and no less than once a month. A simple but powerful: ?I understand that you may not now want to respond, but you are very special and important to me. I will be here and available when you’re ready. In the meantime, I hope you won’t mind if I share some things with you ?? It may take months, or even years, but once the daughter feels secure in that she will not yet again be abandoned and hurt, she is likely to respond.
Once contact is established, fathers must tread carefully. Is the child six or 16? Fathers must communicate in an age-appropriate manner. On the other hand, fathers must take care to not speak down to their children but to communicate with them as young adults. The fact that one is the biological father does not confer an inherent right to be a parent when connecting after absence.
Upon initial contact, a daughter may express anger, bitterness and even hatred toward her father and others. The father may have excuses and reasons and further excuses to counter all such sentiments. Fathers should not argue. Her feelings are justified, even if misdirected. Remember, it’s all about her. Fathers must avoid using their daughters as tools to deal with their own issues and refrain from burdening their daughters with them.
It may be prudent, depending upon the circumstances, that a father not broach the subject of his absence and her feelings about it until some time after a recognizable relationship develops. Common sense and instincts should dictate here. I recommend a waiting for that point at which the daughter expresses a relaxed attitude in communicating. As for the daughter refusing to reciprocate, I recommend tactfully engaging the subject mindful of the suggestions herein
Accept responsibility and ask forgiveness. The father’s absence may not be his fault. He may have had no control over it and done his best to avoid it. These arguments may be valid. However, daughters do not need to hear their fathers? excuses for the absence. What they do need to hear is that it is not their fault. Acknowledge and validate her feelings. Accepting responsibility and gaining a daughter’s forgiveness is the first and greatest hurdle. The idea is for the daughter to know and believe that the absence is in no way her fault and that while she neither had nor has any control over it, she does have complete control over how she chooses to respond and deal with it. Remembering that children are individuals and respond differently, fathers should pay careful attention to their daughters? rejections and responses and adjust their approaches (and expectations) accordingly
Maintaining contact is equally if not more important than making contact in the first instance. For most prisoners, the fact of incarceration means the inability to be physically available. Nonetheless, incarcerated fathers can be emotionally available and paternal models. Avoid commitments and keep those promises that are necessarily made. Because prisoners have no control over the certainties of their own lives, they should avoid making any promises they may be unable to keep. Lockdowns, riots, transfers, obscure prison rules, etc., may mean breaking that promise to visit next weekend or to call at nine o’clock. To a daughter, these may sound like excuses and rehash any rejection and abandonment issues.
Many feminists downplay the role of fathers in child development while many males believe that the relationships between father and daughter is of less import than that between father and son. The research is overwhelming that both views are sorely misplaced. For example, most women will seek in a partner those qualities perceived in their fathers or father model. Modeling therefore plays a crucial role. Fathers set not only a parental example but also the standard against which the future partners in a daughter’s life are likely to be judged. Set that standard high.
Incarcerated fathers must perform a careful balancing act. They cannot be fathers in the physically paternal protective or corrective sense. They cannot set rules for their daughters or demand that they follow them. They cannot demand that their daughters engage in or refrain from some conduct. Whatever the relationship that develops, it must be understood in the context of the realities that confine it. A daughter who comes to lovingly respect her father as such will be responsive to his approval and guidance. That love, respect, and recognition is the goal.
A father’s words, mannerisms, and behavior will determine the level and type of respect his daughter has for him. He should be alert for opportunities to encourage her and to provide her with a sense of self-confidence. Daughters are beautiful, strong, smart, worthy of self-respect and of demanding respect from others, in addition to qualities peculiar to each child. They should hear it and hear it often. In actions and words, fathers must reinforce their daughters? best beliefs in themselves, their relationships and their worlds
Incarcerated fathers particularly must refrain from degrading those parents that are physically present in their daughters lives. There is likely to be in most cases a great deal of history and bad blood between an absent father and the present parents, particularly the mother. Repairing those relationships and befriending the present parent(s) has an additional advantage in that they may keep the absent father alert to problems the child is experiencing and offer other relevant information and advice. It is also best for children, especially younger children, to learn that separation and disagreement do not necessarily equal dysfunction. Moreover, how a father relates to others, particularly women, has a powerful impact on daughters and their expectations of men.
The father-daughter relationship is not easy to maintain, especially from prison, but is worth maintaining. There will be pitfalls, curves, and ups-and-downs. Each will at time misinterpret the other, disagree, and confront. Those men with mommy-daddy issues of their own need to work them out on their own and not impress them upon their children. Before reconnecting with a daughter, fathers must ensure that they are themselves prepared.
A parent’s absence is a form of abuse, an unfair and unjustified deprivation visited upon the child. Our daughters need us and although incarcerated, we must make ourselves available in every way that we can and in the best ways that we can.
BY: THE EMPTY DRUM
“The Empty Drum” is a certified therapist presently serving time in a Federal Penal Facility. It is his desire to share these thoughts