‘Children are resilient.’ How many times have we heard this said about the fallout from divorce or separation?
But in saying this, are we minimising God’s order in creation? Are we saying it’s not really that important for children to grow up with two parents, mum and dad, who both have equal but different roles in raising their children? And if we are, what happens when the Creator’s design is overturned?
More often than not it is the father who is the absent parent, and while this is not necessarily due to failings in fathers, it is a widely recognised problem across the globe. And it was true in my case. Although I experienced the absence of both parents at different times, it was, in the end, fatherlessness which prevailed as I grew up.
In considering the impact of fatherlessness on our emotions and mental health, perhaps we can learn a lesson from our bodies. A friend recently explained to me how the misalignment of a bone in her foot caused the bone structure and muscular tissue in that area to compensate for the dysfunctionality. But the compensation led to another problem which ultimately meant she began to limp and had to have surgery. Numerous disorders can occur in the body when it compensates for some physical deficiency – could this not also be true in other areas?
How might a child compensate for the lack of a father figure, whether that father is a regular visitor or someone the child has never met? In seeking to answer this I can only really draw on my own experiences.
The most observable trait which I began to develop from a young age was independence. This defence mechanism was partly triggered by a distant relationship with my father as I grew up and later experienced his disapproval and abandonment of me as his daughter. He was not there to do for me what I felt needed to be done and I did not feel backed up by a father figure in my life, so to compensate I went into self-reliance mode as a sub-conscious survival strategy, and this remains a noticeable character trait in me decades later.
What began as defensive independence then led on to other things. I was reluctant to share my heart with people. It felt much safer to have a ‘wall’ between myself and others, the reason being they would not be able to hurt me so easily. While never being short of friends it nevertheless felt safer to let them see only what I wanted them to see rather than to give away what was going on inside.
Yet conversely I needed my peer group perhaps more than someone from a stable home might have done. Friends became very important to me; they became the relatively safe space I had known little of in my family and, as a result, although there were limits, they knew more about what was happening in my life than my closest relatives.
Whilst I was happy to look to friends to supply things I did not get from my family such as a positive outlook on life, I was prone to fall into unhelpful relationships. Not having the tools to always recognise what was and wasn’t good for me, as well as having a higher tolerance threshold for unhealthy behaviour, I recognised a trait in myself of striking up slightly risqué friendships, being often drawn to people who had also had unstable childhoods. Furthermore, having a higher than usual tolerance for mistreatment, I was more at risk from users and abusers.
Having a sense that I had been deprived of what I felt was rightfully mine – a stable home and loving relationship with my dad – I was angry and my latent aggression would surface under provocation.
In adulthood I came to understand that the presence of a good father is crucial for the development of self-image and confidence. I needed to hear affirming words and have the approval of my dad in order to have confidence and a sense of personal worth. I often felt disapproved of by my own father as I had not cooperated with his plans for me to live with a stepmother I disliked. As a young child I was shy, and even in young adulthood lacked confidence. I carried around with me the idea that I was not worth much and this went with me as I started work, often thinking that what I did was not worth the pay I received and being willing to do unpaid work because deep down I felt I didn’t deserve reward for what I did.
What might the antidote to all of this be? I discovered that having an encounter with God as Father was immensely healing. Knowing that there was someone bigger than the problems in our lives, and experiencing the fatherhood of God, His care and provision as well as approval, had an immensely positive impact on me. Being the perfect father, He is uniquely positioned to re-orientate our thinking about ourselves and others. This, over time, can serve to undo much of the wrong that has been done through fatherlessness, but it’s not instant and can take years, if not a lifetime.
Of equal importance to me was the formation of healthy relationships within my new-found family of God. A major part of this was forming a God-inspired friendship with someone who became a surrogate father to me and, without his realising it, provided a huge dose of the fatherly approval and affirmation I desperately needed. This friendship led to much deep inner healing and has inspired me to try to do the same for others.
So, when we next find ourselves assuming that children are resilient in the face of family breakdown, could we pause and consider the lessons from creation and others’ lives? Might it be that we are actually just trying to convince ourselves that the impact of our actions is minimal on those who need us most – our kids?