A Few Good Men: Father Absence In The City Of Saint John

A Few Good Men: Father Absence In The City Of Saint John

With Jasmine well into the third and final trimester of her pregnancy, we decided that a lengthy and exotic vacation was out of the question for this summer (not that we could afford one, anyway). Instead, we opted for a destination a little closer to home: The seaside town of Saint Andrews, New Brunswick— a mere forty-five minutes drive from Saint John, west along Route 1. By the fourth day, having exhausted most the tourist attractions, my six-year old son, Sam, had grown restless and bored. Seeing that I was about to go for my 5 km jog, he insisted repeatedly that he tag along, swearing he’d be able to keep up. So I let him. What followed could very well have been among the most delightful hours I’ve ever spent with the little guy.

We jogged slowly along Water Street— the sun beginning to set over the ocean to the right of us. As we rounded the bend, now heading uphill towards the magnificent Algonquin Hotel, I told him we could walk for a while if he liked. He declined, insisting that we press on all the way up the hill. Our pace was slow and easy— so easy, that we were able to keep a decent conversation going. However, by the time the hill grew steep and the grand outline of the 19th century hotel was showing in the distance, I could tell that Sam was having a rough time of it, his breathing now laboured and his chattiness dialled down to the occasional brief comment. Still, he insisted on continuing, deciding that he would push himself until he reached the Algonquin— roughly a kilometre away. In the end, with his little heart pounding and legs aching, he made it. We crested the hill, walked towards a nearby picnic bench and sat down to face the sunset, Sam savouring his victory along with the delightful endorphin rush that comes after a hard and exhilarating run. I felt very close to him at that moment and dreamed of what it might be like in his teenage years, when we would go for much longer runs and share much deeper conversations.

I, myself, don’t remember going for long jogs with my dad. I do, however, remember him sitting at the kitchen table with me, night after night, walking me through long-division problems from my sixth grade math textbook or, in my high school years, trying to explain some abstruse concept in physics. On some days, he had infinite patience. On other days, my slowness resulted in— to put it tactfully— visible signs of aggravation. My father, like many immigrant parents, was, and still is, obsessed with education. In fact, I once remember him telling me, on a road trip that we took together to New York City, that the two most important things in life were “love and education.” When he told me that I smiled to myself, half expecting him to add, “And the greatest of these… is education.”

This is what many of us will be celebrating this weekend: the memories shared with our fathers, the imperfect men who have shaped our characters— for good, for ill or for both— over the course of our tender years and beyond. For some people however, Dad is not a presence to be celebrated or remembered but, rather, an absence to be mourned. Such is the case with so many I’ve met over the course of the past three years of living and working in Saint John’s inner city. I think of the seventeen-year-old girl who, all throughout her childhood and teenage years, has sent annual messages to her absent father, begging him to make a cameo appearances at her birthday parties. Not once did he show up. She has long since given up the letter-writing campaign but, instead, seems to chase after her father’s ghost, as it were, in all sorts of unconscious ways—not all of which may be healthy.

According to some statistics released by the Saint John Human Development Council among the families who live Ward 3 (a municipal designation that encompasses the South End Peninsula, Waterloo Village the Lower West and parts of the east side) 33.2 % of families are headed by what are referred to as “lone-parent families.” (To put that figure into perspective, consider that the national average is 16.3%). Given the fact that the other two family designations are “couple families without children” (41.4%) and couple families with children (25%) we can easily arrive at the following conclusion: the majority of kids growing up in Ward 3 live in families headed by a single parent— that parent, in most cases, being a mother. That’s a lot of kids who, in all likelihood, don’t have a safe, consistent, older male figure in their lives. The same holds true for most poor, intercity neighbourhoods across the western world. In fact, one UK reporter refers to inner-city neighbourhoods in places like London and Manchester as being “men deserts”.

As statisticians often say, however, “correlation isn’t causation.” Are people more likely to be economically impoverished because they have no father? Or, are they more likely to have no father because they are economically impoverished? I have yet to work out an articulate response to this question but, from what I’ve observed in my ministry, the one problem feeds into the other in a kind of vicious cycle. I’m also quite sure that growing up without a dad (and consistent, loving male presence to replace him) places a child in a situation of great vulnerability.

But, because Sunday is Father’s Day— a day of celebration— let me rephrase the preceding sentence positively: Dads are extremely important and, growing up with a consistent and loving male presence, affords a child countless advantages in life. Indeed, as more research on fatherhood and father absence is brought to light, this notion has been strongly affirmed. For example, according to psychologists E. Hill and Danielle J. DelPriore, researchers from Texas Christian University, when a father is present and active in his daughter’s life, she is significantly less likely to engage in sexual risk-taking behaviours and, hence, less likely to become pregnant in her teenage years. In fact, the presence of a father in his daughter’s life not only has affects on a girls behaviour but— astonishingly enough— even her biology. When a girls grows up in a household without a father she is, according to Hill and Delpriore, more likely to experience reproductive development at an accelerated rate, hitting puberty earlier that her female peers with fathers.

In addition to this, some research has demonstrated that a child’s verbal aptitude is greatly influenced by the presence of a father. Paul Raeburn, for example, author of Do Fathers Matter? What Science is Telling Us about the Parent We’ve Overlooked, points to data from the University of North Carolina suggesting that fathers (for reasons that the researches can only speculated upon) actually play a greater role in the language development of their children than mothers. When it comes to longterm educational outcomes, the consequences of this are quite obvious: the greater a child’s competence in language, the more likely he or she is to enjoy and, indeed, thrive in the early years of education. And, needless to say, how a child fares in the primary grades is a significant predictor of later academic success and, hence, employment, general quality of life and so on.

To say these things is, of course, to no way minimize the immensely important role that mothers play in a child’s development— a role that is at least equal to that of fathers in importance. Nor should these findings paint the plight of every single mother as hopeless. In fact, over the course of my work in inner-city Saint John, I have met a number of single moms who have been wise and resourceful enough to compensate for the absence of dad— enlisting all sorts of help from grandfathers and uncles, brothers and neighbours in the care and mentoring of their children. (With this in mind, happy father’s day to all father-figures who aren’t biological dads!) That said, my reflections on findings like those mentioned above— in addition to my own personal experience as a father— have led me to conclude that we, as a society, can do a great deal more to encourage the presence of Dads in inner city neighbourhoods like Saint John’s South End. As far as I can tell (let the reader correct me if I’m wrong) as of now there are no programs seeking to mitigate the social problem of father absence and encourage stable families— a fact which has lead me and a colleague of mine to, at the very least, meet and brainstorm about some ideas.

For now, I’m grateful for the role my own father played in my life and committed to playing and equal, if not greater role, in the lives of my own son and (as of now, unborn) daughter. I want Jasmine and I to be as fixed, enduring and unquestioned a presence in their world as the firm earth beneath their feet and the sheltering sky above their head. With their childhoods encompassed by such unshakeable love— the love of God poured out through our own, frail, human hands— my hope is that my children will thrive. Indeed, my hope and prayer is that all children— including the children that I meet in my own, beloved neighbourhood of Saint John’s South End— might thrive too, knowing what it feels like to be loved in this way.