There are few issues in the African American community which receive greater attention, discussion, and debate than the absence of fathers. From a historical perspective, fatherless homes have been identified as a root cause of negative outcomes in African American families at least as far back as the famous Moynihan report in 1965. It has been debated that the absence of fathers causes financial strain in families and increases the likelihood that children will be raised in poverty. The absence of fathers in homes has also been attributed to increased likelihood of delinquency and incarceration for sons, as well as increased promiscuity in daughters. Growing up without a father can negatively impact self-esteem and self-worth in children, and it can also negatively impact future relationships. The absence of a father in the home can have a negative impact on children, which lasts well into adulthood.
The negative impact of fatherless homes in the African American community has been discussed in numerous studies, with many attributing the decrease of fathers in homes to the separation of families during slavery; welfare legislation which provided financial incentives when fathers were not in the home; and the increased incarceration of Black males during the 1980s and 1990s. It is also widely believed that not having a father in the home makes it more likely that young men will not raise their own children. Yet perhaps the biggest contributor to the abandonment of children by their fathers, is the lack of involvement of the paternal family. Indeed, while it is widely known that there are men who abandon their children (for a number of reasons), in many cases this abandonment extends to the entire paternal family. In other words, when children grow up without their fathers, in many cases they also grow up without the involvement of their paternal family (including paternal grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins).
Nothing contributes to the abandonment of children by their fathers more than the lack of involvement from the paternal family. Lack of involvement from the paternal family condones the absence of the father and simultaneously takes away the most powerful motivation for men to become involved with their children. The lack of involvement of the paternal family also takes away supportive resources that can make up for any deficits a father may have in caring for his children. Perhaps most disturbing and confusing when considering the lack of involvement of the paternal family is non-involvement from paternal grandmothers, who are in many cases themselves single mothers that experienced the challenge of raising children without the involvement of their fathers. Most importantly when considering the lack of involvement from the entire paternal family, previous discussions on deadbeat dads become too simplistic. This raises the question, what happens when an entire family abandons a child?
For most people, the family is their earliest and longest lasting system of support. Within the family, children learn behavioral, cultural, societal, and moral norms (this is particularly true in African American families). When children grow up without support and acknowledgment from their paternal family, a culture of abandonment is normalized. Furthermore, children who grow up without the involvement of their paternal families are denied financial support, emotional support, and they are robbed of their sense of belonging and history. Having a lack of history resulting from the abandonment of the paternal family should not be understated. Family researchers (both amateur and professional) trace both maternal and paternal lineage to tell a complete story. A lack of involvement and knowledge of the paternal family leaves too many missing pieces to the puzzle. This not only robs future generations of their history, it damages the sense of self for an untold number of black children (the lack of a sense of self contributes to a number of mental health issues).
In an earlier article on multi-generational dysfunction in foster care, I wrote about the importance of Bowen's family systems theory in addressing destructive behaviors that span generations. The framework provided with Bowen's family systems theory is especially relevant to addressing the issue of abandonment by the paternal family within the African American community. It is time to recognize that children are not solely being abandoned by their fathers; they are being abandoned by entire families (our community is suffering as a result). With this recognition, efforts to involve more men in the lives of their children, must also include the extended paternal family in order to be more successful. The paternal grandmother and great-grandmother have an especially important role in achieving this goal. While there are many issues facing the African American community, few are more important than healing families and ending cycles of dysfunction. The cycle of paternal abandonment (both by the father and the extended family) is one African Americans have an obligation to bring to an end.
Dr. Mark Echols has been working with children and families in both educational and social service settings for the last 15 years. He is a Fatherhood advocate and the creator of Black Dads: Changing the narrative on Fathers in the African American community on LinkedIn. You can connect with Dr. Mark Echols on LinkedIn.