The Consequences of Growing up without a Father

A growing lack of male role models in families has left young men vulnerable

AlexLinch/iStock/The Walrus

In my family, it’s tradition to grow up without male role models. My father, Ismat, didn’t have a father figure for much of his childhood, and he left me in the same position. Both of us are part of the intergenerational cycle of fatherlessness that makes young men vulnerable to people posing as authorities on masculinity.

Ismat was born in 1963 at the Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya. I don’t know why, but his biological parents didn’t take him home after he was born, so he was cared for by the hospital until the age of one, when he was adopted by people who seem to have loved him dearly. From what I’ve been told, however, both of his adoptive parents had tragically passed away in separate incidents by the time he turned fourteen. He was then largely on his own, with minimal to no support from his adoptive relatives. In some of his most formative years, he was without parental figures altogether.

What Ismat had going for him was his hustle and intelligence. As a teenager, he used his inheritance from his adoptive parents to put himself through cooking school. He worked as an apprentice at the Hilton Hotel in Nairobi, then pushed for a transfer to the Hilton in London. He became a chef and embarked on a successful career working in hotels.

I feel proud when I tell people about my father’s difficult start in life and how high he climbed before he was even twenty. But that pride fades quickly when I begin talking about what his life became as he grew into adulthood. The lack of male role models in his life caught up to him after he met my mother.

Ismat met Pam at a wedding when he was twenty-two. My parents quickly got married themselves, and my father relocated to Toronto from London. They had three children, with me the first. By the time their second child was born, Ismat was already slipping in his responsibilities. He was at home sleeping while Mom gave birth to my sister Jasmine.

Ismat was a far more successful chef than he was a husband or father. In Toronto, he worked in expensive restaurants and built a strong reputation for himself. He even appeared on television a few times to promote the restaurants where he cooked.

Meanwhile, Ismat the husband and father was largely absent. Many days, he wasn’t around at all. I would go to sleep most nights not having seen or spoken to him. Mom would say it was because he was working late. Eventually, I was old enough to see he was choosing not to be home because he had other places he wanted to be.

An important difference between Ismat the chef and Ismat the husband and father is that he had role models to help him learn how to cook. He went to school for it. He worked as an apprentice under the tutelage of chefs who showed him how to wash dishes, chop vegetables, work a fryer, use a stove, boil pasta, grill a steak, and bake a cake. He just didn’t have the same education in being a husband or father.

As his oldest child, I’ve struggled to have empathy for Ismat. Certainly, I was hurt by his absence—and even more hurt by his terrible behaviour when he was around. He was always yelling and bullying, as if he wanted us to be glad when he was gone. I’ve continued to hold a grudge against him as an adult because I’ve seen the consequences of his choices for my mother and sisters. I’ve also learned to look back at how he was as a husband and father, however, and remind myself that he, too, was a fatherless young man.

My family has one home video of us, on an old VHS tape from 1989. The video was a gift from one of Ismat’s friends in honour of the birth of my sister Jasmine. In the film are scenes from the hospital where she was born and the days after she came home. I haven’t watched the video in many years, but in my last few viewings, I started to see something I’d missed as a kid. I could see Ismat’s struggles: the distant look in his eyes when he was around his wife and kids, his discomfort when showing affection, the emotionless expressions on his face.

Ismat’s ignorance of his role in our family also played out in the few interactions we had as father and son, such as on Father’s Day, which was one of my least favourite days of the year. In grade three, I came home from school with a picture I’d drawn of Ismat as a superhero, kind of like Balrog, the boxer character from the video game Street Fighter. I spent hours at school that day working on it. I tried to make my father look cool, and I knew he really liked boxing. The top of the drawing read “Happy Father’s Day.” I was glad he was home, because I didn’t often get to see him. I handed him the drawing with high hopes for how he might react. He picked it up, looked at it, and seemed confused. “What does this mean?” he said dismissively. He then put it to the side, never even making eye contact with me. Not once.

There was something phony about the whole thing. My father didn’t deserve a day in his honour—nor did he deserve a gift from any of his kids. That damned teacher had set me up, I thought. She’d made me look like an idiot by forcing me to give him some gift he could toss to the side like it was worthless. And there I was, trying to reach out to him as a son, only to feel rejected once again.

There was a period of time—when I was seven or eight years old and he was thirty—that I remember Ismat coming home from work very late at night. At least twice, he woke me up to talk to me. I was really happy to see him. On one of those nights, he told me about a new handshake he was doing at work—one reminiscent of a handshake Will Smith did on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I still remember it to this day, but I’ve never used it.

The situation was much more serious on the second night, when he came into my room, sat on the edge of my bed, and cried. He told me he didn’t know how much longer he could keep doing “this.” I was scared because I didn’t know what “this” meant. Was he talking about being my dad? Or working? Or coming home late? He told me that he was working so hard for his family and that he was always tired and hurting. After a few minutes of silence, he stopped crying, said good night, and left my room.

Having lacked role models to draw on as a kid, Ismat obviously didn’t have those resources as a young man either. He was struggling not just with being a father and husband but also with being a whole person. He was living a life of such emotional suppression that one of the few people he felt he could open up to was his son, who wouldn’t judge or criticize him. Ismat didn’t have a supportive community he could rely on to help him on his journey as a husband and father. He was struggling to figure everything out on his own.

My parents’ marriage gradually fell apart. I recall both of them making comments to me about separation as early as the mid-1990s, just a few years after the birth of their third child, my sister Janine. But the state of their relationship was never quite clear to me. Ismat became increasingly absent and was away for longer periods of time, until, eventually, I didn’t expect to see him at all. Every so often, it seemed like Mom was trying to make the marriage work again—encouraging my father to be home more by getting us to do things as a family, like go out to eat—but she gave up when I was in my late teens, and she made it clear to me that their relationship was over.

I often thought about how Ismat’s absence affected me. I listened to songs about growing up without a father to look up to. Two Jay-Z songs in particular, “Meet the Parents” and “Where Have You Been,” were my favourites. I wondered if I would also be a disappointment to my children when I grew up. Perhaps it was fate or something in my DNA.

Just as Ismat was put on this path by the absence of his biological and adoptive fathers, I was on a similar path marked by similar challenges because of his absence. I didn’t have him there to steer me away from the negative influences I encountered growing up. This is the cyclical nature of broken families. I’ve inherited his struggle in my own efforts to learn about masculinity and manhood without role models at home. I also carry a deep anxiety about what this means for my future ability to be a husband and father. I imagine my father didn’t set out to be a bad parent. I bet he told himself he was going to be there for his kids in all the ways he wished his father had been for him. He probably also told himself he was going to be a good man and love his wife the way she deserved. That’s also what I tell myself, and I’m concerned that those good intentions won’t matter.

Recognizing the importance of fathers doesn’t dismiss the importance of mothers in the lives of young men. It’s about acknowledging that male role models are important and that their absence has consequences. The National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI), a non-profit organization working to end fatherlessness in the United States, claims “there is a father factor in nearly all social ills facing America today.” This bold statement is backed up by research that shows fatherless children are more likely to have behavioural problems, live in poverty, experience abuse or neglect, use drugs or alcohol, repeat grades in school, become teenage parents, and go to prison. NFI research also shows that adolescent boys with absentee fathers are especially likely to engage in criminal and other delinquent behaviours.

A 2013 literature review by researchers from Princeton University, Cornell University, and the University of California, Berkeley, also found that fatherlessness significantly impacts children. These researchers examined forty-seven studies from both Western and non-Western countries. Their conclusion states, “We find strong evidence that father absence negatively affects children’s social-emotional development, particularly by increasing externalizing behavior [such as aggression and attention seeking]. These effects may be more pronounced if father absence occurs during early childhood than during middle childhood, and they may be more pronounced for boys than for girls.”

The challenges posed by fatherlessness are growing across the West. Divorce rates and single-parent households have been on the rise for decades in Europe and North America. The United States is the clearest example of this change, with up to 50 percent of first marriages ending in divorce and subsequent marriages failing at an even higher rate. Statistics Canada reports that 12.8 percent of Canadian children live in fatherless households. In the United Kingdom, more than one-fifth of families with dependent children are without fathers in the home.

Behind all the statistics about fatherless homes are increasing numbers of young men experiencing the gift and curse of choosing who shows them how to be men. That means we have more unpredictability about and less control over the direction our boys will take as they grow into men, and we face a greater likelihood that they’ll stray from the reach of mainstream morals.

Traditionally, two of the most important institutions providing male role models outside of the home were schools and places of worship, such as churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues. These institutions formally and informally connected young men to older men who could provide examples of how to live a healthy life. Today, however, these institutions are drastically losing their influence over young men and are failing to keep them engaged.

The decline of religious influence in Europe and North America has been happening for decades. The BBC reports significant downward shifts in religious observance for Christians in these regions, with some researchers identifying particularly stark drops among young adults. For instance, the number of Anglicans in Britain fell from 40 percent in 1983 to 17 percent in 2014. The Pew Research Center reported that there were 5.6 million fewer Christians in Europe in 2015 than in 2010 and that the population share of Christians in the United States declined by 8.2 percent from 2007 to 2014. Some of my European friends have told me that the only time they go to church is for weddings and funerals. That’s mostly the same for the Christians I know in North America too.

Two Muslim parents in Belgium, Ilias Marraha and Ibtisam Van Driessche, have seen mosques struggle to reach European Muslims because of language barriers. In many mosques, religious leaders don’t speak the local language and instead offer their services in Arabic, a language that young people born in Europe may not speak with fluency. Religious leaders are often educated outside Europe, and they make use of Islamic literature created outside of the West, in places like Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Marraha and Van Driessche have responded to this problem by creating children’s books in languages used in Belgium. These books are designed to introduce young people to Islam from the perspective of European Muslim authors. Similar efforts to invest in and grow local religious education may be a critical step in countering extremism. Richard Alexander Nielsen, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, analyzed texts from a hundred Sunni Muslim clerics and found that strong local education networks and promising job opportunities may discourage clerics from preaching radical ideas.

The disappearance of role models from homes and religious institutions is often difficult to address as a society because of how personal questions of family and faith are. In the West, we do hope, however, to standardize public education to some extent, as a way of providing a minimal level of support to all young people. Sadly, schools throughout the Western world are also failing to connect with young men, diminishing their ability to serve as a source of role models.

While males make up slightly more than half of high-school students in the United States, they account for only 43 percent of post-secondary students. According to an analysis of US Department of Education statistics by Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, male students receive 71 percent of school suspensions and make up 67 percent of special-education classrooms; they are also five times more likely to be labelled hyperactive and 30 percent more likely to flunk or drop out of school. In England, male students are 36 percent less likely to attend university than female students; the numbers are even worse in other parts of the United Kingdom.

Young men will increasingly look to alternative sources for role models and examples of masculinity if mainstream institutions aren’t able to provide that support. Instead of attending classes or doing homework, young men are spending their time on the street, on the internet, and with their peers (who are also more likely to be disengaged from schools). Young men who do have male role models, like fathers at home, are also growing up alongside those who don’t. And their peer groups are being shaped by these trends, making this a more far-reaching problem than any statistic can capture.

Excerpt from Why Young Men: Rage, Race and the Crisis of Identity by Jamil Jivani © 2018. Published by Harper Collins. All rights reserved.

Jamil Jivani
Jamil Jivani is a lawyer, community organizer, and teacher.