I found myself locked inside a state penitentiary when well hidden memories of my childhood began to surface. Memories of an absentee dad and the negative impacts that weren’t even recognized until adulthood rushed through my mind. It was totally unexpected, therefore I was unprepared for the uncontrollable sobbing that commenced. Standing among dozens of men in their white, prison uniforms, I felt the need to get my emotions under control as quickly as possible.
To be clear, I was locked behind bars in a state penitentiary, but not as a convicted felon. Unlike most of the other men in the room, I wasn’t wearing the white, prison uniform. I was there as a volunteer. I was a part of a large contingent of people desiring to reunite imprisoned fathers with their children, even if it was just this one day.
Heartbound Ministries hosts ministry events in various prisons called Returning Hearts Celebrations. Returning Hearts Celebrations unite children and their incarcerated parent on the prison grounds for an unforgettable day of games, food, crafts, relationship building, and teaching to facilitate the healing process and break the cycle of crime and incarceration in families. I was super excited to be asked to speak to all the men of this state prison and challenge them to act like men.
I wasn’t, however, prepared for the flood of emotions that ran over me as I watched those precious, but awkward, few moments as, one by one, children were reunited with their fathers. What I saw in those first few timid minutes of each reunion shed a glaring light on memories of my own childhood that I had long ago suppressed. It was as if I could read the minds of every little boy and girl as they were reunited with their dad.
“How could he do what he did to separate our family? Why is he so excited to see me now? Why should I think he has changed? How do I know he won’t hurt me again? How do I tell him I don’t trust him? Is it normal to have such feelings about your own father?”
All questions that I also asked myself as a boy when visiting my father in prison. His addiction to alcohol separated our family and landed him in prison on a number of occasions. When it did, my grandparents were diligent to visit often and take me with them. I never resented my grandparents for doing so, but I was certainly plagued with several negative impacts from my father’s absence.
Absence isn’t always defined by imprisonment. A father is expected and required to be present in certain places and times for their children. Home for dinner, sporting events, musical recitals, academic awards ceremonies are just a few requirements for a dad. Absentee fathers are still expected and required to be present, but are not for whatever reason. The reasons range from career to hobbies to poor choices. No matter the reason, the negative impacts are the same.
Let’s consider a few impacts of absentee fathers that were refreshed in my mind during the Returning Hearts Celebration.
Absentee fathers foster a great sense of insecurity in the hearts of their children. Children’s minds are left to wonder what is so wrong with them that their own dad doesn’t want to spend time with them. We are quick to give every little league baseball player a participation trophy because we fear what not getting one might do to their self-esteem. It’s time we recognize that absentee fathers are much more the cause of self-esteem issues than little league trophies will ever be.
While insecurity is an issue of self-esteem, uncertainty is an issue of hope for the future. With every sporadic excursion with dad, the child of an absentee father is plagued with the question of how long this will really last. Cynicism takes root in the child’s heart and robs them of hope for the future.
Make no mistake about it, a child recognizes when their dad chooses something else over them. And it hurts. A child may hide the pain well, but rest assure the pain is there. In order to avoid further pain, the child of an absentee father will develop the natural tendency to avoid other relationships. This can make for a very lonely existence for the child already struggling to fit in among classmates and other children.
If a child’s father doesn’t value them enough to spend time with them, who will? Who is a child to turn to for the companionship that defines their value. As it turns out, the child of an absentee father will turn to anyone and everyone willing to give them the time of day. This doesn’t bode well for efforts to develop meaningful relationships with people that truly and highly value your child.
I know the work schedule is busy. I also understand that some careers don’t afford the opportunity to be at every event in which your child participates. And I get the need for hobbies that provide needed refreshing and recharging. But I challenge you to do whatever it takes to be very present in the life of your child.