Counted As Loss
by Roland Warren
Culturally, it is unpopular to count as loss a father’s absence from the home. “As long as kids have their moms, they’re okay,” the saying goes. That’s what television, movies, and magazines like to argue. No dad? No problem, seems to be the mantra. Men just drag women down anyway, right?
Look at stereotypical dads of television over the past thirty years. From Al Bundy (Married . . . with Children) to Tim the grunting “Toolman” Taylor (Home Improvement) to Homer Simpson (The Simpsons); in Ray Romano, from Everybody Loves Raymond, and the bumbling dad on Disney Channel’s Good Luck Charlie, an image of Dad being just another one of the kids is painted by our media. According to National Fatherhood Initiative, the messages sent through this stereotype affect the way our culture views the role of a father in the home and in the lives of his children.
I don’t know your story. But as the child of a single mom, I know that if you are the single mom of a boy, your son feels the loss.
My mom’s story, as I reflect on it now, is one of loss after loss after loss. Though I can view it that way, I don’t think she ever did. Instead, she soldiered on. Like a veteran NFL linebacker, she kept taking the hits, never pausing to process. It was as if she took that Bible verse about “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come,” and, unfortunately, may have misapplied it to her experiences (2 Corinthians 5:17).
I believe my mom thought this was the best way to handle things—that it was healthier for all of us if she, like Dory in Finding Nemo, just kept swimming. Only trouble was, she wasn’t swimming. She was drowning—emotionally, that is. (And candidly, so was I.)
What happens when we don’t stop and process loss?
When we don’t stop and process our loss we can harden our hearts; we start constructing walls around them to protect ourselves from future hurt. When more pain comes, we throw another brick on the wall, resolving that the next strike won’t penetrate. Eventually we convince ourselves we don’t feel the hurt anymore. But in reality, we become numb to everything. That wall around our heart that’s supposed to shield us from pain also prevents us from knowing and feeling love, joy, and pleasure.
Acknowledging loss doesn’t have to be anything elaborate. Like an alcoholic at a meeting, simply say it out loud. Say it to yourself first. Then, when you feel ready, give it words and talk about it in a conversation with your son. It can be as simple as, “It’s hard that he’s gone.” Start wherever you’re comfortable.
My friend Jennifer Maggio, who runs support groups for moms through her ministry, The Life of a Single Mom, encourages single moms to engage in exercises like this to help name, process, and navigate their situations. Then be careful not to stifle the other thoughts, feelings, and emotions as they come. You may find it helpful to write the words in a journal perhaps. Or if you have a close friend who can listen without judgment, you may find it helpful to speak to her of the loss and all you feel about it.
Processing alone first will be helpful before you approach this topic with your son. The more in touch you are with the depth of what you’re feeling, the easier it will be to help him bring all he’s feeling to the surface. Remember: if you bottle your emotions, he’ll bottle his. This is unhealthy for both of you, but sets him up for difficulty in future intimate relationships. You see, there is no intimacy without vulnerability. You have a powerful opportunity to model this for him.
Unfortunately, my mother never acknowledged or discussed the reality of our loss to me—not when she left my dad, and not when my older brother Ronnie died. She thought, I assume, that by not acknowledging it she could make the hurt go away. Instead she sent me a confusing message that affected my young life. In some ways, it’s as if she was telling me that there hadn’t really been a loss of anything at all. After my brother died, we rarely spoke of him again. There were no pictures of him displayed in our house. We never visited his gravesite. In fact, we didn’t even acknowledge his birthday or milestones that would have been part of his life.
Denying the reality that your son has lost something sends a troubling message. Unless you help your son make sense of this loss, he may learn that relationships are expendable and unreliable. As he ages, he can take that subtle message, “you don’t lose anything when a father leaves,” one step further—he can begin to believe that fathers aren’t really important to their children. And he can believe that he doesn’t need to be there when he fathers a child because the message was: dads aren’t valuable. Or worse, he can doubt his value as a man if the message conveyed is that men are worthless and unnecessary.
Sometimes our pain is deeper than we ourselves can see. And that pain from childhood comes out in all sorts of ways we don’t even recognize. Indeed, one of the important lessons I learned long ago is that the source of pain is the starting point for healing.
Roland C. Warren is the CEO of Care Net, one of the largest networks of crisis pregnancy centers in North America. A graduate of Princeton University and the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, Roland spent eleven years as president of the National Fatherhood Initiative. He is the author of Raising Sons of Promise and Bad Dads of the Bible, and he and his wife have two adult sons.