By Darian T. Agnew
Picture it: Washington, D.C; the year 2011 (In my Sophia Petrillo voice). I’m lying in bed, wide awake in my home, and in the midst of a self-sponsored pity party. Y'all, this party was hella lit! The bar was fully-stocked with (negative) spirits; my (low) self-esteem was leading the electric slide; and my victim mentality was somewhere in the corner doing the Bankhead bounce. Included on the food menu was a list of painful memories rooted in various toxic relationships (romantic and platonic) I had partaken in over the years. With the party going full blast, it suddenly hit me - I was the common denominator in all this misfortune. I was instantly humbled and mortified. However, I was also somewhat relieved because this also implied a way out of this madness. At this point, my healing journey began, which ultimately led me to reconcile within myself the relationship with my father. Here’s my story.
I was raised by my mother, a single parent to my twin brother and me, and my late maternal grandmother. Absent from this extended family were my maternal grandfather, who passed away before I was born, and my father, who relocated out of state after he and my mother parted ways. My family lived in a working-class and predominantly Black neighborhood in Fayetteville, NC, where I would spend the entirety of my youth.
I haven’t had a relationship with my father throughout my life, nor do I have any memories of him. His absence has impacted me deeply; in ways, I wouldn’t fully come to understand until well into my adulthood.
Being the child of an absent father instilled in me a persistent feeling of missing out, particularly on all the activities, I understood that fathers did with their sons. I wanted him to show up to my baseball games to cheer me on. I wanted him to be present for my mother to help be an example of how to love another person. I wanted him to show me how to tie a necktie. I wanted him around to brag to my peers about how awesome he was, and how much better of a dad he was than theirs. I wanted him to show me what it meant to be a man. I wanted him to help me navigate as raging hormones and puberty deepened my voice and gave rise to lust. I wanted him to talk to me about sex. I wanted him to tell me how proud of me he was. I wanted to be lectured and even scolded by him. I wanted him to tell me that he loved me.
These things that I longed for never came to pass. I was left to my own devices.
My father’s absence caused me to wrestle with a series of questions. Does he think about me? Does he love me? Why didn’t he call? Why couldn’t he at least write? Was there something wrong with me? Was it something I did that caused him to stay away? Does he have a family? Does he have kids? If so, is he actively a part of their lives? If so, why them and not me? Is he still living?
Eventually, I accepted my norm and gave up on the idea of ever having him in my life, though the curiosity would never subside. I did, however, form my own answers to some of the questions. In my mind, he was merely disinterested and too busy to be bothered with me (and my brother). I wasn’t important enough for him to show up, and I wasn’t deserving of it. Whatever the reason, he made his choice, and I had to just “accept” it.
Having an absent father was a significant contributor to the low self-esteem and deeply-held resentment I experienced in my youth, which lasted through early adulthood. Though I had resigned myself to never having him in my life, it still ate me alive on the inside. Witnessing fathers being actively present for their sons was a constant reminder of what I lacked, and I had become envious. Feeling robbed and excluded from the informal association of youth who had relationships with their fathers, I developed a deep resentment towards them, but not my father, oddly enough. The yearly celebration of Father’s Day would become especially bitter for me. I had to bear witness to the countless accolades and expressions of gratitude and indebtedness to the beloved fathers around the nation. At the same time, I could do nothing more than watch. I couldn’t help but feel incomplete.
The Tipping Point
Branded a fatherless child, I suffered the weight of the narratives bestowed upon me by society. I was all but destined for prison or even death by age twenty-five. Fortunately, this Black, resentful, incomplete, and fatherless child defeated those odds. I graduated high school and went on to earn two undergraduate degrees and, later in my adulthood, three graduate degrees. I cultivated numerous career successes, having worked professionally in the public, private, and no-profit sectors. I even became a home-owner at the age of twenty-six. These successes allowed me the privilege of transcending socio-economic boundaries that flagrantly defied the thresholds placed upon those of my demographic by broader society; I made a good living for myself. Oh, and no jail time for me (well, not yet, because Black lives still matter, and I do be hittin’ these streets).
Despite these material successes, I felt like a complete failure. Internally, I was still that emotionally-fragile, resentful, fatherless child who had longed to feel seen and heard. I suffered from a major case of imposter syndrome. The successes I had achieved, in my mind, had all been flukes. My inferiority-complex led me to play it safe (too safe) in my professional life, which ultimately led to career stagnation. I had consistently made GOD AWFUL relationship and friendship choices, which played upon and inflamed my existing insecurities and low self-worth.
The accumulation of these experiences had reached critical mass on that evening in 2011. About ten months prior, I moved into my own apartment after moving out of the first and only home I had purchased with my former partner four years earlier, the year before the Great Recession of 2008. The house had lost nearly 50% of its original value, leaving me in a precarious state of financial affairs. It was the first time I’d been living on my own in five years.
Alone, lonely, lost, and potentially facing financial ruin, I entered a period of darkness. I felt persistently targeted by life, destined for nothing but misfortune. I felt powerless. As I ruminated on all these moments of misfortune, it suddenly dawned on me that I was the common denominator. It was at that moment that I was forced to face myself as an unwitting accomplice. I could no longer run from personal responsibility. I had begun to see that maybe I wasn’t so powerless. Thus, I started my healing journey.
My healing process has been both a psychological and educational. The former began in 2011 with me scheduling the first of MANY, MANY therapy sessions I’d sit through. The latter started shortly after, once I started my graduate studies -- in Social Work, Public Policy, and Urban Planning -- and continued informally through independent research.
The psychological aspect of my healing journey has been long and arduous. Throughout this process, I identified numerous sources of trauma (another article in itself) and associated maladaptive coping mechanisms (e.g., anxiety, panic attacks, poor social skills, people-pleasing, lack of emotional intelligence, lack of confidence, etc.); which were barriers in my social, professional, and romantic lives. Over time, I’ve learned to integrate healthier alternatives to replace these maladaptive coping mechanisms, leading to a significant increase in self-confidence, increased social skills, and better relationship-building skills. At the root of all this progress was an in-depth examination of the relationship with myself, followed by a gradual increase in alignment with that core self. That relationship became ripe for reinvestigation - given that part of my identity had been connected with being a child of an absent father.
My formal education, coupled with innate curiosity and lived experience, fueled my quest to unpack and demystify much of what I’d known about myself and the world I live in. I was led to examine the “fatherless child” trope, which had become ingrained in my Identity in my youth. What I stumbled upon was, to say the least, intriguing. Based on several sources, the trope originated in 1965 in the political arena, from which it would quickly spread to other spaces in society. Under this trope, which originated from a conservative take on the Moynihan Report, which chronicled the decline of the Black (nuclear) family unit as a result of economic and systemic racism, attributed the relative plight of Black Americans to the absence of fathers and the matrifocal (female-led) family unit, whereby children faced significantly increased rates of academic, economic, and social failures. This trope has taken hold throughout our society and is frequently used by politicians, particularly conservatives, to victim blame and thwart racial progress. One relatively recent example of this was when Senator Rand Paul, commenting on widespread social unrest following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore Police, blamed the “... breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of sort of a moral code in our society”, while neglecting to factor in intergenerational trauma and the impacts of state-sanctioned and race-based violence on the community. Another example of this is the now-infamous “Pound Cake” speech delivered by Bill Cosby at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund awards ceremony on May 17, 2004. In his speech, he decried young Black single-mothers, exclaiming, “No longer is a person embarrassed because they’re pregnant without a husband.”
Through messages like these and their widespread adoption by society at large, I would be branded a (Black) fatherless child predestined to become nothing more than a societal dreg. Knowing the history of this trope brings to light the purposeful insidiousness while retiring the notion that it’s innately accurate. This understanding and context create room for more productive and reality-based narratives that induce me to embrace my full self, rather than hide and cower in shame.
Applying Lessons Learned
My continued healing has led me to reframe my relationship with my father in many ways. First, I learned the importance of taking ownership of my life and identity, which meant I needed to shed a lifetime of narratives and baggage concerning who I am and who I’m supposed to be. The fatherless child trope, for example, was instrumental in indoctrinating within me that I had existed in a deficit because my father was absent. This reinforced setting the bar low for myself and the idea that I didn’t belong in the same arena as my peers (Black or white) who grew up in a complete (nuclear) family structure. These narratives stuck with me even through my adult years. My more empowered self understands that label to be a mere social-construct used to informally segregate and suppress through social and political means. Simply put, the trope is packed full of lies that I have grown to rebuke. My continued quest for self-actualization and empowerment has led me to realize that I need neither society’s nor my father’s permission to be whole.
Second, I’ve gained a greater capacity for empathy for others who have caused me harm in their less-healed state. Unmitigated trauma led me to a prolonged, dark existence in “survival mode” -- an adaptive and physiological response of the human body to help us survive stress and danger. In short, I was on “stay ready” mode, with my fight, flight, or freeze responses on deck for instant deployment. While in survival mode, I made choices that were flagrantly against my own self-interests and more than explain the litany of toxic relationships I’ve participated in throughout my life. It also led me to inflict harm on others in ways I wouldn’t fully come to understand until I had begun my healing journey.
Applying this to the relationship with my father, I had begun to imagine more than a man who side-stepped any meaningful involvement in his son’s life. I imagine someone who is infinitely complex, both rational and irrational, and likely, at some point, ensconced in survival mode, especially being a black male born in the 1950s (re: institutional, economic, structural racism). I imagine someone who was likely highly insecure, highly reactive (e.g., fight, flight, or freeze), had minimal access to resources, and was trying to find his way. He probably did the best he could, and yet it wasn’t enough. Hell, he’d become the father of twins with nothing to give them. Is any of this imagined characterization rooted in reality? Who knows! Based on the few stories I have heard, my personal and second-hand experiences, observations, and history, they certainly fit. To be clear, the purpose of this is not to exonerate or vilify him, but to provide context.
The fatherless child that longed for his daddy no longer exists. I comforted him as he cried on the inside for having felt abandoned by the man who was supposed to love him, care for him, cherish him, and teach him the ways of the world. I made him feel seen, and I rebuked the lies that society told him regarding his prospects in life because he was branded “fatherless.” I made him feel like he was enough. Now, that inner child within me has been empowered to grow into his destiny, endeavoring to live a life free like the wind. I have released myself from the burden of being fatherless, and I have released my father from the burden of having to be my father. And so, I’ve permitted myself to be complete, independently of him. This does not necessarily close the door on the two of us ever having a relationship. What this does is - open the door for us to build a relationship without the burden of guilt, duty, or obligation.