The research continues to affirm it. The statistics highlight it. But actually reading what young people have to say about the reality of missing dads and overworked but caring mothers confirms it. There is no pretense, and the pain is evident.
After assigning Langston Hughes's "Thank You Ma'm" and Anthony Brandt's "My Grandmother: A Rite of Passage" to my college composition class, I asked them to select one of the following writing choices.
Describe a person who has acted as a mother to you. Even though she may not be your biological mother, what makes you see her as a mother-figure? Why do you view her as special?
Do outside research on the importance of fathers in children's lives. How do mothers and fathers differ in their parenting styles? Why is a father important in a daughter's life? In a son's life? Be very specific and make sure you cite your research.
How has the loss of a parent affected your outlook on life? Is the loss a result of divorce, death, separation or desertion? Does it make a difference what caused the loss? In what way?
Here is a part of the selection from a 19-year-old single mom.
I didn't do any research for this topic because I'm dealing with this situation right now. When my father and my mom separated he stopped visiting [.] A father figure is even more important in a son's life. A lot of boys I know didn't have their fathers around and they end up in the streets or in jail. Boys need some type of father figure in their life to steer them in the right directions. Nowadays people have babies and become single parents. Sometime you have to do your best as a single parent.
Speaking about her parents' divorce, this woman student describes the toll it took on her.
Because of my parents divorce, I fell into a deep depression. I stopped socializing with friends; I lost a dramatic amount of weight, my hair started to thin; I started getting acne, my eyes were always heavy, and my sense of humor was gone. I cried every night due to the situation. My school grades went down, and I even lost my job as a result of declining work ethics. Therapy was the solution I had to go to in order to rise from my depression.
This twenty-year-old student writes about her father being in jail.
When my father first got incarcerated I remember my mother taking me down to Trenton and visiting him. We'd bring him food, pictures, letters and most important love. I didn't realize what he was doing there and why he had to wear the same color as everyone every day. My Mother and I visited him a couple more times but the last time before walking to jail, I asked my mother. 'Why does daddy come here? What did he do?' My mother looked at me and said 'He's studying at a private college, he lives here now and when he's finished he'll come home.' I was so thrilled that my daddy was going to college. I was proud of him. I told my mom, 'I want to go to college!' She laughed and said 'You can go to college, just not this one, baby!
My father missed my middle-school years and my awkward stages. I didn't have my father encouraging me or telling me wrong from right and especially about boys.
When my mother was at work and my father away at jail, I found a new love and that was my grandmother.
Another student clearly expresses her affection for her mother and how religious faith helps her cope.
When my mother grew up, she had no father figure. She was the father figure to her brothers and sisters and she wasn't even the oldest. She helped my grandmother by cooking and cleaning every day after school.
She was hard on her children but delicate when it came to our dreams. She's hardworking when it comes to work itself and her family. She's more street smart than book smart. Her faith is huge. She will always find a way to forgive even if someone has abandoned her, like her father did. She made me go to church every Sunday when I was little. Now I realize why she did it. She wanted me to turn to someone when everyone else walked out or didn't believe in me.
This woman is fortunate to have a nuclear family.
My parents are still happily married and their display of love and understanding has really influenced me. My father and I have a good relationship and because of that I feel that I am able to have healthy relationships with the opposite sex.
This young man writes lovingly of his now deceased mother.
Since my father was a coward and ran off when my brothers and I were younger, my mother had to step up even more. My brothers and I did not do a great job of helping either. She would call us banshees that ate her out of house and home. As we grew and became more "fresh" she knew she had to be stricter. She had no fear. I got smacked, shoes thrown at me, remotes fired at me, the broom handle, and my personal favorite the belt. The belt was amusing because she would tell us to take off our own belt and then hit us with it. I am not saying this is the right way to parent but I never disrespected a teacher again.
This articulate student, whose parents divorced when she was two years old, writes that she has "known firsthand about the absence of a parent."
It was very difficult growing up without a father. There were very important moments that I needed him in my life. Whether it was a father-daughter dance, for protection or just to have memories, those were not possible. When I was younger I always thought I had a broken family because I never had my dad around. I did not come home to a father on Father's Day. The loss of my dad affected me negatively because I saw showing affection as a weakness and I saw love as defeat. When my father abandoned me, I questioned my self-worth. Although I grew up without my father and it affected me in so many ways, I tell myself to be strong."
My students grapple with many adverse situations. It is a credit to them that they have tried to emerge as whole but it is patently clear that solid families headed by a loving mother and caring father do make a genuine difference. And yet far too many American children do not experience this once-traditional family unit. What of those who do not emerge to realize their potential?
Eileen can be reached at email@example.com.