What impact does having an absent father have on sons’ attitudes to parenting?

Parenting is, in many respects, about reliving, repeating or redoing the past. We often focus on negative patterns of repetition, but what about the positives?

Boys and Dressing Up


My brother is what you would call a hands-on dad. Every time I ring him he sounds like he is in the middle of either a childcare crisis or some sort of family happening. When she was younger his daughter was introduced to every one of his childhood favourites – from dinosaurs to Hong Kong Phooey. His son, now eight, has fast picked up on my brother’s strong sense of Scottishness, derived from a total rejection of English nationalism and spending his most formative years in Scotland. I think we still have a copy of ‘We’re on the march with Ally’s army’. Ally may not have got very far, but my brother made it all the way over to ‘the Argentine’.

My brother’s son is very good at winding up his dad. Whenever he comes on the phone he states defiantly “I am English I tell you, English.” This is despite the fact that he has no known links with England – his mum is Argentinian, his dad identifies as Scottish and he has lived his whole life in Argentina.

What is clear is that my brother is absolutely central to his children’s lives. Partly this is because my brother is a decent human being, but partly, I would say, it is growing up without a close father figure. My mum and dad separated early and for almost all of my brother’s life my father was around 4,000 miles away. This was before mobiles and emails and the like. Contact was not regular. We would go and visit around once every two years and my father would come and visit us once every two years. So, all in all, we saw him for around two to three weeks in the summer holidays when we would join forces with – or in my case, being the oldest, look after – the children from his second marriage. We had a stepfather for a few years, but he was not the kind of role model you would want to aspire to and he didn’t get on well with my brother.

There are many ways to have a distant relationship with a parent, without them being physically far away and I find it fascinating to see how the people I know who have had such relationships have fared as parents themselves. In the main I would say that they have tried to counter the absence and lack that they felt as children in their own relationships – to treat their own children as they would like to have been treated themselves.

I wonder how much of the move towards more shared parenting is fuelled by childhood experiences. The formative years are not called that for nothing.  I recall sitting in a forum recently where I raised this, just out of interest. I was cut down by a woman who said she was tired of the ‘sainthood’ bestowed on single mums. Most separated parents were now co-parenting equally, she claimed. I was not even trying to make that point and in any event I don’t think most single mothers are treated as saints. They certainly don’t see themselves in that way in my experience. Guilt is the predominant emotion I associate with my mum and she really does not have anything to feel guilty for.

I was just interested in the impact of being brought up by a single parent on attitudes to parenting and how this could be harnessed to push for greater change. Parenting is, in many respects, about reliving, repeating or redoing the past. We often focus on negative patterns of repetition, but things are never that simple. Never underestimate the role of emotion in change.

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