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Distant Fathers

September 30, 2014 — 9 Comments

miceChildren don’t get to choose their parents. They aren’t able to select loving parents in contrast to abusers. They can’t  express any preference about being in a home with a mom and a dad committed to them, and to one another.

But the home into which children are born matters a great deal in the direction and shape of their entire life.

It doesn’t take a genius to acknowledge that some settings are healthier than others. The ideal context (which very few of us are blessed to experience) is a home where mom and dad keep their vows to one another, and devote themselves to placing their children in the forefront of their concerns.

Those of us who are people of faith recognize a third pillar to this structure. There is spousal love, parental love, and love of God. When you have all three, you are fortunate indeed.

Sadly, for many, one or both parents are absent. They may be physically present (as my own alcoholic father was) but they are disengaged . . . unconnected . . . absent. I believe that when they are physically present but not really there, they often teach their children worse lessons than they would have learned if they were literally gone. But that’s a conversation for another day.

A study some months ago reveals that the absence of fathers during childhood can actually affect the brain of the child. Yes, you read that right—it can physically affect their brains.

In the study Dr. Gobbi and her colleagues compared social activity and brain anatomy between the two groups . . . the first, raised with both parents, and the second,  that had been raised only by their mothers. The results showed that mice raised without a father demonstrated abnormal social interactions.

This group of subjects also showed more aggressive patterns of behavior in comparison with their counterparts raised with both parents. In addition, these effects were stronger for female offspring. Interestingly females raised without fathers also had a greater sensitivity to the stimulant drug–amphetamine.*

Before continuing, it’s important to note that these experiments were conducted on animals . . . mice, to be precise. While we don’t normally think of mice as paternalistic creatures, neuroscientists assure us that these results are significant.

“Although we used mice, the findings are extremely relevant to humans,” claims Dr. Gabriella Gobbi, a researcher of the Mental Illness and Addiction Axis at the RI-MUHC, senior author and an associate professor at the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University. “We used California mice which, like in some human populations, are monogamous and raise their offspring together.”

California mice? Monogamous? Who would have thought!

Whether you place much stock in this scientific research or not, most honest individuals acknowledge the significance our father and mother share in our early formation.

C.S. Lewis’ loss of his mother and the great distance between himself and his father greatly impacted the development of his personality. Lewis goes so far as to make this confession in Surprised by Joy: “With the cruelty of youth I allowed myself to be irritated by traits in my father which, in other elderly men, I have since regarded as lovable foibles.”

Elsewhere, Lewis writes longingly of the intimate relationship he longed to have had with his own father. Describing the source of author George MacDonald’s guiding inspiration in life, he writes:

An almost perfect relationship with his father was the earthly root of all his wisdom. From his own father, he said, he first learned that Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe. He was thus prepared in an unusual way to teach that religion in which the relation of Father and Son is of all relations the most central. (George MacDonald: An Anthology).

I did not have that sort of relationship with my own father. I strove to give it as a gift to my children though. And today, while I continue to be their dad, I am acutely aware of the kind of grandfather I am.

Whether it truly affects those developing minds or not, I am committed to caring for each of them as well as is humanly possible.

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* You can read the quoted article in The Neuropsychotherapist here. The abstract for the original research is available here.