Mothers, children, fathers
In this age of smartphones and social media, the world, in near real time, got to see the spectacle of American black single and jobless mother Toya Graham 'manhandling' her rioting six-footer son Michael and chasing him off the streets during the Baltimore riots.
On Mother's Day, three cheers for Mama Toya. She has been widely voted 'Mom of the Year', with a lot of people conveniently forgetting the banning of corporal punishment in allegedly advanced places. Even Michael is grateful.
Mama Toya's boy is a prime candidate for underachievement, crime, prison, or police bullets. He's black. He's poor. And he is the child of a single mother; one of six. He and his mother and siblings would be right at home in Jamaica on this count. Some 45 per cent of our households are headed by single mothers.
Michael's biggest handicap and risk factor is not his colour, or his family's poverty, or his address on the wrong side of Baltimore; it is the absence of his father.
While we celebrate our mothers, we have to consider the serious implications of the absence of the fathers from too many families like Toya Graham's.
African-Americans lead their country in father absenteeism, with 65 per cent out-of-marriage births, while stubbornly stuck, like Mama Toya and her fatherless children, at the economic base of the society, a condition usually and very conveniently blamed on race rather than on family. Our own 2011 census says 68 per cent of Jamaicans over 16 have never married, against a mere 24 per cent who have and remain married. More than 80 per cent of Jamaican children are born out of wedlock. The majority of these used to not even have their fathers' names on their birth certificates, the most basic association with a father. The Registrar General's Department has been trying to change this.
Our extraordinary national lack of commitment to formal marriage would be bad and not too bad if stable and permanent alternative relationships were the order of the day. But the loose visiting relationship starting early in life, with multiple sequential partnerships over the prime childbearing and child-rearing years, is a main feature of man-woman-child relationships here.
Single mother pride
We may have elevated the single mother to almost national hero status, right up there near Nanny of the Maroons, but fatherlessness is a millstone around our national neck, weighing us down and choking development. The Government is beginning to catch on. Minister of National Security Peter Bunting has said the lack of a father figure is one of the main reasons many young men join gangs and get involved in a life of crime. He is not shooting from the lips.
And Minister of Education Ronald Thwaites has said the lack of a father in many Jamaican homes must be viewed as a socio-economic disability. This absence, he added, often hampers the development of these children in many respects.
"Weak family structure is a chronic disability within the Jamaican society ... ; it is a disability when you don't have a stable structure - a relationship between mother and father - in the raising of a child. It compounds all the other issues. It is something so sensitive that we need to bring it into the open and deal with it," he states. Interestingly, the minister said this while addressing a conference last year on Promoting the Rights of Children with Disabilities!
US statistical data are showing that children from fatherless homes are 20 times more likely to end up in prison; 32 times more likely to run away; 20 times more likely to have behavioural disorders; 14 times more likely to commit rape; nine times more likely to drop out of high school; 10 times more likely to abuse drugs; five times more likely to commit suicide; nine times more likely to end up in a state-operated institution; two times more likely to have children during their teenage years (perpetuating the cycle).
There is more from there: 85% of all children that exhibit behavioural disorders come from fatherless homes; 90% of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes; 71% of all high-school dropouts come from fatherless homes; 71% of teenage pregnancies are to children of single parents, so the cycle continues; 75% of all adolescent patients in chemical-abuse centres come from fatherless homes; 63% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes; 80% of rapists come from fatherless homes; 70% of juveniles in state facilities come from fatherless homes; 85% of all incarcerated youth grew up in fatherless homes.
Psychologist Edward Kruk, in a paper in Psychology Today on father absence, father deficit and father hunger, produced his own list of woes from the literature: Children without fathers actively in their lives have diminished self-concept and compromised physical and emotional security. These children consistently report feeling abandoned when their fathers are not involved in their lives, struggling with their emotions, and bouts of self-loathing.
Fatherless children have more difficulties with social adjustment and are more likely to have problems with friendships, and manifest behaviour problems; many develop a swaggering, intimidating persona in an attempt to disguise their underlying fears, resentments, anxieties and unhappiness. Gangs and violence and the adoration of the gun as power spring out of this condition.
Fatherless children have more trouble academically, scoring poorly on tests of reading, mathematics, and thinking skills. Promiscuity and teen pregnancy are much worse for children without a father presence.
Fatherless children, Kruk notes, are more likely to experience problems with sexual health, including a greater likelihood of having intercourse before the age of 16, foregoing contraception during first intercourse, becoming teenage parents, and contracting sexually transmitted infections.
Girls, as psychologists put it, manifest an object hunger for males, and in feeling the emotional loss of their fathers as a rejection of themselves, they become open to exploitation by adult men.
Contrary to popular opinion of father as abuser, fatherless children experience more exploitation and abuse. Fatherless children are at greater risk, Kruk says, of suffering physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, being five times more likely to have experienced physical abuse and emotional maltreatment, with a 100-times higher risk of fatal abuse. One study reported that preschoolers not living with both of their biological parents are 40 times more likely to be sexually abused.
Physical and mental health is also affected negatively by fatherlessness. Fatherless children report significantly more psychosomatic health symptoms. Father-absent children are consistently over-represented on a wide range of mental-health problems, particularly anxiety, depression and suicide, and they even die younger, on average, Kruk shows. Fatherless children live an average of four years less over the lifespan!
And this terrible cycle tends to perpetuate itself as father-starved children have poorer and weaker relationships. Father-absent children tend to enter partnerships earlier, are more likely to divorce or dissolve their cohabiting unions, and are more likely to have children outside of any stable partnership.
Even if there are mitigating factors here in Jamaica like the celebrated grandma factor in our parenting, it is abundantly clear, even without our own hard data, that we are confronted with a major social disaster where stable two-parent families with a strong father presence have never been the norm. Some of our biggest problems - crime, low educational performance - poor social relations, and, yes, weak economic performance - have their roots in family structure.
We need more mothers like Baltimore's Toya Graham getting and keeping their children off the streets and out of trouble. But children need their fathers to flourish.