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Boys Without Fathers: 3 Myths, 3 Miracles

"Who's missing" from a child's life isn't as important as "who's there."

Daphne McWilliams
Source: Daphne McWilliams

Do a quick search of “boys raised without fathers” and you’ll quickly find yourself buried under an avalanche of horrifying statistics. More likely to drop out of school, more likely to develop drug or alcohol problems, more likely to be incarcerated; the bad news goes on and on. One study went so far as to claim that fatherlessness permanently alters brain structure, causing higher levels of aggression and anger in children.

This is what makes the new documentary IN A PERFECT WORLD… such an important and timely film. Director Daphne McWilliams bravely explores the health and hardiness of men raised by single mothers.

Ms. McWilliams begins the film with her own pregnancy and fearlessly records her parenting struggles with his son from infancy through his teen years. We see Ms. McWilliams pregnant and dancing with her baby’s father. By the time her son is a toddler, his father’s smile is fading and soon he is missing entirely. Ms. McWilliams suddenly finds herself unwittingly thrust into the world of single moms.

IN A PERFECT WORLD… also follows the lives of eight men from different socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures who were raised by single mothers and reveals how they triumphed over their father’s abandonment and went on to become outstanding fathers themselves. We see many of them in action, waking their kids in the morning, preparing meals, dropping their sons and daughters off at school. They move through parenting tasks with a passion and commitment to rarely seen in men.

The most remarkable and inspiring aspect of the film is the hope it conveys. The men in the film speak of the deep love and respect they have for their mothers. In raw and unscripted interviews, each man opens his heart, sheds tears about his mother’s struggle, and expresses how his mother remains a constant source of inspiration. The men also exhibit sensitivity and compassion for their absent fathers.

Recently, Ms. McWilliams and I screened the film for teenagers at Williamsburg Charter High School in Brooklyn. I was struck by how a room full of boisterous teens fell silent as they watched the film that mirrored many of their own experiences. During a discussion group after the screening, the teenagers shared their disappointment and anger toward their fathers. Yet, they were quick to identify men in their lives that stepped in as father figures.

One young girl pointed to the school dean seated next to her, a tall imposing man with a firm handshake and determined look, and announced:

“Mister Sanford is my true father. He’s a better father than my father ever was.”

When I asked why, her answer was straight to the point:

“He’s always there for me and he cares."

Soon Mr. Sanford and other adults in the room were choking back tears.

Outdated and Misleading Studies

Statistics are tricky. Cold hard facts leave can us feeling hopeless or scapegoating others. When lives are reduced to numbers on a page, we are in danger of losing touch with our humanity. Worse, simplistic statistics can feed unfound prejudice and fear. They rarely take into account men like Mr. Sanford who step up and changed children’s lives every day.

Before I get to the myths and miracles, I was able to speak to Daphne McWilliams about her experience as a parent and the director of IN A PERFECT WORLD…. Here’s what she had to say:

Do you think there are any positive aspects of boys growing up without fathers?

I wouldn’t label it with the word “positive” as in positive aspects of boys growing up without fathers. That being said, I know that a boy can be raised in a household without a father and there doesn’t have to be a negative outcome. It’s my personal feeling that it's in the best interest of the child (boy or girl) that they can have a relationship with their father. Naturally, this would be case-by-case, but I think children should “know” both of their parents. One important message I would like to get out to all the single parents reading this article: It is extremely important that you find nurturing things for you! I am still raising my son, but he sees my commitment to several activities that keep me calm and balanced.

With all the endless negative statistics about fatherless households, do you ever feel discouraged about your son’s future?

Absolutely NOT! I personally have never let statistics dictate my life, nor my son’s future. Statistics have their place in our society, but at the same time, they are broad strokes and not based on an individual case.

What did you find inspirational about the interviews with men who grew up without fathers?

I was inspired by how genuine each of the men were. They may have been speaking directly to me, but somehow I think they knew that their voices would be heard beyond the lens and the editing room. Each of their stories were the very thing that pushed me to complete this film (which I did with my own savings and credit cards). It was truly a blessing to have been in the room with each of them, they spoke and I listened.

3 Myths of Children Raised by Single Mothers

1. Fatherless boys inevitably suffer delinquent tendencies.

The biggest problem with the fatherlessness label is that it oversimplified. It doesn’t reveal why some children in the studies are without a father.

Was it caused by a divorce?

Is the mother a widow?

Did a female couple raise the child?

These details completely transform study outcomes. For example, boys raised by a mother and stepfather (a two-parent home) have the highest negative outcomes, much more than those raised by a single mother. In fact, juvenile delinquency and substance abuse are highest among children raised by parents in hostile marriages (two-parent homes).

High conflict levels at home inherently cause the greatest damage to children’s wellbeing. Consequently, an intensely negative parent relationship can do far more damage than a missing parent.

2. Fatherless boys suffer from anger issues or depression.

Once again, the quality of the relationships in a child’s life determines his or her mental wellbeing. Boys without fathers didn’t choose their biological father, but they can choose their father figure, role model or mentor.

All the men in the film, including the director’s son, adopted loving and supportive men to fill the role of their father. Ms. McWilliams brothers, interviewed at her son’s soccer game, gladly stepped into the father role for their nephew.

3. Fatherless men don’t know how to be good fathers.

As the fathers in IN A PERFECT WORLD … demonstrate, being a parent offered them the opportunity to be the father that they never had. It motivated them to bond with their sons and daughters and heal their own painful childhoods.

Many men raised by single mothers I’ve worked with in therapy have demonstrated the same impressive tenacity and grit as the men in the film. By loving their children so deeply, they also stop letting their past define them.

3 Miracles Of Children Raised by Single Mothers

1. Men raised without fathers are equally successful in life.

The history of the United States is filled with stories of single mothers raising successful men. In fact, it dates back our first president, George Washington to President Obama. You can also find endless lists online of inventors and innovators, Olympic athletes, and musicians who were raised by single mothers.

2. Men who grew up without fathers can be outstanding parents.

The men featured IN A PERFECT WORLD... quietly grew into and embraced their role of dad. In fact, it is their history that fuels their determination to honor and love their own sons and daughters even more.

3. Men raised by women are often more sensitive and attuned emotionally.

In my 22 years of leading therapy groups, I’ve discovered that men and teenage boys raised by single mothers are frequently more sensitive to the feelings and needs of others, and more mindful in relationships with women.

Parenting Over Biology

Growing up in ideal circumstances doesn’t guarantee happiness. IN A PERFECT WORLD… reveals that the “who’s missing” isn’t as important as “who’s there.” After all, everyone faces obstacles in life; health complications, sudden tragedies, divorce.  IN A PERFECT WORLD… drops the labels and proves that with the right support, role models and love, any child can succeed.