A Fatherless Child..Just Not the Right One

I grew up in Mississippi a fatherless child. But something tells me State Auditor Shad White’s “fatherless” report wasn’t talking about me.

For ten years in Mississippi, I was raised by a single mother who didn’t have a paying job. We got by thanks in part to government assistance from Social Security. Yet, no one cites studies that show how my future was predetermined by my fatherless soul. No one worried I was lacking discipline at home and would pay the price by funneling myself to prison. No one fretted over my certain fall off the virginity wagon into teenage pregnancy. No one lauded my exceptionalism when I escaped my destiny, graduated high school, and went to college then law school. 

Why not?

If this statement seems like a no-brainer — of course you’re not the “fatherless child” we’re talking about, then — again — why not? 

My father was absolutely gone during my formative years. He died when I was three, and my mother only remarried when I was in the 7th grade. So if this myriad of problems attaches to fatherless households, why didn’t they attach to me? Could it be the problem doesn’t lie with the lack of a father but the lack of something else?

My Life as a Fatherless Child

Here’s what I knew when I was a child: I had money in the bank, I just couldn’t get to it. You see, I had a grandfather with enough money to create a trust for his dead son’s young daughters. We didn’t have many of the things my friends had — new cars and vacations — but Mother was able to buy us a house, and we belonged to River Hills Tennis Club. Mother may have counted our lunch money into tin cans, but we never doubted we’d get braces if our crooked teeth needed straightening. We were not poor.

Despite the “no dad” thing, people had expectations of me. Family and teachers expected me to be smart. People expected me to go to college (reasonable given that trust fund.) I wove these expectations into high hopes and lofty goals, which others routinely discouraged not because I was fatherless, but because I was penis-less, a whole ‘nother story. 

How We View a Child

Truth is, we construct all kinds of lens to view success through: money, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, able-bodiedness, attractiveness, perceived immigration status. For those on the other side of our views, we flatten expectations.

When my mother remarried, I gained a new daddy whom I adored. So who knows? Maybe if he hadn’t come into my life, I would have wound up a pregnant shop-lifting juvenile delinquent. But I doubt it. Not because I was the exception that proves the rule, but because no one expected that of me, and we had financial means to make those expectations real.

Is the Problem Fatherless-ness?

Why am I writing about this now, almost fifty years since I was a child? Because the Mississippi State Auditor recently released a report on “fatherless” families. Shad White examined these kids through the lens of their cost to taxpayers. (White is kind of making my point by equating “fatherlessness” with children who might cost the state money, but I digress.) He called the families of these children “broken homes.” I’m sure if we spoke, he would say he wasn’t maligning my family. But if the denominator is “fatherless,” I was fatherless. If I’m not in the conversation, perhaps the problem lies elsewhere.

Auditor White did offer a “solution” to his perceived problem. Unfortunately, it wasn’t his office increasing opportunities for kids in mom-run families to reach their goals. Nope, he suggested we drive kids into the junior military. I can tell you, if you wanted to make sure I wound up a pregnant juvenile delinquent drop-out, just tell me I had to join JROTC.

I’m sure Auditor White’s heart was in the right place. But if his report can’t include me, maybe the problem doesn’t lie within the ”fatherless” families. Maybe it lies with us, those who view the family a certain way. If so, exactly who needs to change?

The mother who raised us fatherless children
My mother, who raised us fatherless children until Mr. Van Hecke became our new dad

fatherless child report, fatherless children, fatherless children in Mississippi, State Auditor Shad White

Comments (9)

  • Your mother was lovely. And I have great sympathy for young Ellen. Very intriguing post for me. I agree with much of what you say, but want to add one thing. In general (and I mean not in every case), gender is a huge factor. My father grew up without ever having a father. They were poor, but my grandmother worked hard as head fitter for the 28 shop at Marshall Field’s and took in other sewing and tailoring work at night. My aunt had to take care of the twin brothers who were 4 years younger. Not having a father affected my father VERY much, and as a father he had issues and used to say, “I don’t know how to be a father.” You’ll find it in my upcoming memoir . . . .

    • TY! That was a college or high school “Beauty” photo of Mother, I think. It took me a long time to realize she was a “single mom” to us three girls, because it was just what it was. But no matter the extreme impact Daddy Joe’s death had on me and my trust in the world, I never thought of myself as “fatherless.” We were a complete unit that happened not to include a dad. That sounds contradictory, but such is a young girl’s life. I think your comment about gender is really interesting. I can imagine if we’d had a brother, he might have been much less ready to describe us a self-contained. And you have sewing in your family tree. <3 BUT! The major thing is that I will get to read it in your memoir!!!

  • This time I wanted more, a lot more. I was looking for some discussion of the actual issues associated with the intersection of race and poverty in Mississippi–or any other former confederate state. I understand that you are not impressed with the auditor and his ideas and that you, although poor as a child, succeeded in life. This could be read as blaming victims for their troubles, but since I know you, I know that was not your intention. So I hope we can hear more from you along these lines. I have been impressed with your determination to write about the difficult issues still facing us in our country and in the South in particular. Please keep it up. Your writing is helpful and necessary.

    • You’re right, Joe: I did not intend to blame the victim. Quite the opposite. I feel the auditor is blaming the make up of families rather than our own skewed expectations and access to resources to make dreams come true. In his report, he never actually mentions race. And not until a rebuttal did he mention a type of father causing the problem (“deadbeat dads.”) The bottom line: if he’s the auditor who by definition deals in $, then he should be figuring out how to solve the $ problem, not blaming families.

      Thank you for reading and furthering the conversation!

      • Sounds like White is the one blaming the victim, and/or making children pay for the “sins of their fathers” or their mothers or whoever he thinks is to blame for the “broken home.” I didn’t think you were blaming the victim; instead, you illustrate how other people’s expectations of you made it more likely that you would succeed (however you want to define success) than fail.

        I grew up more or less fatherless, my mom pretty much raising four kids herself. We were poor, we didn’t have a trust fund, but we did have a generous neighbor and government assistance. We were poor but because our government assistance came in the form of Social Security checks, we were still encouraged to have disdain for the “welfare family” down the road. I also come from a large extended family, and I attribute that large extended family to my survival. I wish our society would stop seeing single-parent households as a problem. The real problem (or at least part of it), in my humble opinion, is the whittling down of the family down to its nucleus, expecting such a small unit to fend for itself. Like someone said once, “it takes a village” 😉

        • Ellen Morris Prewitt

          So true, so true, all of what you say. I can so relate to the Social Security vs. “welfare” perception. It took me way into my adulthood to realize we got SSI… that was government assistance! Our extended family was a big help, too, even in the sense that my mother’s mom often took us three girls for the weekend so Mother could have some time off. I particularly like your point about the deification of a particular type of nuclear family against which all other are measured as “problems.” As we say in the Great Lamentation, Good Lord, deliver us.

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