“What do you want people to know?” asked Eva Pilgrim, an anchor on Good Morning America.
“Mmmm, kinda that I miss him,” responded six-year-old Gianna Floyd.
“What was your dad like?”
“He played with me,” she said. The poignancy of the past tense reflecting America’s tumultuous moment of reflection.
“She didn’t have to play with nobody else because daddy was gonna play with her all day long,” added Gianna’s mother, shaking her head.
On May 25, 2020, when her father, George Floyd was killed on the streets of Minneapolis, Minnesota by a police officer, Gianna Floyd became a fatherless child.
As Father’s Day approaches, beyond honoring the living and committed father figures in our lives, how do we reconcile the needs of children like Gianna, left to grow up without a dad?
According to the 2017 US Census Bureau data, about 19.7 million children live in homes without a father in America. That’s more than one in four children inclusive of all ethnicities and races.
As expected, the data skews dramatically for race-specific analysis. National Kids Count data indicates that in 2018, 65 percent of black children, 53 percent of Native American, and 41 percent of Latino children lived in single-parent families, nationwide.
In San Francisco, the 2018 American Community Survey analysis estimated that in households with children, about 10,356 households are without a biological father and 3,356 without a mother.
More than a hundred years ago, the idea of Father’s Day was conceived to pay homage to a single dad. Sonora Smart Dodd of Spokane, Washington came up with the idea when she was listening to a Mother’s Day sermon in 1909. William Smart was a widower with 14 children, including Sonora. She went on to spend the next 60 years campaigning for the official recognition of a day to honor the commitments of fathers. It was only in 1972 that President Richard Nixon signed a resolution declaring the third Sunday in June to be Father’s Day.
Research has consistently advocated for fathers to stay involved in children’s lives and it does make sense. A host of negative effects is attributed to growing up without regular interactions with a biological parent.
President Obama alluded to his own insecurities growing up without his father. “I didn’t have a dad in the house. And I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time. I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do. I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short.”
In being deprived of a father, it is the loss or lack of an emotional bond between father and child that creates a sense of abandonment. And when it exists, often this emotional connection is strong enough to bind even through forced separations.
I grew up in a Catholic boarding school run by Irish nuns in a small industrial town in the eastern part of India. I was admitted when I was four years old, to come home only on school breaks and holidays every year. My father would, however, come to visit me every month, and we’d sit in the parlor, with a nun present, and he’d talk to me for the prescribed hour. I don’t recall the conversations, but I do recall how we would cling to each other when it was time for him to leave. I never, not once, ever felt the absence of my father in my life, though he was largely physically absent from it.
The very definition of fatherhood has shifted to accommodate the diverse ways we construct families and stay connected. The impact of fatherhood often cannot be measured by time-worn techniques.
It is indisputable though that the removal of fathers from children’s lives, through death, disease or incarceration is a trauma that’s hard to overcome and has affected black families indiscriminately.
Bruce Western, professor of sociology at Harvard University, and Christopher Wildeman, Health and Society scholar at the University of Michigan, authors of “The Black Family and Mass Incarceration,” found that between 1980 to 2000, one in 11 black children had an incarcerated father—nine percent—compared to 1.2 percent for whites and 3.5 percent for Latino children.
“Just as incarceration has become a normal life event for disadvantaged young black men, parental incarceration has become commonplace for their children,” noted the authors. Having a father removed due to incarceration, the study went on to add, dramatically reduces opportunity for children growing up without a steady fatherly presence. For white children born in 1990, when fathers were incarcerated, the cumulative risk of becoming a high school dropout was 7.1 percent whereas for black children it was 49.4 percent!
These last few weeks, as I watch, participate and record the outpouring of men, women, and even babies, demanding justice and racial equality for black lives, I can’t help but hope that this moment will be decisive.
And as I wish The City’s fathers and father figures a wonderful Father’s Day, I’ll leave you to think about little Gianna Floyd and her hopes and dreams as she looks ahead at her own life. “I know what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be a doctor,” she said and then after a pause, adding, “I want to take care of people.”
Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.