Thursday, November 6, 2008

The fatherless

From the New Zealand Herald:

What an electrifying night Wednesday night was! Even though most had picked Obama to win, the American public is such a diverse bunch that a sure-thing is never really a sure-thing until the key states are won and strategists on both sides of the political debate are predicting the same result.

And so Obama won, and it was a historic day for the U.S. and the world. But while he's broken many barriers, there seems to me one way in which president-elect Obama is not that unusual. Once more, a man who effectively grew up without his father is about to become (one of the) most powerful men in the world.

Barack Obama's father, Barack Hussein Obama, was a Kenyan who met his mother while a foreign student at the University of Hawaii. The pair married but soon divorced, Obama senior returning to Kenya to father several more children before dying in a car accident in 1982.

Obama Jnr was largely rasied by his maternal grandmother and grandfather in Hawaii, though it is his grandmother who he credits in almost every interview for giving him his unique drive and inspiration in life.

Many, many presidents of the United States lost their fathers early. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Teddy Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge all lost their fathers before they were out of their teens. Some, like Bill Clinton, lost their biological fathers before they were born (and in Clinton's case was raised by a violent, alcoholic stepfather).

Psychologists believe there is something to losing a father at a young age which can give rise to a revolutionary - Jefferson and Washington fit this mold, as do - on the other side of the coin - Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong.

Certainly there seems to be something about an absent father that affects a life: some believe this to be the "reconstructed father". The idea is that when a father is absent, a man will either reconstruct him as some kind of hero and strive to be like him or make him proud; or will hate him and rise up against him (his image).

It has also been noted that in many of these cases where fathers were absent, but also where they were present but uninvolved or unlovable, it will be the influence of a very strong mother figure that will stamp itself on the young man.

Certainly Bill Clinton seemed very close to his mother despite the fact she was a gambling addict and married five times, often badly. Sometimes the mother is besotted with her son to the point of questionable mental stability.

Of course there are some notable exceptions to this fatherless rule of thumb - John F Kennedy had a very domineering father who propelled him to the top, and the Bush dynasty seems to create high achiever following high achiever (whatever you think they make of that achievement!)

It's interesting to ponder this pattern in our modern world where much is made of one-parent households and how prevalent they are.

What I have witnessed in my own life is that people without fathers seem to be more free to find their own paths in life and be their own people, be it for better or worse.

This can be better if they can negotiate their youth well with the help of a switched on and tuned in mother (or family), but can also lead to arrested development and perpetual adolescence (drug abuse, violence etc).

Of course, there are always those who will rise above whatever family circumstances they find themselves in and succeed. But there's no doubting that many of today's most successful politicians, entertainers and other luminaries did grow up without their fathers, and there must be something to that.

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