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The Legacy of Father's Day Without a Father

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On Father's Day, I know I'm not alone as my mind reverts to thinking about an absence, rather than celebrating a presence. Like too many other young men and women around the country, I grew up without a father. Instead, I relied on my mother -- along with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and various community role models -- to help fill a void that seemed bottomless.

My father died in front of me from a rare illness when I was still a young child. But even though I didn't have much chance to know him, my father was and remains a hero to me. I know that this is not the experience of every young person thinking about an absent father. I have come to know another young man who shares my name -- another Wes Moore of my generation -- who is currently serving a life sentence for the felony murder of an off-duty police officer, whose young children, once he was taken from them, also grew up fatherless. I'll never forget a conversation I had with Wes in jail during which he told me, "Your father wasn't there because he couldn't be, my father wasn't there because he chose not to be. Therefore, we are going to mourn their absence differently." True, but regardless of how our respective losses came about, the anger, fear, and confusion triggered in their wake was equally potent. So on a day that's meant to celebrate the men in our lives who not only help give us our genetic identity, but also provide our first powerful example of what we should expect from the men in our lives, I find myself thinking about those of us who did not have this figure, and about how their absence has helped shape a generation.

There are practical, quantifiable consequences of our country's countless absentee fathers: a single parent is stretched thinner financially and so has less money to pay for extracurricular activities like tutoring or specialized schooling, even as they also have less time to supervise their children. I watched my own mother work multiple jobs in order to provide for my sisters and me. I watched tears roll down her face when she felt that, despite Herculean efforts, she was on the losing side. But absentee fathers leave a psychological legacy that often defies compensation. When your father leaves, or was never there for you in the first place, you feel that you are dispensable, and many kids spend their lives dealing with that stigma.

Our societal approach to helping young kids in embattled rural and urban neighborhoods has to factor in that damaged sense of self worth along with the material deficit. I'm not advocating for more of the much-mocked "self-esteem" lessons -- but rather for giving kids the chance to grow their own self-esteem through role-modeling leadership, and support. My own journey into manhood first began to make sense to me the moment when I felt the weight of responsibility placed upon my shoulders at military school. When I was put in charge of something, I began to understand that I was a part of something larger than myself. Young kids look for engagement and belonging; they need above all to feel that their existence matters. Kids very rationally gravitate toward the places where they feel strongest. If we don't provide socially desirable avenues for our kids to acquire a sense of personal strength and self-worth, we have been shown time and time again that they find those avenues on their own -- no matter how dark the end-game. This is why providing as many options as possible for deserving single parents to participate in expanded networks of family and community is so crucial to our society. Mentoring programs such as Raising Him Alone and Big Brothers Big Sisters deserve our unstinting support.

There are other challenges we face as well. It's important to recognize that there can be structural and legal impediments that prevent some fathers from being involved in their children's lives, even when those fathers want to play a role in raising their children. Thoughtful evaluation of visitation restrictions for fathers and fair child support laws that encourage involvement must also be part of the national conversation on this crucial issue. Separately, it's also been found that there is a direct correlation between a rise in the numbers of teenage mothers and of single mothers. Therefore, we must attack the phenomenon of young people becoming parents before they're even ready to look after themselves with every asset in our arsenal. President Obama's 2010 budget proposes allotting $164 million for teenage pregnancy prevention, and that is a good thing, particularly when you consider the National Fatherhood Initiative indicated in a June 2009 report that the federal government will spend $100 billion annually to support homes without a father. Discussions of birth control and the ramifications of teenage pregnancy for both the mother and the child need to be included in the evaluation.

This crisis is a national issue -- not a problem limited to one socio-economic group, one race, or one jurisdiction. Right now, 24 million children are growing up in homes where biological fathers are not present. And in fact, contrary to popular stereotypes, the fastest growing group of single parents in our country consists of white women between the ages 20-24. For the fiscal and social health of our nation, Fathers Day needs to become a summons to society to create a broad infrastructure of role-modeling and engaged support that enables young people without a father to grow up to live positive, fulfilling lives -- even when the void in their hearts can never be completely filled.