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What Meryn Callander and John Travis call DDD, the dynamic of disappearing dads, is no exercise in empty syndrome-mongering.


We are faced with the distressing fact that an increasing number of children are being diagnosed with an array of developmental disorders, from attention deficit disorder to oppositional defiant disorder, from autism spectrum disorder to anxiety and depression. According to recent statistics, nearly fifty per cent of American adolescents meet the diagnostic criteria for one or another mental health problem. The burgeoning numbers of troubled children, rising at almost exponential rates, cannot be explained by the narrowly biological perspective that still dominates medical thinking: that such conditions are genetically determined and reflect unfortunate aberrations of brain physiology.


Callander grounds her analysis in a biopsychosocial view, according to which the biology—and most especially the neurobiology—of human beings is inseparable from the social and emotional environment in which they are conceived, develop and live. This inextricable link between the bio-psychological functions of people is a lifelong process: malleable, thankfully, but deeply affected by early experience. The studies showing this lifelong interactive process, and especially the crucial influence of the early years, are hardly even controversial, albeit largely unknown to most mainstream health care professionals, such as physicians and psychologists.


The great child psychiatrist, D.W. Winnicott, once pointed out that two things can go wrong in childhood that may adversely affect development: When things happen that shouldn’t happen (e.g., trauma), and when things do not happen that should happen. This latter refers not to overt trauma, but to the stresses and distractions that keep many parents these days from offering their children the attuned, emotionally present interactions that optimal brain- and personality development require. Many children are being negatively affected in this way, even if not formally traumatized.


In short, attachment—the bond between child and parent—is the crucial dynamic in human development. Most attachment work has focused on the mother-infant interaction, and properly so. In the first few months at least, that relationship provides the child with the world—and, in the final analysis—with the worldview that will shape his or her experience of life. But Callander rightly balances that by bringing the oft-forgotten figure of the father back into the picture.


Studies now point to the presence of the nurturing male parent as also important to healthy development—witness, for example, the fact that girls with absentee fathers tend to menstruate earlier, not to mention that they are also more likely to engage in precocious sexual behavior. In a society that tends to lay the duties of emotional nourishing almost exclusively onto the shoulders of women, we need hardly mention the crucial modeling that a nurturing father provides for male offspring. Dorothy Dinnerstein’s book The Mermaid And The Minotaur argues persuasively that the absence of male nurturing, the making of nurturing an exclusively female domain, has a distorting effect on the development of both boys and girls.


Apart from the direct influence of the emotionally nurturing father on the infant, there is his essential role as the supporter of the mother, not just physically but—equally important—psychologically. Here, too, the studies are clear: women lacking such support are more likely to develop postpartum depression which, in turn, is a significant risk factor for developmental maladjustments such as ADHD. In all cases of postpartum depression I have seen as a physician, the woman lacked adequate emotional support, and this was often owing to the emotional withdrawal of the father because his own unconscious needs were being threatened by the presence of the infant.


Callander does not approach the issue of the disappearing dad as a moral crusade.  She is no judge but a compassionate investigator. Post-industrial society has torn asunder relationship ties, has almost completely destroyed the historical attachment village—it really does take a village to raise a child—such a society exerts intolerable stresses on many couples and individuals. Without the multigenerational supportive context that previous eras took for granted, many men find themselves overburdened by the parenting task, especially if they themselves were denied the presence of an emotionally available father during their formative years.


As the author points out, many men, “even if they remain in the home… are often emotionally absent—through depression, workaholism, violence/aggression, physical or emotional abuse or a retreat into addiction to substances, media, consumer goods, sports, food, or sex.” This is the dynamic Alan Schore has called “proximal abandonment”—when the parents is physically present, but emotionally missing.

Beyond analysis—a science-based and balanced analysis, Why Dads Leave is also a call for action. It is no longer enough for health care providers, educators, social workers and policy makers to respond to the lamentable consequences of the dynamic of the disappearing dad. At all levels of social influence problem must be recognized and creative and humane solutions and preventive strategies must be created. Men do not need condemnation; they need help so that their children can be helped. Why Dads Leavewill be a powerful support to anyone moved to take up that challenge. What the authors call the “hidden epidemic” of fathers leaving their families needs to be stopped.


Gabor Maté, MD


Co-author of Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers


Vancouver, British Columbia

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