When Fathers Leave

When Fathers Leave is a deep and painful cry of a daughter who is reflecting on what it means to be abandoned by her own father. Makhadzi Lukhaimane tells a “story full of emptiness”. She makes the penetrating point that there are no “fatherless” children, but fathers who (regardless of how they might justify it) have made a conscious choice to abandon their own children.

Lukhaimane lays herself bare as she takes the reader through her personal experiences growing up with a deep yearning for her father’s attention, love and presence. She shares her experience as a young girl at the maintenance court with her mother. This left me conflicted about whether children should be protected from such processes, or whether it is in fact their reality which they have to go through and internalise. A young Makhadzi also talks about what it means to have to go through a paternity test. She concludes that for her it meant ultimate rejection and confirmation that she is not wanted. Another ‘aha’ moment for me was how she reacted to her father bringing “an envelope” to her on the street and him not even talking to her. At face value it seemed to me that at least this father was providing for her, but to Makhadzi the child it was all about being reduced to hand-outs.

At the heart of this painful read is a flood of feelings that Lukhaimane catalogues. As a child she is confused about why her father in not present in their lives. She does not understand why he treats her differently from his other children and she concludes that there must be something wrong with her. As she grows older, her confusion graduates into turmoil, anguish and resentment. Her humiliation and shame are such that she goes around saying her father died. She “(feels) like a mistake he was desperate to erase”. She is constantly disappointed by all his broken promises, some of which are her own imagination. She is angry at the loss of identity, which I guess is to be expected, especially for a black person as identity is tightly linked to paternal lineage.

Lukhaimane goes on to demonstrate the impact her fatherlessness has had on her. She talks about “a lifetime worth of scars”. She reveals the negative traits she has developed as a form of self-protection and self-preservation. She finds it difficult to commit to relationships and has deep trust issues because she sees herself as essentially not worthy of being loved. She also finds herself lowering the bar regarding men in her life.  Lukhaimane also brings in some of her friends to the story, to show that this is a wide spread phenomenon.

The last two chapters of the book are about Lukhaimane’s journey to self-acceptance, self-love, self-forgiveness and healing. It is a useful guide to anyone who has gone through a similar experience. However, she emphasises that even having gone through this arduous journey, it is not realist to expect a “normal father-child relationship”.

Lukhaimane ends this painful read with a hard-hitting admission:

“I cannot deny my DNA, and the fact remains that my father is my father. However, there is no place for him in my heart”.

When Fathers Leave is a short, sobering and painful reflection of the reality of many South African children (and adults). I recommend it to all fathers, be they absent or present in their children’s lives. It would also be useful to anyone journeying (or who has journeyed) though life with an absent father.