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How Forced Family Separation Fucks Up Fathers, Too

An expert on how men process trauma says it’s uniquely bad for them

It’s not difficult to imagine the effects of President Donald Trump’s recent border policies on some 2,300 children, brutally separated from their parents with no one permitted even to hug them. But while family separation sets up its young victims for lifelong trauma, it hurts their parents, too. Fathers in particular may lack effective coping skills to weather the split.

Recently, Honduran man Marco Antonio Muñoz, whose 3-year-old was removed from his arms by physical force because he wouldn’t let go, was so devastated that he hung himself in a Texas jail. In December 2017, a migrant father of two named Jose Demar Fuentes, seeking asylum from gang violence in El Salvador, watched his 1-year-old son taken away from him even though he held his child’s original birth certificate. “I feel powerless not being with them,” Fuentes told PBS, crying. “Not being able to hug them. Kiss them. Play with them.” He said he couldn’t eat, sleep or relax not knowing whether his sons were okay.

“We’ve interviewed a ton of fathers [separated from families at the border], and we’ve seen more fathers than mothers for some reason,” says Efren Olivares, Racial and Economic Justice Program Director at Texas Civil Rights Project. The project, which advocates for immigrant rights, recently filed an emergency request to stop separating families at the Texas-Mexico border and reunite those separated. “[Their accounts] deconstruct the popular belief that mothers are always closer to the children. I’ve had many fathers break down sobbing in our interviews talking about the possibility of being separated for a longer period of time from their children.”

Olivares, a father himself, recalls one of the first fathers he interviewed, acting as advocate for his reunification in court. “I asked him what he thought would happen to his son if he was deported without him,” Olivares says. “Tears started rolling down his face. ‘If I’m deported without my son, my boy will die of sadness,’ he told me.”

Experts in treating male trauma say family separation can be a devastating event for men in unique ways. “This will be seen as a major traumatic event for them,” says Gavin Cooper, a therapist with 20 years of experience working with male trauma, and publisher of Intervene Now, a site aimed at men’s unique experiences processing it. “A lot of fathers will turn to substances [when separated from their children] to deaden feelings and emotions. We see higher rates of suicide, and men who will no longer be able to function in mainstream society may also lose their jobs.”

Cooper says while mothers enduring extreme hardship like this are more likely to slip into depression, a sense of built-in responsibility to care for the child will “override her personal sense of well-being,” and prevent her from self-harm, whereas a man may take extreme measures to rectify the extreme bereavement he’s experiencing. “He’ll do far more drastic things to repair himself, whether it’s alcohol, other substances or suicide, because it’s, in effect, a bereavement,” Cooper says.

“I get the sense [from our interviews] that there’s this feeling of defeat, in trying to protect their children and make their lives better, they’ve been separated and can’t be the protector,” Olivares says. “It’s horrible. It’s hard for all the parents and the children, but especially heartbreaking for many of them to try to save their children from threats and violence in their home countries, and then this.”

Olivares says in many instances, the mother is back home, caring for other children or family members. Or she’s been killed and the father may be the only provider or caregiver.

In some ways, Cooper notes, the experience of separation somewhat mirrors that of fathers who’ve lost custody in divorce, and incarcerated fathers, particularly those who have no communication with their children and have no information on their whereabouts. Research has found that they experience significantly higher levels of depression and anxiety, in addition to extreme feelings of powerlessness and guilt.

Even after reuniting with the child or children, these fathers may still face challenges. “When a child is taken away, even for a short time, it takes a lot of work to get back to normal,” Cooper says. “The father may still feel disconnected, and it may take time to re-bond with that child.”

The disruption can also uniquely affect a father’s self-worth as provider and protector, of their children but also the children’s mother, particularly because they will feel helpless for failing to stop the forced separation and no longer able to ensure their safety.

Cooper says this particular sense of powerlessness over failing to offer protection may sound outdated, but it’s still true for many men in spite of numerous societal changes that have seen fathers increasingly more engaged in child-rearing and childcare, and a greater number of women in the workforce. “It’s different now, of course, you have husbands keeping home and successful wives out working,” he says. “But it will still take many generations before we recognize the father’s role in a similar way to a mother’s.”

Not to mention, these fathers, Olivares explains, are often en route from Latin American countries, particularly the northern triangle of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where gender roles are more rigidly traditional for men and women. “The father [is] the principal breadwinner and [he’s] doing this for his children,” he says.

Cooper says the best-case scenario for these fathers is obviously to be reunited with their children. After that, though, they definitely should seek help immediately to deal with the trauma. “They will need therapy, they will need family support,” he says. “They need to try to set aside society’s preconceptions of what a man should be. The old saying isn’t true. Real men do cry. It’s okay. Men do need support. There are men’s groups, online forums. Sometimes even just venting their emotions will be adequate to repair.”

Olivares says Trump’s recent signing of an executive order to at least detain families together is “a bit of progress in the sense that now children won’t be separated as long from parents,” but he’s skeptical. “Let’s see how this plays out,” he says. “As an immigration advocate, I’m still devastated that in 2018 the official policy of the U.S. government is to build internment camps.”