Offering fatherless daughters a place to heal

During moments of heart-wrenching soul searching in 1998, Denna Babul began penning a memoir about the pain she felt from having twice lost her father: the time he divorced her mother and again 10 years later when he was murdered.

The first time she was 3 years old and the second time she was 13.

“I remember riding home from the funeral having a conversation with myself and God,” Babul said. “A voice said to me, ‘Yeah, your childhood is gonna suck but your adulthood is going to be great. This happened to you for a reason. You will do big things.’”

For years after, Babul was like so many other fatherless daughters, in and out of failed relationships, looking for love, and uncertain if she would ever be able to get love right because she had not been raised in a family with both a mother and a father as an example.

Babul was hardly alone, but for years, her conversations with Karin Luise amounted to monologues, then one day Luise just opened up. She’d been twice abandoned, too: once when her natural father signed over custody of her to her stepfather and again when her stepfather walked out of her life.

Both, they agreed, had been badly damaged by different ways in households where secrets sometimes became more important than safety and sanity. Secrets are that way. They cover the guilty and confuse the victims.

“I honestly thought every teen cried herself to sleep at night,” Luise said. “But when I got to college and finally opened up to friends, it became clear that things had gone terribly wrong in my home. It had just been my normal.”

As their friendship deepened, Luise and Babul discovered they had more in common than initially thought. They resolved to do what they could to stop the cycle and create a sisterhood that would bring healing to other women and empower them to move from victim to victor.

Their journey began in earnest in 2008 when Babul was invited to appear on NBC’s “Today” show with Meredith Vieira.

I know you’ve written a book, Vieira said during the segment about family secrets. “What do you want people to really know about being fatherless?”

“That your past doesn’t define you,” Babul told her. “In fact, you can use it to redefine who you want to become.”

And that is? Vieira asked.

“The voice for fatherless daughters around the world,” Babul responded.

It was the first time in her life Babul had told someone publicly why she was fatherless. She was 38 years old. She walked off the stage and realized the memoir she had written about her experience growing up without her father wasn’t about her at all.

She wanted to write the book that she wished she’d had when her father died, a guide that meets you where you are developmentally, emotionally and spiritually, that walks you through the journey of fatherlessness. However and whenever it happens.

Still, years passed without Babul rewriting another word. She married and she gave birth to two children, but she never stopped thinking about a way to get her message out to women.

One day she Googled a film company and started producing a documentary. Luise, who’d recently earned a doctorate in psychology at Georgia State University, would be the resident therapist for people being interviewed for the documentary.

“Some people find their story by watching it,” she reasoned. “Some by reading it and some people need to experience it.”

The latter, they decided, would mean establishing a nonprofit that would provide a place for girls to learn from one another and grow, that would raise awareness about the fatherless generation of girls in trouble.

In 2014, they finished a short documentary, and this year they finished the book, “The Fatherless Daughter Project: Understanding Our Losses and Reclaiming Our Lives,” scheduled to be published in June by Avery of Penguin Random House.

In Buckhead last week, they launched the nonprofit the Fatherless Daughter Project (http://fatherlessdaughterproject.com) at an event that drew nearly 200 people from across the Southeast.

That number alone is an indication of how big this is.

We’ve known for a long time the important role fathers play in their children’s lives, but most of the discussion has centered around daddies and sons, African-Americans in particularly.

Study after book after study, though, show that when a father is absent, the daughter suffers in ways unimaginable and too numerous to offer here.

Here are just a few. Girls who grow up without their fathers are more likely to use isolation as a coping mechanism; more likely to let their emotions go underground and erupt later in life when they experience abandonment again; and are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and experience sexual promiscuity and sexual avoidance.

“I grew up in an extremely dysfunctional home,” Luise said. “But the pain worsened for me like it does for so many other girls who are abused because they are taught to keep the secrets. We have to start telling the truth gently so that healing and freedom can come.”

Babul said they’re still learning from each other to be stronger versions of themselves.

The good news is things are changing.

A Pew Research Center study in 2013 found that fathers have nearly tripled the amount of time they spend with their children since 1965.

I hope things will continue to improve, that efforts like Fatherless Daughters will take hold, help sweep away the denial, and a new resolve to find healing will emerge.

I think Babul and Luise have a good shot at helping us turn the corner and building not just healthier daughters but healthy families.

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