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Fatherlessness: The Presence of Dad’s Absence

A Huffington Post tribute.

800 words.

For Dad, on Father’s Day.

Lots of love, wherever you are.

With a convincing mirage of confidence, a charming dose of wit, and a dash of overpowering cologne, my dad welcomes (more like demands) me for a scratchy moustache-kiss on the lips. My memory of Dad is like my memory of my motherland Hong Kong – a narrow, child’s view, forever stuck at age ten – the year when my family and I migrated to California without him.

Etched in my ten-year old memory is my dad as the family philosopher with teachings and lessons suitable for all scenarios. He stayed out late for work just about every night and often missed dinner with the family. We would save him a plate many times just to find the plate untouched the next morning. Sometimes he’d join us for weekend adventures, but most times he wouldn’t. I quickly grew out of a childish admiration for dad and into a confusing mix of intimidation, longing, and distance from this strange man.

After we moved to California and he stayed behind, I dreaded even more those prickly kisses when he visited or those long-distance chats when he called. I had nothing to say to this stranger. Visits turned into phone calls, phone calls turned into emails. Then, my parents’ divorce became finalized and soon after he formally announced his abandonment of the family. We have not heard from him since. None of the momentary shock or emptiness could have prepared me for what would later come – the sense of unworthiness that would rear its ugly head in future romances that indelibly marks the day my dad departed.

The history of my romantic relationships mirrored a common pattern. An infatuation that often started with curiosity and lightness inevitably became engulfed in a murky and confusing web of complexities woven into my past. Sooner or later, deep-rooted and inexplicable insecurities surfaced and unapologetically vanquished the realities of my otherwise happy relationships. Underneath petty fights, these insecurities were derived from a common place – a belief that my romantic partner would abandon me because I am not worthy of his love. Underneath what felt like absolute, visceral truths, the emphatic side of me intuited a profound need for exploration and introspection.

I can’t quite recall the exact ah-ha moment when I realized I wasn’t “crazy” in my relationships. That there was a logically-sound explanation behind the recurring fears of being abandoned and periodic defeat from unworthiness. The reason, as it turned out, eluded me for a decade of confusing relationships and countless journal pages.

Jonetta Rose Barras writes in her book Whatever Happened to Daddy’s Little girl? about her experience and research with a condition dubbed the Fatherless Woman Syndrome. She practically opens the book with what I would consider the summary of my own revelation, “A girl abandoned by the first man in her life forever entertains powerful feelings of being unworthy or incapable of receiving any man’s love.” Slippery to grasp at first, the concept gradually took form as I began to understand the powerful yet simple human tendency to project – As a child, I learned my unworthiness when my dad left; as an adult, I projected the same belief that romantic partners would leave just the same. The most dangerous thing about feeling unworthy is that I deprived myself of the most important love of all – self-love.

Fatherlessness can impact daughters differently depending on its nature. Barras explains that a voluntary departure (i.e. divorce or abandonment) versus an involuntary departure (i.e. death) impact a daughter’s psyche differently, where voluntary departures often result in the daughter’s self-blame and feelings of unworthiness. From a macro perspective, fatherlessness on girls can have a detrimental impact on society as fatherless daughters have higher rates of teen pregnancy, greater sensitivity to stimulant drugs than fatherless boys, and in turn become mothers with low self-esteem.

How could I unpack such destructive and deep-rooted beliefs in myself? I recall confessing after a break up that “the best thing I can do now is learn to love myself.” In a process much like a baby learning to walk for the first time, I defined what it means to give myself love:

  • The integrity to choose those who make me happy rather than settle for those who show me love.
  • The right to request for my feelings to be acknowledged and needs to be fulfilled.
  • The freedom of knowing that my fear of abandonment holds no power.

This story of conscious awakening from fatherlessness, though painful, was the only way to beget healing.If anyone skirts away from fear or shame of exploring their childhood, I would posit this: The long-term dividends of a healthier you and subsequent relationships far outweigh the momentary difficulties of unpacking one’s childhood. I owe it to the people that I love – and to myself – to bring my truest self to the table (childhood scars and all).

Father’s Day is particularly moving for me as I celebrate with those who get to brunch with their dads. Personally, the day is a reminder of the deep gratitude I hold for my dad’s presence in my life. I’m sure his lessons in soccer and wisdom in dating would have been plenty, but his teaching in self-love? I’ll never grow out of that.

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Preaching Forgiveness

“Now the reason I feel there should be student loan debt forgiveness is that I think it would be the best economic stimulus we could have. Millions of students can’t graduate, or can’t marry, or can’t buy a home. Students are more likely to go home to their parents and work instead of getting an education — these are the negatives of the current system.” – Reverend Jesse Jackson

Read more on Rev. Jackson’s position on student loan debt in The Need for a Mass Movement and Indenturing Our Young People.

The Borrowed Burden

The rewards of a college degree today are unlike those of generations before. If you want to propel yourself professionally in just about any field, a college degree is your foundation. In some fields, a college degree isn’t even enough; pursuing a graduate or law degree becomes a necessity for professional elevation. I don’t have anything against that if the playing field to pursue said opportunities is fair – but it’s not. There is a gap between the fantastically educated and degree-happy society we aspire towards and the reality of how we can achieve it, and it’s about $1.2 trillion wide.

On May 14, 2014, the US Senate held a press conference to introduce a piece of legislation that would level the playing field for student loan borrowers – it would allow refinancing of student loan interest rates much like for mortgages or small businesses. US Senators Elizabeth Warren, Chuck Schumer, Richard Blumenthal, Al Franken, and Jack Reed proposed legislation that would allow student debt holders to refinance their loans to match lower market rates. This law, if passed, would apply to public and private loans, where I’ve heard interest rates as high as 9.2%.

Click the photo to watch the 30-minute press conference (my bit starts at 13:00).

Screen Shot 2014-06-19 at 12.12.22 AM

Daring as it may be, this legislation is just the tip of the iceberg. The more I explore the system and talk to student loan holders, the more puzzled I become by the complexities of the questions that arise.

Why do we keep paying for college if it’s so expensive? 

Four-year colleges and universities are expensive in the US. To be exact, they have experienced a tuition increase of 1120% since 1978 while managing to hand out more degrees than ever. Based on simple economics, the increase in the price of a good generally reduces the quantity or rate at which it will be consumed. Paying for our college education, however, is more complex than that because both the assigned value and presumed return on investment (ROI) fluctuate over time.

Maybe that’s the problem. How often are we considering a college education as an investment by which we receive some return that justifies the high price tag, and keeps us financially afloat while paying back our loans? It’s a question of supply and demand, and one I believe every student needs to be able to reasonably answer before making student loan decisions. Borrowers could review information on occupation-specific salaries, university job placement statistics, regional earnings, and occupational growth potential before making a decision. By integrating relevant data into our decision-making process, thus treating it like a financial investment, we could more closely align the costs we pay and the market demands for our degrees.

Will we ever have free higher education? 

All things considered, this is a distant goal, but one important to consider. No doubt the math is more complex than simply moving the $69 billion spent on student aid each year to the estimated $62.6 billion necessary to offer free education at public universities and colleges. It would be prudent to understand how countries like Germany, Mexico, and Greece are currently offering no-cost higher education. Similarly, we can learn a thing or two from Sweden’s model as their free education comes with a high price. Forbes contributor, Josh Freeman, writes a comprehensive review of the pros and cons of free higher education in the US.

Is college the only way? 

At the end of the day, college provides an education by which students benefit from social mobility, meaningful job placement, and increase in earnings. College undoubtedly also provides a novel and exciting environment for personal development in equally important areas such as emotional intelligence, sociability, networking, and leadership. Innovative education solutions have sprung up that provide the benefits of college without the high price tag. Small yet powerful initiatives like the Experience Institute , The Leap Year Project, and The Open Master’s introduce new ways of educating by combining the importance of cohort learning and shared networks with immersive real world experience, at little to no cost. The idea is that we don’t have to pay for expensive degrees if we could simply re-create the environments in which students learn and thrive.

If we did borrow, why are we often so blinded by our student loans? 

There is a certain responsibility for a borrowing student to understand what she is signing the dotted line for, but there is absolutely no doubt that the system’s predatory practices on this often financially vulnerable population are founded on lack of transparency. Many students often have no idea how much they owe, when payments are supposed to begin, whom / how to pay, or what options they have for affordable payments. It could neither be the University’s nor the bank’s priority to ensure the borrowing student understands all the fine print of her loans because her resultant smarter decisions could conflict with their interests. Therein lies the problem – the  current student loan process is administered entirely by stakeholders that gain from the borrowers’ ignorance and lack of insight.  Fast forward four years, our borrowing student nears graduation and only now begins to communicate with her loan servicer to discuss repayment. She is not offered repayment plan options unless she knows to ask about it, and her loan servicer has a track record of poor customer service, causing added anxiety to the already complex process.

If you received bad service at a restaurant, you might leave a smaller tip. If you don’t like your doctor, you go elsewhere for a second opinion. With student loan servicers, there are no such consumer-driven consequences because loan servicers are assigned, not chosen. Student loans also cannot be refinanced nor will they be discharged in the case of bankruptcy, so while you’re stuck with your servicer, they have little incentive to improve. Borrower choice could drive a competitive market for better customer service and experience (think Yelp reviews for loan servicers).

What can be done to improve the borrower experience?

The solution for greater transparency is easy to imagine – require every borrowing student to undergo an in-depth review with a counselor to understand the loan terms, review salary trends in select fields and regions, and calculate the impact and affordability of loan payments after graduation. Regular reviews of loan progress should be expected if the end goal is to properly inform our borrowers from start to finish. The point is to help students envision the very real, daily financial decisions of balancing – dollar for dollar – expenses like rent, groceries, bills, transportation, and understanding how their loan payments would fit into them. The short-term temptations of  student loan checks must be met with realistic juxtaposition of long-term loan commitment for a complete lifcycle assessment.

The forthcoming site ourdebtstory.is will be live and running in the next few months. My hope is that it’ll serve as a social forum to provide a realistic perspective of the student loan lifecycle. New borrowers could search and review stories from past borrowers based on relevant personal and professional factors, effectively leveraging an online network of experiences to make informed loan decisions. By offering a safe space for past borrowers to share their stories, I hope to break down the shame and embarrassment around our debt (because we’re not alone in this), and offer our lessons learned to the next generation of borrowers.

Have a student loan story to share?

Learn more about how you can get involved. Everyone’s story is so unique and offers a new perspective to learn from. Let’s speak up and make some moves.

long-distance mother’s day

dang, mother’s days makes me extra miss my family, and of course, my mama, back home. in my fine neighborhood of columbia heights in washington, DC, families milled around all day in the sun, strolling and laughing between church, lunch, the park, and family BBQ’s. i didn’t invite myself to a BBQ at the park in order to fill my void for familial bonding, though i feel like it might have worked out. (that’s how great my neighborhood is.)

however far away i am, i find ways to thank and love mom on this day. this year, i decided to submit an entry to the Daddy Doin’ Work (DDW) blog to see if it might be featured on the week’s dedication to mamas everywhere. and it was!

so here you are, mom. i’m sorry that i’m 2,800 miles away on this mother’s day, but here are two paragraphs i wrote for you to make up for it :D so much love and gratitude to you, mama!!!!

see all 10 chosen entries at http://daddydoinwork.com/mdwweek/

or catch my awesome mama right here:Screen Shot 2014-05-12 at 12.38.05 AM

20 things i learned in my 20s

turning 30 means i get to bid farewell to my 20s. was it awesome? absolutely. i mean, it was a fruitful decade. i played in college, took up my first job, played more in grad school, still drowning in student loans, collected unemployment, romance came and went, increasingly called my mother more, and meditated through a lot of sh*t. amazingly i’ve gathered so much good advice from wading through all the muck and confusion that i feel it’s my human duty to pay it forward.

the best part about leaving my 20s behind is that I get to check all these lessons off my list and take them with me into my 30s! i’m tempted to believe that it’s smooth sailing from here on out but it’s probably best to take it one decade at a time.

20 lessons (new) (10)

* finger snaps and share widely if you can relate *

“for women who are ‘difficult’ to love”

all poetic credits go to the talented warsan shire, a 25-year old somali kenyan poet who resides in london. learn more about her background here. this poem speaks truths that resonate in the center of a powerful woman, while in its short prose navigates the sensual, destructive, and strange journey of love. dedicated to consciously awake women, and those who love them.

for women who are difficult to love 2 (3)

Student Debt on Al Jazeera America

A TV segment I recorded with Al Jazeera America’s Inside Story discussing my personal student loan debt story, and the greater implications of student debt on Americans. Panelists include Natalia Abrams from studentdebtcrisis.org, David Bergeron from Center for American Progress, and Neil McCluskey from Cato Institute.

What do you think about student loan debt? Do you have a story to share? The forthcoming website http://www.ourdebtstory.is will offer a safe and open forum for you to share it.