Like many of you—some 40 percent—I, too, grew up without a dad around. We were the generation for whom the term “latchkey kids” was coined. Sure, there was besweatered Bill Cosby and clueless Steven Keaton on TV, but one of the defining characteristics of our generation was the remarkable absence of real fathers in our lives.
Among my friends and classmates—boys and girls—you didn’t have to scratch very deeply beneath the veneer of anger to see that being fatherless left them feeling abandoned and profoundly unworthy.
I wasn’t fatherless my entire childhood. For about six years, my mom was married to an unstable, explosively violent man; she left him for good when I was thirteen. I never knew my real dad, just his name and a few details from Mom: lived way out in the sticks, grew pot, rode a mule to town. Apparently, he had a passel of other kids by other women, too. Unlike my friends, though, I didn’t really care that I didn’t know him. He was just a genetic detail, like my blood type or the ability to roll my tongue.
What I did feel was resentment and bitterness. I resented having to be the part-time mom taking care of the house and kids while our real mom was at work. I was bitter over the poverty we were consigned to as a “single parent household.” A child support check, even a small one, might have meant having school supplies in the fall, a new pair of shoes when the old ones fell apart, a coat with a working zipper when it was cold. And yet Important Men on TV called us “welfare queens” and accused us of driving around in Cadillacs so they could justify cutting our food stamps and free lunches. To these Important Men, just like to our dads, we were a burden they didn’t want to pay for.
I think what most of us got out of the whole experience was the knowledge that your mom loves you and takes care of you because she pretty much has to. Your dad has a choice in the matter. And our dads chose not to. So us fatherless children turned to drugs and alcohol early, to numb that hollow feeling, to silence that voice that kept saying we’re too much of a bother to care for. We jumped from relationship to relationship, never able to figure out how to have a good one. Or maybe we just couldn’t believe we deserved one.
It wasn’t until I was in my thirties, studying in Ireland, that I realized how negatively the image of fatherhood had been engrained in my psyche. All around Galway, I would see dads with their kids on the buses, coming or going from the store, standing in the queue at the movie theatre, having lunch at a café, chatting and laughing like the best of friends. Sometimes there were moms with them, sometimes not. What struck me though, was how happy the dads looked. Like their kids were actually part of their lives, an important part, and that those dads enjoyed it.
Of course, I’d seen dads with their kids here in the US. Not everyone I grew up around was fatherless. But those dads who stayed made damn sure everyone knew that they had sacrificed their lives and dreams to “do the right thing.” Fatherhood wasn’t a joy to them; it was a soul-crushing burden, a lifetime sentence literally born out of a busted rubber or forgotten pill.
Seeing these Irish men who so obviously loved being dads, it was like a fishhook through my heart, tearing open a deep sadness I never knew I had. It was like I had been in a wheelchair all my life and was seeing someone dance for the first time. What would it have been like if my dad had chosen to love me?
So, for you dads who stayed, congratulations. Make sure your kids know not only that you love them, but that you love being their dad. Take them with you on your errands, let them hang out with you while you’re puttering around the garage, watch cartoons with them. Let them see you happy sometimes.
For you dads who aren’t living with your kids: that’s no excuse. Stay in touch with them; with Facebook and Skype, it’s easier than ever. Spend some time with them once in a while, even if they’re mean to you; know that they’re just hurt, and this is the only way they can show it. Be the adult and work through it.
And please, for god’s sake, pay your child support.
—Photo credit: reverses/Flickr