In the spirit of Father’s Day on June 21 — and in honor of fathers everywhere — this edition of The Man Files features a guest post by Dani Meier. Dani writes about his experience as both a custodial and non-custodial parent. This stuff doesn’t fit neatly on a Hallmark card, but it should! It comes from the heart and speaks to so many, whether we are fathers, have fathers, or watch our children’s relationships with their own dads unfold.
One in three children in America — 24 million kids — do not have their father in the home. Forty percent of them have not seen their dad during the past year. Half of them have never set foot in their father’s home. And then there are the fathers who live under the same roof, but are absent in other ways. Just plain MIA. Many dads leave.
I was one of them.
When my daughter was three, her mother and I separated. When she was six, though I’d shared equally in parenting till then, I moved out of state, 650 miles away.
In my case, however, I came back. Again and again, I came back.
I committed myself to staying in my daughter’s life. I got a second job to pay for flights and for the next twelve years, we alternated every other weekend, sometimes more, between my going to her and her coming to me — a schedule that she and I maintained till she graduated from high school. A unique father-daughter bond evolved between us, emotional closeness despite geographical distance. But two roundtrip flights a month for twelve years adds up to nearly 300 flights that she or I took back and forth to see each other. That’s a lot of goodbyes to start logging at age six.
She’s now 21. Totally legal. No fake IDs.
I recently visited her in Rome where she spent part of her junior year of college. More than the Eternal City’s sweeping arc of history and culture, however, small moments stand out: ambling around Piazza Navonna after midnight, sipping Limoncello, strolling aimlessly. We bar-hopped in Trastevere where, in one café, a phenomenal swing jazz trio accompanied us as we danced for the first time ever as two adults. On my last day, we took a train to the Umbria hillside village of Orvieto, a medieval town with winding alleyways and cobblestone streets, sitting on a chunk of volcanic rock overlooking a valley.
Hugging my daughter goodbye the next day was wrenching. It was as if all our goodbyes were distilled into this single hug: twelve years of goodbyes, hugs that bridged childhood, adolescence, and, now, adulthood.
I’m also father to a six-year-old son. As I look into his beautiful eyes today, I see the eyes of my daughter. My mind frequently jumps involuntarily to how confusing it would be for him if I moved away. Yet I know that’s what my daughter lived through at his age.
Goodbyes can cause a lot of heartache. The problem for many children, however, is that they don’t get to say goodbye to their fathers on a regular basis. That would imply that they actually see their dads in the first place. As a therapist, many of the youth and adults I work with have never met their fathers or they see them rarely if at all. Other fathers lived with their kids but were invisible, buried in their work or a bottle or some other distraction.
There’s a paradox of contradictory trends in Daddy Land. Lots of fathers are rewriting what it means to be a dad: They are more involved in their children’s lives than any fathers in American history. They not only play catch or coach Little League, they also change diapers, make meals, help with school work, and are emotionally open with their children. This coincides, however, with the fact that from 1947 to 2007, single-parent households — predominantly mother-headed homes — jumped from 12 percent to over 25 percent. And whether those fathers remarried or not, too many of them don’t maintain consistent ties to their biological children from previous relationships.
Some men claim that divorced mothers block access. But in my experience that’s the exception, not the rule. Fathers who aren’t involved with their children nowadays are usually disengaged by choice. Many don’t even meet their legal obligation for child support while others do so only under threat of legal sanction or garnished wages.
As a father and a husband — and as a therapist — I try to allow for the fact that shit happens. Divorce, breakups, new loves, new jobs, new opportunities. We each must sort through what makes sense as we move through life. And sometimes as we muddle through, we hurt others on our path. Hopefully, we learn, grow, and try to make it right.
My hope is that other fathers who’ve left can still learn, grow, and make it right. Perhaps by next Father’s Day, some of those fathers who’ve said goodbye will realize the importance of coming back. And then they’ll make it right, they’ll come back, and they’ll stay involved, being fathers their kids can count on, dads worthy of the Hallmark card.
Dani Meier, PhD, MSW, is a psychotherapist, school social worker, community activist, lecturer, and writer. He is a founder of The Real MEN’s Project: Men Embracing Non-Violence, which seeks to place men at the center of the battle against domestic violence and sexual assault. He’s one of a small handful of men who’ve been awarded the Susan B. Anthony Award for efforts on behalf of girls and women in his community, and he is a faculty advisor for his school’s gay-straight alliance. He’s lectured to a range of audiences, from mental health professionals to parent groups on raising strong and gentle sons. He is currently involved in state-wide suicide prevention and intervention initiatives. He is a proud father and a lucky husband.