A recent, and passionate, email from a reader reminded me of the enormous confusion that exists, predominately among men, about the definition of ‘daddy’. The email, too long for reciting here, is from a father, living in the US, who has two children abroad. He and the mother met in the states. Soon she became pregnant and not long after, for reasons not entirely clear, moved back to her native country, only to discover after touching down that she was pregnant with their second child. Unsurprisingly, the relationship didn’t last, and the children have remained with her, on another continent, ever since. The father still resides here in the US. According to the email, he visits the children when he can but hasn’t seen them in two years.
This father’s frustration, however, isn’t that he’s missing out on their childhood. It isn’t that he’s riddled with guilt living a world away, or that he doesn’t have the slightest knowledge of who his children really are. His frustration is far more involved and ultimately underscores the different views held as to what makes a ‘daddy.’
According to this father, several years ago the mom met a new man who subsequently moved in with her and the kids; taking up residence and acting as the proxy for another who isn’t there. Yet this father’s bitterness isn’t even that someone new is backfilling his job. Sadly, he thought it would be ‘sweet’ the kids would have ‘two dads of sorts.’ Instead, he is incensed that this man ‘needs and demands that she (the mom) not let me talk to my daughters, definitely not seeing them on Skype.’ The father then asks this question, ‘What man tells a woman with children that are not his that those children cannot see or speak with their father?’
Here we have two issues that need unpacking.
First, no mother, or her partner, should prevent a biological father from seeing his children, if, and this is a crucial ‘if,’ that father has a sincere desire to be in his children’s lives. To create obstacles out of sheer malice, vengeance, or insecurity, and without due cause, is parental alienation and categorically wrong! Yet as I have written before, if a father has proven to be unreliable as a parent, dishonorable as a man, and inconsistent with his responsibilities, emotional or financial, and not to be trusted with those children, that mother and her partner have a responsibility to protect the kids, even to the point, if necessary, of blocking all communication with him.
It is no less a form of child abuse to allow fathers to move casually in and out of their children’s lives without a second thought to the spiritual wreckage such inconsistency and irresponsibility causes. Broken promises will break more than just a child’s trust, they break her heart and lead her to question if she is the reason, ‘daddy doesn’t come see me.’ It does worse damage for a mother, even if she has the best of intentions, to allow a father into a child’s life when she believes he will only disappoint and she’s left to pick up the pieces. As harsh as this will sound to some, a father who won’t be there all the time should be there none of the time. No dad is better than a thoughtless one.
But the second issue here is the underlying reason for this essay. Several points in the email reinforce his, and regrettably far too many other’s, lack of understanding as to the biology – the real makeup – of a dad.
The name ‘father’ is sterile, legalistic, and ceremonious. It’s what hospitals put on birth certificates. ‘Daddy’ is far different. It’s intimate, sincere, and endearing. It represents safety, warmth, and acceptance. Everyone knows there is a universe of difference between a ‘father’ and a ‘daddy.’ My children have two fathers; they only have one ‘daddy’. The title of ‘father’ is easily bestowed. The name ‘daddy’ must be vigorously earned. Yet this seems lost on him when he writes, ‘I was there for their birth…He is not the dad.’
Perhaps this is the most common misunderstanding men have about the differences between fathers and daddies – genetics. The belief that because one’s name is on the birth certificate or the children share his eye color, chin line, or nose, this makes him the child’s ‘daddy’. DNA may have everything to do with fatherhood, it has nothing to do with being that child’s dad.
His email continues, ‘This woman lives with two daughters who their father just happens to live on another continent. Does not mean that he has abandoned his children? Set of circumstances, they are what they are, that does not disqualify me from being a dad to my daughters.’
Disregarding the tragic understatement, ‘happens to live on another continent’, on the general point he is correct, logistics should not, by itself, preclude any man from a being a daddy to his children. Many men must spend extensive time away from their children out of no direct fault of their own. I once knew a divorced dad who traveled extensively for work, so he had his kids every weekend because that was the only way he could be with them.
But that isn’t the situation I see here, and as I read and thought more on his email, I couldn’t help but begin feeling sympathy, not for this father, but for the other man. I responded, “Here he is, a single man without kids of his own, taking care of two children that don’t belong to him. His pushback may come from his defining ‘dad’ regarding the responsibility for raising these girls. You are defining ‘dad’ by purely biological means. In his mind, he is the daddy of these girls, not you. He is supporting them, there for them, raising them. You are in another country talking to them by phone or Skype or Facebook. I can certainly understand why he might feel somewhat unsettled about the idea of you infrequently surfacing to claim the ‘dad/papa’ tag then going away while he has to do the hard work.’ This father wants the glory of ‘daddy’, while someone else does the heavy lifting’.
What this demonstrates are two distinct interpretations of ‘daddy’. One considers ‘daddy’ a verb. Another sees it as a noun. One is actively involved in the children’s lives. He is present, one of the first people they see in the morning and the last before going to bed at night. He gets them ready for school, helps put a roof over their heads, and perhaps nourishes their soul. The other considers himself a daddy by default, claiming an honor on account of biology. He misses the entire point that being a ‘daddy’ demands effort, intention, and hard work. To be a ‘father’ requires little more than a chromosome.
It is an incredible blessing to receive the name of ‘daddy’. But it’s a title that is earned and not without significant cost and sacrifice. An honor that can only be acquired through the crucible of being there living it, not from an internet connection and a computer screen.