For over a decade, perhaps my most widespread fear, the one thought staying with me, like a vampire clinging to the soul, was how my divorce would affect the relationship with my children. How would they regard a father whose presence was diluted but whose love was still pure; a dad whose time and attention were court ordered? Someone who often resembled the fun uncle instead of a dutiful parent. Would I ever eclipse their sun the way my father had mine? Or, would I fade into an afterthought; a few lines in the larger story of their lives?
This anxiety has been the motivation behind many of the steps I’ve tread along my fatherhood journey. A determination birthed in doubt and worry. I have handcrafted traditions just for the purpose of being mile markers in their childhood memory. Tangible evidence they did have a daddy and he was there.
This is what stuck in my mind reading through a recent email from a soon to be divorced father. He writes,
“My kids (2 1/2 and 15 months) are both boys. I am having trouble coping with 1) not seeing them every day and 2) afraid of another man filling my role as their dad. My boys are my left and right arms. I love them dearly and a very hands-on father. Afraid at this age, they will not even remember me raising them daily. I will always be in my boy’s life but like you stated, relegated to the uncle status because they will be living with their mother. And if my soon-to-be-ex finds someone else before they turn 5 (5 because I believe that’s when they can truly remember) all they will know is this other man raising them on a daily basis while I will see them on occasions.”
“I would like to know from your experience, did your kids truly feel you still as their father Even though there was another man raising them daily? Is there a real bond that still exist between children and their biological father?”
In a culture that is ready to turn divorce into a holiday worth celebrating, the new ‘coming out’ of sorts, complete with its own line of inspirational quotes, this father’s dread wakes us to the cold reality of divorce. I know and appreciate what he’s going through. I too have peered into that infernal abyss and felt the dead blackness staring back chilling me to the bone. I’ve tasted the fear of being forgotten, ignored, or discarded. I’ve battled long those demons of regret and panic as they attacked from every side, set on erasing all my hopes.
However, while, like this father, I have looked ahead only to see darkness and misery, I also know the light can never totally extinguish. Though his path may seem ominous and perhaps hopeless at the moment, the journey does not have to end in despair. Divorce brings all fathers to a crossroads. One direction circles back on itself to where we started, always keeping us in the past. The other moves us into the future and where we want to go. Head one way and we can never get beyond what’s been lost and taken away. Go the other and we step towards what has been given and what can be. One direction is madness; the other is hope.
It is proper and even necessary to mourn when something dies – divorce is surely death. It’s the death of promises and dreams. We are right to look back and grieve what can no longer be. To cry for that which has been laid to rest. But we cannot stay there. To do so would be to die ourselves. As with all who are lost forever, those who remain behind must continue living.
Every person I’ve met, who has gone through the hell of separation and divorce and come out the other side a new and better person, is appreciative of that journey, even to the point of considering it a blessing. How can this be? Because once they mourned what had passed, they steadied themselves and moved towards the future and the hope that lies ahead.
That is what I want this father to understand.
Our children can never forget, but it’s up to us, as fathers, to determine what memories they will have. Will they remember a father, who in the shadow of divorce, was still there, alive, doing what he was called to do and be? Or will they remember a father who let his past, and his fear, and his anger turn him into little more than a passing thought? What this dad cannot see now is that while his concerns are legitimate and understandable, they are ghosts – unless he makes them real. It’s what he does in this moment and the moments lying ahead that will determine if these apparitions melt away or forever haunt him.
I remember the fear and how I used it as a way of molding myself into a father I could never have been otherwise. A father who wouldn’t be forgotten. Outside the shadow of their mom, divorce gave me an opportunity to create a relationship with my children that would have been impossible had the divorce never happen. The terror of being forgotten inspired me to become a father who would be worthy of remembering.
Now, after more than a decade, there is no question about who I am in my children’s eyes. Even amid the confusion, frustration, and heartbreak my divorce has caused them, I know they feel and see me as their father. This has led to a bond, that I am convinced, would have never formed without my divorce. It’s become satisfaction, and blessing, that is priceless.
Children are naturally drawn to their father. They want to know him. It’s something that can’t be erased by divorce or a step parent. But the way he is remembered has everything to do with the man. That is on him. He alone is responsible for becoming a father worthy of remembering. The fear of being forgotten, to worry about becoming a fun uncle, to tremble at being replaced by another, are merely distractions to the work we, as fathers, are called to perform.
To this dad, I would conclude speaking directly to him or any father in a similar circumstance. Mourn what is being lost. Grieve for what can no longer be, but don’t do so forever. Do not let what you are feeling now turn you callous, full of anger and resentment. Do not let it blind you to what awaits ahead. Do not let your fears and worries distract you from being the man and father those boys need and deserve. Be their safe harbor in what will surely be a restless ocean. Remain steady and true. Seek forgiveness and give forgiveness; forgiveness for their mother, for the man she will one day find, but most importantly for yourself. Teach those boys that nothing will separate them from the love of their dad. Become a shining example of what manhood will look like in the face of overwhelming sorrow. Model for them a true masculinity that his honorable, humble and God fearing. Do that, and nothing, and I mean nothing, will take away who you become to them – a father who was there, never to be forgotten.