The Unintentional Deadbeat Dad

deadbeat dadIn the aftershock of her announcement to end our marriage, one thought immediately pressed upon me; What will this do to our children? I wasn’t so interested in the why as I was the what. One child was six months the other just over 2.5 years. I knew they couldn’t grasp what was going on, even though she sat them down and comically explained that mommy and daddy were no longer going to live together.  Their reaction fell somewhere between Barney the Dinosaur distraction and drool.

The shame subsided only during happy hours and furniture shopping. I looked into their faces and saw my failure glaring back. I kept wondering how would I explain this to them in the years to come, and what does fatherhood look like when you are only doing it part-time? My therapist reminded me that kids were resilient and quality was more important than quantity. I wanted to believe him but knew it wasn’t that simple.

I was hurting, vulnerable, and it would have been easy to leave it all behind; the pieces were there. She had immediately begun dating her Personal Trainer-who is now her husband and my kids’ stepfather. I had a job that could be done from anywhere. Her and my relationship were volcanic at best. There was any number of excuses to distance me from the chaos, pain, and confusion. And the truth is, that decision would have probably been well received, so long as the child support checks continued. I was now a nuisance in her efforts to build a better family.

Yet amid my swirling doubts and fears, I never once considered walking away. A divorce decree might end your responsibility as a husband, but it does not end your role as a father. But I’m old enough now to not believe much in my own virtue and looking back twelve years, I’m not sure it was any sense of duty or honor that kept me. I just could not allow another man to replace me as a dad.

•♦•

Much has happened in the years since. Sacrifices and mistakes have been made in abundance. But this I know, I’m glad I didn’t leave. I’m thankful that up against the roaring obstacles and shiny distractions, those toddlers grew into teenagers with a father who hung in there.  Further still, as sure as I’m typing this, I’m a better man because of them. They have given me one thing I could not have received otherwise – purpose. Today, I wear those years of single fatherhood like a badge of honor, proud to be doing what seems increasingly rare –  a father who is there.

It’s for this reason that I am so critical of dads who choose the more comfortable option of walking out. I know the excuses and rationalizations. It’s why I have little tolerance for fathers who dodge that God-given blessing and why I wrote two posts (here and here) that in the years since I still stand firmly behind.

•♦•

As this year’s Father’s Day approached, one article mainly got my attention. An NY Times sympathy piece explaining why fathers leave. The gist of the essay is that ‘deadbeat dads’ are unintentional victims with forces outside their control including ‘bossy moms’ ‘legal woes,’ and ‘other women,’ conspiring against them, keeping these men from being the fathers they want.

The key weakness is not the father’s bond to the child; it’s the parents’ bond with each other. They usually went into this without much love or sense of commitment. The fathers often retain a traditional and idealistic “Leave It to Beaver” view of marriage. They dream of the perfect soul mate. They know this woman isn’t it, so they are still looking. He believes in fatherhood and tries it again with other women, with the same high hopes, but he’s really only taking care of the child he happens to be living with at any given moment. The rest are abandoned.

•♦•

I’m not convinced the author believes what he’s writing. He wants us to accept that a man fathering children, even with multiple women, and then leaves has the best of intentions but is stuck in a ‘formless romantic anarchy’ he can’t escape?  In other words, deadbeat dads happen by accident. Things simply evolve. This writer further is convincing us that economy, society, and history, instead of selfishness, indifference, and cowardice, is what leaves 20 million children without the physical presence of a father. But as I said earlier, I don’t think he believes his own words.

It would be great if society could rally around the six or seven key bridges on the path to fatherhood. For example, find someone you love before you have intercourse. Or, make sure you want to spend years with this partner before you get off the pill. Or, create a couple’s budget to make sure you can afford this.

I’m uncertain what he expects ‘society’ to do. These ‘bridges’ are choices a man (and woman) alone must make. They require intentionality, sacrifice, and common sense. We simply cannot allow ourselves to be deluded into believing that fatherlessness is by happenstance. Or that better jobs, skills training, or a bigger paycheck will miraculously end the scourge of men who walk out. Your toddler does not care how much money you make, he just wants to see your face, and she wants to feel her daddy’s strength.

Fatherhood, or the lack of, lies with each individual man taking responsibility for his own actions and carrying enough about what those activities result in to give up some of his own wants for the benefit of that little one who desperately wants him to be there. Instead of offering puff pieces rationalizing and explaining away fatherlessness in our society, what’s needed is more loving truth.

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