Much is made of single fathers. Most of it not very good. For many, single dads are lazy, selfish, and by and large, insignificant. Some of this criticism is justly earned. My inbox is full of examples; single and divorced mothers at wits end with the fathers of their children. Wishing, hoping, even pleading that these men will make room in their lives to be a dad. Just this week a single mother wrote me about her son’s father who had not seen the boy in months but was regular as death or taxes with his child support payments. She wondered if she should take the money, and was it somehow easing his conscience for his irresponsibility? I suggested she keep it for her son’s future.
These types are what I like to call Veneer Fathers, those who seek to portray an image of being a good dad. I am nearly sure this father goes to bed each night proud that he is ‘supporting his kid.’ He probably brags to his friends. He perhaps has another woman in his life who is encouraged by the sacrifice. But sadly, there may be other moms wishing her children even had that type of father, someone willing enough to help carry the financial load even if he refuses to share in the real work.
But we must never reduce the definition of a good single father to a matter of finances. We have done too much of that already, to the detriment of those children. When we look at ‘deadbeat dads’ we do so usually through the lens of money. That is dangerous. When we lower the expectation of a single dad to whether he is consistent with the check, we give those veneer fathers air cover, and worse ammunition, to stay at the surface. Setting the bar so low, we inevitably find ourselves where we are today, a generation of children going through life with a bit of ‘stuff’ but without what they need far more of – the love, support, and encouragement only a father can give.
Whether a dad is absent because he thinks his circumstances do will not allow for it, or he wants to make things ‘easier’ for everyone. Maybe he cannot seem to find common ground with his children’s mother, or he just does not have the interest and desire. No amount of dollars and cents can remotely make up for what his consistent and active presence in their lives does. If he refuses to understand that, all is lost.
Good single fathers, or any fathers for that matter, do not live at the surface, they live in the grain. Meaning that first, they recognize their responsibility is thicker than the thin covering of a financial provider. Parenthood is hard work. Anyone who says otherwise is not a parent or not a very good one. It takes effort. Being a good father is a lot like playing a sport, doing it right means that at the end of every game we leave a little of ourselves on the field. It involves sacrifice, giving up some of what we want (freedom, independence, comfort) for the sake of another. True fatherhood can never be ‘mailed in.’
There may be some single dads who fear to make a mistake. Perhaps they did not have a father themselves, and without that role model, they do not know where to start. Or maybe their own dad was a Veneer Father, and that is all they know. Sometimes a Veneer Father can get by staying in the shadow of a mother, but throw in a divorce, separation, or some other life situation and the spotlight suddenly shines on his insecurities and shortcomings. In that blaze, he may give up or never begin to try.
That could have been my story. My own dad was there, but he was a man of few words, and far fewer when it came to his children, and especially his only son. He made little time for his boy who was nothing like himself. A boy who dreamed of things other than horses and riding ribbons. He was a man who was strong in character and weak in affirmation; who told his son he did a good job, only when his son did a good job.
And as sure as I am writing this, had it not been for my divorce I would have fallen along a similar line with my own children. Thankfully Providence had different plans. It was Divinely appointed that I, and they, would not go down the same path, so I changed course, not because I possessed any keen foresight into my own weaknesses but because I had no other choice. On those Tuesdays, Thursdays, weekends, summers and holidays, when there was no one else but my children and myself, I had no option but to learn, always by trial and error, to become what my own father was not. I do not take pride in doing anything special, only that I stayed with it when I could have easily walked away.
Sticking to it was harder than ever writing a check but it left a trail of mistakes along the roadside. Moments I wish I could do over. There are times when I wonder if the fallout from my screw-ups will come. But even with all that, I would not change a thing. As I make my way over that crest and am now moving downhill towards the end of this part of my fatherhood journey, my satisfaction only grows. Reflecting on what has happened over all these years, the joy lies only in the knowledge that I stuck it out. Through sadness, frustration, and bitterness I ran the race and have stayed the course.
What I hope for myself and for every father is that when we finally arrive at the end of this journey and stand at the crossroads of the next where our feet will step on a new fatherhood path, it will be as dads happy with the story written thus far. Stories not told by veneer fathers who kept to the surface, but as those who chose to go deep in the grain.