Whenever Father’s Day rolls around, I find myself wavering between conflicting emotions. On one hand, I feel grateful for my own father, who despite my parents’ divorce, his remarriage, and decades of living apart, has remained part of my life.
I am also thankful for my husband, who is an amazing dad to our two children and reminds me every day just how irreplaceable a present, involved father is to a family. But at the same time, I find myself grieving for the millions of young men, women, and children who do not have a relationship with their fathers, and who spend Father’s Day—like every other day—wondering what it would be like to know and be known by their dads.
This past Sunday, I couldn’t help but think about one of many fatherless young men in my own extended family who spent this Father’s Day in silent suffering—longing for the father he never knew.
He is barely on the tip of adolescence. Born to a young, unwed mother, he’s never had much contact with his biological father, and has been raised for the most part by a doting grandmother. As a little boy, he did a scary stint in foster care, and today struggles with feelings of rejection, anger, and depression. Lately he grows increasingly sullen, and asks repeatedly why his dad doesn’t seem to want to know him. Now that he is entering puberty, his grandmother often feels frustrated to reach him and often says “if only he had his real dad in his life, things might be so different.”
As I consider the difficult life he’s led so far, I am reminded what a gaping hole an absent dad leaves behind. What if his dad knew what a difference he could make in his son’s life—by just being there for him?
My husband’s childhood is a great example. Brian is the product of a teen pregnancy, and without his dad’s influence, he might have led a very different life. While still in his mother’s tummy, Brian miraculously survived her panicked attempt at an early abortion. A few months later, his dad, who was just barely out of high school, married her at what he likes to (jokingly) call a “shotgun wedding.”
The newlyweds moved in with Brian’s grandmother, but by the time Brian turned two, they’d divorced. So Brian spent his early years with his single mom, who dragged him through one dangerous relationship after another, including a husband who severely beat him when he was about four years old. When his grandmother saw the marks on his body, she and his father took custody of Brian.
For most of that time, Brian’s dad was a steady presence in his life, a regular voice on the phone, a check in the mail to help with expenses, and a visit every Saturday at noon. He wasn’t perfect, but at least he was around. Then, when Brian was about 15, his grandmother passed away, and once again, his dad stepped up, and without even realizing it, changed Brian’s life for the better. He left his bachelor world behind to move in with Brian and become what he’d never been: a full-time parent.
Almost immediately, he began making changes, like working harder at his job, refusing to keep alcohol in the house, never bringing women home, and making sure his son was in church every Sunday. And every evening before bed, for as long as Brian lived with him (which was well into his twenties), his dad prayed a simple prayer with his son—that God would bring him a “good Christian wife” one day and a family of his own.
Today, my husband is an amazing father, and a hard-working family man, and I credit his father’s steady involvement in his life and his constant prayers for the man Brian has become. But I can’t help but wonder what might have happened to Brian if his dad had not been there for him? What if his dad had refused to take responsibility when his mom found out she was pregnant? What he’d slipped out of his son’s life following the divorce as so many men do? What if he had not helped Brian’s grandmother gain custody of him? And what if his dad had not moved in with him and become a full-time dad during his son’s critical teenage years?
I can’t say for sure who Brian might have become without a good father in his life. But from what I’ve seen in the splintered lives of my fatherless relatives, and based on a large body of research on fatherless boys, I can say with near certainty that Brian would probably not be the man he is today. What a difference his dad made!
As we leave another Father’s Day behind us, I pray we all continue to celebrate the irreplaceable role fathers play in their children’s lives. And to every single, divorced, cohabiting, or married dad out there who may be wondering whether you matter to your child, know this: You have the power to transform your child’s life for the better, just by being present and involved for the long haul. So step up, make the effort, and do your part, and do it with pride knowing that a good dad can make all the difference!