It was Father’s Day this past Sunday. The day passed without much to do or great fanfare. The children greeted their dad and my husband’s Father’s Day wish was to be left alone to watch Game 7 of the NBA Finals, which I obliged. It’s fair enough. For Mother’s Day, more than any celebratory brunch at an overpriced restaurant, what I’d really like is to be child-free for one day to do whatever I please; read, watch TV uninterrupted, going to the spa for that long overdue massage or hanging out with my girlfriends, all of which will more preferable than getting up early, getting dressed, getting children dressed and paying for an overpriced brunch, elbow-to-elbow with all the other diners. I will appreciate these brunches again when my children are the ones footing the bill and I just have to worry about getting myself ready before getting there.
This uneventful Father’s Day gave me time to think about my relationship with my departed father. Our relationship was loving, warm but distant. He was absent for a large part of my childhood and we only got to know each other when I became an adult. Like many children of the 80s, my parents divorced while I was very young and as a result of that divorce, a physical and emotional separation with my father resulted. Like many fathers before and after him, my dad was a father when it was convenient for him. I’d be economical with the truth if I presented him any other way and at this point in my life, an honest examination of events in my life is what’s needed.
When I say convenience, I don’t mean that he’s an inherently selfish person who fit me into his schedule instead of making time for me, but as events unfolded, that’s what ultimately happened. Convenient for my father would be when we all lived under one roof and my mother got the ‘domestic’ side of things sorted, which is our domestic help cleaned our house, cooked our meals and a nanny to look after me while they were at work. My parent’s primary concerns were running their business and looking after me. After my parent’s divorce, ‘convenient’ took to mean when we all lived in the same city, which was rare. As his work took him all over Asia, I settled with my mother in the United States and I could probably count on one hand how many times I saw him before my 18th birthday. On the same note, when he retired in the late-1990s and moved to Florida full time, it was also when picked up our relationship again and it lasted through his death.
When my dad died and I looked through his papers and belongings, I discovered that he kept every card I drew him, every letter I wrote him, even letters my mother wrote him (usually discussing me). I read some of the letters I wrote, besides the appalling penmanship the letters revealed a child who missed her father. When I got angry with my mother, which was often, I’d write to him pleading with him to take me away to come live with him. I’d write in excruciating detail about how miserable my life was and how if he just came and got me to live with him, it’d make it all better. He never fell for it. Many absent fathers make up for that absence by being the ‘Disneyland parent’ where every few years and they swan-in at the eleventh hour of some crisis and tries to be the hero and save the day and before you blink, he’s gone again. Now I can appreciate he’s never undermined my poor mother like that. Being a single mother is hard enough, the last thing she needs is her ex-husband to swan-in every few years and make it even harder for her.
I accepted my father’s absence like I accept all other unpleasant situations in life: begrudgingly. I never thought it was my fault or that I was inherently unlovable and that’s why he stayed away. I always knew he loved me. I felt it, but in his own distant way, in the only way he knew how. I also instinctively understood that him loving me doesn’t always translate to him making time for me in his very busy travel and work schedule. Not having a father around in my formative years reinforced two things, two opposite things: having a father involved in children’s lives is very important and I felt his absence deeply, but not having one wasn’t the end of the world either. Whatever ‘daddy issues’ I may have, it could have easily been replaced by any other issue if my dad were around.
Father’s are held to a different standard. And I don’t think I would court too much controversy by saying that standard is usually much lower than that of a mother. Why do we go around over-celebrating, offering endless praise for the few excellent and exemplary fathers that we know of, those men who devote themselves unfailingly to their families are worth their weight in gold – for the precise reason that there are so few. Family life while enriching can be stressful. It requires people to put aside their desires for the sake of their children – something that may come easier to women for the simple reason that it’s harder for a woman to walk away from her maternal duties than a man. Men have walked out on their families all the time to search greener pastures. It may not be another woman, it could just be he wants his old life back, the unencumbered life without children following at their heels.
The writer Christy Wampole wrote in ‘Fathers who leave and fathers who return’:
Some strange centrifugal force tugs the souls of fathers away from the center, away from home. Many resist. A few probably don’t even notice this pull, too distracted to obey it, or, in the best case, caught up in watching the germination of the little humans that bear their DNA. But the pull is real and takes two primary forms: departure and suppressed longing. There is a reason fathers need time alone, a reason their space in the house is more sacred and inaccessible than other spaces. That is where they temper and store their longing.
In Christy Wampole’s case, her father was a meth addict she later found out, so his “need” to “leave” explained itself. In fact she justified her father’s drug use as a way of “simulat[ing] leaving. Their odd centrifugal force lets the body stay in one place as the consciousness goes on a voyage, quitting those unbearable feelings and faults.” It’s essentially the lesser of two evils, he’s at least physically here but while high on drugs, his mind gets to be elsewhere. She speaks of a father’s “longing” to break away from the ball and chain of family life as something that can’t be helped and that space where he longs for his previous life in Shangri La as “sacred”.
While her father was drugging and trying to ultimately leave his family (which he eventually did when she went off to college), it was her mother who held down the fort. In her piece honoring her mother, she describes the relationship with our mothers as “irrational” because of the sacrifices that are required of her, which cannot be understood or comprehended until we become a mother ourselves.
There is a reason that a mother’s love, in its purest form, is visceral and even violent. This same reason explains the volatility of relationships with our mothers and why they often don’t make sense in logical terms. The reason is this: We are doomed by the nature of biological cycles to never be able to thank them enough for having facilitated our existence. For reasons I’ll explain, there exists a permanent deficit of appreciation toward our mothers.
What’s not explored in great detail in her two essays is why mothers and fathers behave differently. Mothers are “irrational” in their love – a word choice I disagree with – because she’s usually the only person in charge of her family. The weight of the world is literally on her shoulders, especially in her case where her father was a meth addict. Simplistically speaking, without considering external factors such as family court that could make life difficult for fathers; fathers can walk away from his family in ways a mother never could. Biology doesn’t allow it, society doesn’t allow it, the guilty conscience doesn’t allow it. Even when a mother does walk away, she’s wracked with tremendous guilt and shame. Society will never let her forget that she walked out on her children. Society forgives an errant father but not a neglectful or a bad mother. Conventional wisdom says having ‘a bad father is better than having no father’. Errant fathers at times are seen as amusing, larger than life, eccentric, great characters, great fun, even if they lack in the dependability department, because the assumption is the mother will pick up his slack. But when the mother is the slack in this equation, pity pours in from every corner. Everyone pities the motherless children. Fatherless children? They are a dime a dozen.
Many studies have been done on the importance of having a father, the influence by the mere presence (which implies he need not do much while he’s there) of a father in the home can contribute to the wellbeing of children tremendously. Divorcing couples are counseled to not exclude the father from their children’s lives. Even if the father is less than ideal, it’s good to have him around than not. The results of these studies definitively prove, except for in cases of domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, having the father of your children around is better than not, even if he gets on your last good nerve.
And with that, let’s celebrate the fathers in our lives.