“He loves you so much, he’s just really busy/unavailable/caught up with work/broke.” Really, the list goes on with reasons why my father wasn’t around. What I didn’t realize as a child is that this theme is very common, and even more epiphanic is that it truly had nothing to do with me. The U.S. census bureau reports that more than 1 in 4 children live without a father at home. The National Father Initiative has taken huge strides in encouraging father involvement, even when the two adults are no longer in a relationship. But still, the rate of emotionally absent fathers is enormous. And the effects of that is arguably even larger.
I won’t begin to analyze why men are so prone to abandoning their relationship and emotional connection to their children, though I have my theories. But the outcome of their absence is often a pattern of women making excuses for them. “He loves you so much, he just can’t be here.” But how can that be true? If he loves you so much, wouldn’t he be here? If he would walk through fire for you, wouldn’t he be here to pick you up for the weekend? Wouldn’t he force me to spend time with him, even when I went through the “parents are stupid” phase? And isn’t that our role as parents, to influence our children as positively and deeply as possible until we have to release them in to this big scary, unforgiving world?
I don’t buy it. Men are not mindless primates and we need to stop acting like they are. The neural instinct to nurture our child is not unique to women, or even biology. That science is almost ten years old, so let’s move forward from it. The man’s brain changes from becoming a parent as much as the woman’s brain does, given he involves himself. Men are capable of loving and sacrificing just as women are. I knew that because I watched my dad meet women and treat them well. And I watched as he provided and loved his new wife and children.
No matter what reason fathers give for disconnecting from their child, the excuses we women make for them may be effecting them even more than their physical absence. You can probably think of a few women (if not you) who “stuck it out” with men who treated them poorly. We have a reputation of trying to fix broken men. And how much of that stems from the excuses we afforded our first male example of love?
My first relationship was a tumultuous disaster. He loved me the way a high schooler loves anyone, with newness and curiosity. He loved alcohol and popularity the same way. And when it ended, I struggled with my own fault in his being gone. We had two children together and “he loved me so much.” It wasn’t until I told this to a psychologist that I questioned this narrative. Her response was “it doesn’t sound like he loved you so much.” Wow, harsh. But how true. How do we judge how much someone loves us? Is it their presence? Their patience, kindness, and attention? Because if I compared him to my father, he was around a lot more than that, at least physically. And through rose colored lenses, he seemed to care. Maybe he loved me, but certainly not enough.
Science often shows correlation rather than causation, especially when observing an entire life lived. Yes, children with an absent parent have statically higher rates of countless negativities. But how much of that is due to what we are taught is acceptable? And how much of your child’s well being are you willing to sacrifice to avoid witnessing the pain of realizing “he’s just not that into you.” He’s just not that into being a father.
My dad was not really the father type. He once told me (as an adult) that I was probably better off being raised by my mom, and not in a mean way. And actually, it’s the truth. I would have been better off with one person loving me with their whole heart, feeling like I was enough. Single people adopt and birth children alone all the time, and no evidence has been reported that those children are disadvantaged from it. My theory is that the gnawing disappointment and expectation to accept a half hearted love will wear on the psyche after a while.
My kids have a father who has not stayed present, so it’s a conversation around which I tread lightly, but honestly. “Your dad sucks, and I’m sorry. He’s lucky to have a daughter like you who still reaches out to him.” And most importantly “you deserve better and this is not ok.” I love family, and I do not hate my ex husband. But it’s time we teach our kids to stop allowing men to hurt them. It’s possible to love someone without sacrificing our own emotional well being. And it’s possible that someone loves you, but it’s not enough.
Society has pressured men to deny almost every emotion aside from anger. No playing house, no crying, and physical violence is normal and anticipated. It’s a boys being boys kind of thing and it needs to change. I certainly know several men who have fought and exhausted every financial and emotional and social resource just to be a part of their child’s life. And I know of mothers who have been the unavailable ones, leaving their child to grow up and accept the worst in people who should be treating them the best. I expect and hope that the exception to normal behavior are the men who leave, and the typical man is the one who loves their children. No one’s childhood is perfect, and I would be very naive to think I’ve made all the right parenting decisions. But as a mother, I strive to ingrain in my children their value, so that when they form their own relationships, they are familiar with setting boundaries and reasonable expectations. It is a lesson I learned through experience and heartbreak, and hopefully that wisdom is transferable.