There’s a meme going around right now with a quote from Matthew McConaughey: “Best thing you could probably do as a father is make sure they see how you love their mother.” As a father of three who came from a broken home, I can say this is a true statement.
I watched my father walk out on my mother. After they spoke about his affair, Mom went into the garage and sat in the family Blazer, crying, hands on the steering wheel as if she planned to drive but didn’t know where. Meanwhile, Dad crammed Wrangler jeans and polyester shirts into a duffle bag. The sounds are what I remember most: slamming doors and shuffled steps, Mom’s heaving, sloppy gasps, the roll and pop of sliding closet doors, Dad’s motor turning over. It became quiet after that, the kind of swampy silence that follows the crash of broken glass or a difficult and unanswerable question.
Sometimes I think about Mom resting her head on the steering wheel, crying, as Dad packed his things, and I realize I never want my children to see that. I never want them to feel the way I felt in that moment. I never want them to wonder if their father loves their mother, or when he’s not home, if he’s being faithful.
But the real catch (and I think this is a problem with many children raised in the ’80s) is this: Because it became more and more acceptable for a father to walk out on the mother of his children, I now feel like I don’t really know how to be a good husband and father. I question it all the time. And I am confident there are mothers with my same background who feel this way, too.
But what I do know is the way I treat my wife is reflected in my children. They are 9, 7, and 2, and the older two are pretty good at picking up what’s going on. Not that Mel and I fight all that much anymore, but when we do, I can see how much it disrupts them. Sometimes during an argument, they just gaze at the two of us from the sofa, their eyes moving side to side, trying to figure it out.
But more importantly, they also notice when we go out for a date. When we come back, they ask what we did. They want to know where we ate, where we went, what movie we saw, and if both of us liked it.
I try to buy my wife flowers once a month, and that has had a really big impact on our children, too. I want my son to see me buy his mother flowers because I never saw my father do it. I want my son to know how to treat a wife and mother. I want him to know the importance of showing the mother of his children affection, even after many years of marriage. I want to show him by example.
And for my daughters, I want them to expect flowers. I want them to marry someone who is willing to take that extra little bit of time and money to invest in romance.
I don’t want them to feel lost like I did. I want them to know what a good marriage looks like. I want them to know, without a shadow of a doubt, I loved their mother more than anything. And in order to do that, I need to show it to them.
But therein lies the reality of marriage, love, and family. Love is a verb. Love is an action. It’s not something that you just fall into and then you take your hands off the wheel. Love is a constant gesture. It is a million “I love you” text messages, phone calls to show you care, warm embraces, tender hugs and kisses, dates, smiles, and winks. Love is watching the kids when your partner needs a break. It’s finding a compromise where no one wins 100%, but it’s something everyone can live with.
Showing your kids you love their mother means saying “sorry.” It means admitting you were wrong. It means saying “I love you.” It means doing all of this in front of your children.
Every time I tell my son I love his mother, he rolls his eyes and says, “I know Dad.” He says it like I just told him water is wet. It’s just the reality of his life. Honestly, I love that. I love that he knows I love his mother because I know it gives him a secure foundation. Regardless of what goes on in his life, he will always have two parents who love each other and him. Coming from a broken home, I know how important that is to a child.
But honestly, if you don’t show the mother of your children you love her, then what are you showing? In the case of my father, it was indifference. It was avoidance. It was the silence of two people who were once in love but eventually drifted apart.
It took me being married for over a decade to realize exactly what was wrong about my parent’s marriage, and what I needed to do to be a better husband and father than the one I had.
Fathers, I can say with complete sincerity that your marriage, your family, all of it, will get better — it will get warmer, and it will get more functional — if you show your love in actions.
It’s the grease of marriage. It’s the marital maintenance that so many people talk about. It’s what your children need to see so they can feel comfortable and safe in their own home and with the structure two loving parents provide.
It is the best investment you can make. Trust me.