A New York Times column by David Brooks has been making the rounds on social media for the past week. In “Why Fathers Leave Their Children,” he discusses how millions of children are raised without a father. Then he goes on to discuss that, according to the fathers, they aren’t actually deadbeat dads who left on a whim, but rather “guys who desperately did not want to leave their children, who swear they have tried to be with them, who may feel unworthy of fatherhood but who don’t want to be the missing dad their own father was.”
Ultimately, I think what Brooks is trying to get out of this is to show that fathers who abandon their children actually give it a second thought, and that couples need to do a better job at family planning. But speaking as a father of three who was abandoned by his own father, I have to say that Brooks really missed the mark in a number of ways.
The part that bothered me most, however, was his description of fathers making the decision to leave their children as “not a momentary decision” but rather “a long, tragic process.” Then he discuses how fathers leave their child after a year because the relationship with the mother and the child didn’t fit the ’50s “Leave It To Beaver” expectation, so they moved on to someone new, hoping to find something better.
This anguished decision lasted a full year. Fatherhood lasts a lifetime. My own father fit Brooks mold. He died divorcing his fourth wife. I have a long list of half- and stepsiblings, all of whom had a spotty relationship with our shared father. Both my father and Brooks seemed to view fatherhood like one might view an entrepreneur setting up a franchise. Once it doesn’t meet expectations, it is abandoned and the owner moves on, hopeful of finding a new investment that will meet their expectations.
If I’ve learned anything from being a father who was abandoned by his own father, it’s that fatherhood is not a temporary thing. It’s not something that can be passed up on. It’s a lifelong commitment. It requires presence and hard work, and so when I read articles like Brooks’s that try to conjure up a justification for abandoning a child, it pisses me off because it depreciates the value of fatherhood.
But that really is the problem, isn’t it? When I was a stay-at-home dad, I’d go shopping during the day with my children and often be asked if I was babysitting.
“Nope,” I’d say. “I’m parenting.”
Because ultimately, that’s what fatherhood is. It’s actions. It’s sacrifice. It’s spending time with your children. It’s teaching them how to walk and talk and make good decisions. It’s a million hugs and kisses. It’s teaching them how to shave and find the right person to love and hold and raise their own children. It’s setting expectations and then providing an example of how to live up to those expectations.
According to Brooks, “the so-called deadbeat dads want to succeed as fathers.” While the desire might be there, what fathers need to understand is that fatherhood isn’t something that can be traded in for a better, more comfortable model. We are not talking about used cars here, we are talking about children. Innocent children who depend on us for love, guidance, and support.
And I will admit that there are separations that are so nasty and volatile that it can be nearly impossible for a father to be part of his child’s life. But most of the time, this isn’t the case. From a personal example, my father and mother hated each other. My father has been dead for almost 16 years, and my mother still complains about him.
But as a child, I cannot count how many times I called my father to pick me up for the weekend and he told me “no.” I cannot count how many times he made promises he didn’t keep. In fact, one of the most consistent times in our relationship was when I was 16 and had a car, and he was in jail. He couldn’t avoid me then. He couldn’t hide. He couldn’t search for a more fitting family to fit his desires. We sat across from each other, bulletproof glass between us, each of us holding a phone with a steel cable, me searching for a father to influence my life, and him unable to avoid his obligation to me because he was stuck behind bars.
I reached out to my father any chance I got. I wanted him in my life. But he didn’t value his role as a father. And I think a lot of fathers don’t value their role because it is not as frowned upon or alienating for a father to skip out on their family. Ultimately, it is socially acceptable for a father to move on, and they usually have folks in their corner announcing all the reasons why they had “no choice.”
Listen, the last thing deadbeat dads need is someone advocating for them. The last thing they need is someone describing their one-year decision to move on and abandon their children as “a long, tragic process.” What fatherhood needs is to be given the same high value as motherhood. It needs to be seen as something that is not disposable, like some bad investment, but rather as a lifelong commitment. We need to react to dads who abandon their children in the same way we react to women in the same situations.
Yes, couples break up. Yes, marriages don’t work out. Yes, pregnancy isn’t always planned. But the second a man becomes a father it is imperative that he understand the value of that role, and fight for it, regardless of circumstances. When I look back at my father’s life, I can see so many opportunities for great fathering that he passed up. That he scooted aside because he felt it was okay to do so, ultimately leaving my mother, grandmother, and myself to pick up his slack.
What Brooks did was feed into the idea that fatherhood is disposable, and that needs to change. If I’ve learned anything as a father over the past 10 years, it’s that fatherhood is difficult in the most wonderful ways. It is a sacred obligation that defines both the father and the child. Fathers need to understand that and hold on to fatherhood with a white-knuckle grip.