On Father's Day, Let's Not Damn Children Without Fathers
This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post on June 15, 2013.
By Michele Weldon
My middle son, Brendan, graduated from The Ohio State University last month with an undergraduate degree in four years. He was the only one of his close high school friends not on the five- or six-year plan, the only one of his roommates in the house on Chittenden Street to earn a diploma on time.
I drove from Chicago to Columbus in my sister's blue Toyota van with the seats removed and 130,000 miles on the odometer to be in the Horseshoe stadium all Buckeyes call The Shoe. I screeched as he received his diploma along with more than 10,000 other sons and daughters in caps and gowns who listened as President Barack Obama implored the graduates to "dare to dream bigger."
The next morning, we loaded the van with Brendan's clothes, books, desk and anything else worth keeping, leaving behind an old mattress and a black pleather chair minus a wheel. Brendan's father missed his graduation. He also missed Brendan's high school and eighth grade graduations, plus nearly a decade of birthdays and holidays, Brendan's knee surgery, the day he received his driver's license, his first love and four moves into college dorms and apartments, plus four moves back home.
Likewise, my sons' father missed my oldest son, Weldon's, graduation from high school, his graduation from the University of Wisconsin in 2011 and this summer, he will miss his graduation from a masters program in contemporary history at Universidad de Compultense in Madrid. He also missed my youngest son, Colin's, eighth grade graduation in 2008 and high school graduation last year. I have no reason to believe he will be present for Colin's expected graduation from the University of Iowa in 2016.
Their father has had only a handful of contacts -- a few letters, one or two phone calls, a session I arranged with a family therapist -- with his children for nearly a decade. My boys and I have lived in the same house for 18 years with the same land line. I have had the same job with the same office phone for 17 years; the same email addresses for the last 17 years as well.
Their father has not passed, nor is he incarcerated, incapacitated or otherwise separated from his sons against his will. I do not know for sure where he lives or what he does -- even on what continent. I know from court documents he claims zero income on his tax forms and alternately lists three different addresses. Their father, an able-bodied, former litigating attorney who was the editor of law review at a top law school, has chosen absence from his sons' lives -- physically, emotionally, financially, spiritually, virtually.
While so many people may cluck their tongues in pity and bemoan the father hunger my sons must feel, I emphatically defy the claim that all fatherless children need pity; my sons are thriving.
There is another story we must tell in this complicated scenario: the positive one where a father who abandons his children does not have the power to annihilate their futures.
Their father and I have been divorced since 1996; he moved to Amsterdam in 2004 with two weeks' notice and a declining interest in anything related to them. Shortly after his move, he stopped paying support and eventually stopped calling, writing or ever showing up for anything.
This story is far from unique. 24 million children in this country live in homes without a father. And these children need our support as a society, not our finger-wagging blame.
My three sons (now 19, 22 and 24) have not interacted meaningfully with their father in nine years, save the brief chatter he muttered to them when we arrived at his own father's funeral on January 12, 2008. It was the day after both Brendan and Colin's birthdays -- when Brendan had turned 17 and Colin turned 14. It was another pair of same-day birthdays their father did not acknowledge.
But he has contacted me through the courts -- with a rigorous campaign to prove he should not have to pay any past, present or future court-ordered support. In December of 2012, after years of his filings and my responses, and five years after he filed for bankruptcy (coincidentally, the same year our oldest started college), I settled in court for less than 10 percent of what he owed for his sons. Their father handed my attorney a cashier's check for an amount that was less than one year's out-of-state tuition at OSU. It was better than nothing, and I needed it.
As another Father's Day approaches this coming Sunday, the commercialized tributes to the romantic ideal of loving, present and omniscient fathers punctuate the media along with the cultural conviction that the flip side -- childhood without a father, any father -- is a life lost.
While I joyously support the necessary push to elevate the role of fathers, I insist that the rhetoric from studies and pundits should not be that a fatherless life is always worse for the children. My sons reap the effects of support from my brothers and sisters, extended family, an amazing high school wrestling coach, teachers and mentors who love them. And, of course, from me.
Certainly, it is optimal to have two parents if at all possible who love and nurture their children. Certainly, some mothers present deleterious and sometimes dangerous influences on their families. Certainly, many fathers are great men who fulfill their roles admirably -- they are fictional fathers like Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird or real-life fathers like Chris Gardner portrayed in Pursuit of Happyness.
But real life is not the movies.
President Obama's $1.5 billion Fatherhood Initiative drives home the noble intention to transform men who father children into active, involved parents and to support men to be better fathers. But in some cases, no amount of money will transform a man into a dad.
The proponents of the Father's Rights Movement respond to any such refutation with vitriol and venom; they place blame on mothers' antagonism and a judicial system and culture that belittles paternal involvement. I know, I have received the trolling threats, the most recent to an opinion piece I wrote in the New York Times from an anonymous blogger with an inscrutable name with the headline, "F--- You, Michele Weldon."
She says it because every single year when the day approaches, the single day of the year that we are supposed to show fathers our love and admiration, pieces of shit like Michele Weldon feel the need to write negative pieces about fathers, no opportunity to demonize them can pass by for feminist ideologues like Ms. Weldon... What we don't need is feminist ideologues in universities poisoning the minds of the future of our society to consider fathers as unneeded and unnecessary. F--- You, Michele Weldon.
But this is not about me. This is about the men I raise who will one day be good fathers -- better than the one they knew.
My sons have lived a different existence; one where their father chose himself over them, every day for years, and continues to do so. He deliberately elected to disappear from their lives -- incrementally at first, fading from their days, weeks and months like a Polaroid kept in a drawer -- then completely.
I try to be reassuring, to say their father is intelligent, athletic, handsome -- all traits of his they inherited. I say fatherless men can succeed. Sometimes, I feel as if I am just mouthing words that make no sound as they leave my lips, that they are mere abstract distractions of syllables -- sparks of smoke in the face of such gaping wounds. I understand the void left by a parent's abandonment is vacuous and painful. I cannot fix this, I cannot make their father be someone he is not. I have never been able to fix it, make up for it. But I will never agree that because they are fatherless they are marked for lives marred by mistakes with drugs, alcohol, delinquency and crime.
They are not less-than, they have no predetermined failure; they have proven otherwise.
Nothing stays broken forever if you don't want it to -- not a life, not a career, not a relationship, not a body, not a family, not a home, not a heart. You can choose to leave behind the pain, the judgment, the hurt, and escape from the events that led to this aftermath, and be someone who finds the love he needs to move forward. Some researchers agree with me; you can fill the black hole left by someone else's choice.
My father's gold medal hangs on a heavy chain that falls to the middle of my chest. On one side of the cracker-sized disc is an image of Mary holding Jesus as an infant. She has a halo -- a crown really -- and the medal is framed in elaborate filigree. On the other side in capital letters is engraved : "WM G WELDON," and underneath his name is his 9-digit social security number.
It is the medal he wore everyday as a private first class in the U.S. Army during World War II. He told me once he is sure this talisman it is what kept him alive. When my father died in January 1988, my mother, two brothers and three sisters and I carefully sorted through all his watches and cufflinks, hats and books. From that bounty, among other treasures, my sisters entrusted his medal to me.
By the time my father died, none of my three boys were yet born; Weldon arrived in October of that year. They did not know Papa Bill, though many remark that Brendan resembles him -- with his oval, handsome face, bright blue eyes and dimpled chin. Each one of the boys has his kindness.
I felt unconditionally loved by both my parents every day of my life. My boys will never know that feeling, and that arouses grief and regret in my choice of a man who eventually left them. But without him, these magnificent sons would not exist and the world would be less than it is.
I have come to realize that not all men are like my father, and that not all men are good fathers in spite of the Subaru commercials and clips from "Modern Family." Not all fathers have the capacity to benefit the lives of their children with their presence no matter how loudly and vehemently we insist they do.
We have no business shaming the sons and daughters of fathers who neglect their innate and moral responsibilities. For Father's Day and every day, let us remember we owe it to all children who have suffered paternal absence to convince them they can always and forever overcome the sins of the fathers.
- Michele Weldon is an assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern University.