For many years now, my girls and I have approached Father’s Day with mixed emotions. My own father died on Christmas Day 2001, my husband who legally adopted my girls died from cancer eight years ago, and their biological father, well, let's just say it's complicated.
All of which makes Robin Wright's Father’s Day tribute in The New Yorker, “My Last Conversation With My Father,” a poignant read. Arguably, it is a throwback to an idyllic time when fathers, while not always demonstrably affectionate, showed love through actions and consistency, a time when they consciously grasped the significance of their role — their mission — in actively shaping the social and intellectual development of their children, even if the sons they secretly hoped for turned out to be daughters.
Today, Wright’s experience is more rare. And to be sure, that was not my heritage.
I was born and raised in Jamaica, as were both my parents. My father's father, however, was a Syrian Jew from Aleppo, whom my father met only once, back in the early ’60s, when he was a grown man in his forties. They met for lunch at Macy's department store in New York City, after a private detective had traced my grandfather's whereabouts to Brooklyn. My father had done well for himself and owned his own hardware business. The only interest he had was to lay eyes on the man who had fathered him. Undoubtedly, my grandfather would have had great difficulty introducing his “illegitimate,” “colored,” first-born son to his Orthodox Jewish family, who likely didn’t know of my father's existence. And while my father seemingly made peace with it, he never discussed it publicly, nor at home.
My mother's father, on the other hand, was Cuban. My mother knew him well, although I suspect there were days she often wished she did not. He was a serial philanderer who had promised to marry her mother but didn't and, instead, fathered children indiscriminately, some of whom my mother was still meeting for the first time well into adulthood. When my mother turned 16, my grandfather told her he would no longer support her. For the sake of her dignity, I won't repeat what he actually told her. However, suffice it to say he felt she had the feminine devices she needed for her survival.
In my own adult life, it soon became clear that having children even within the bonds of “holy matrimony” had little to do with guaranteeing your children the stability of a committed father. Sometimes, despite our best intentions, divorce is the best option for everyone involved, which can bring its own array of contentious custody and child support issues — even abandonment. Sometimes, too, good fathers die, creating an unfathomable physical void and emotional chasm — for years. For a brief time, my late husband was a positive stabilizing influence and a reminder to my children that relationships could be healthy and loving and supportive. Then, he was gone — a devastating second loss.
For the most part, then, even when my mother came to live with me after my father’s death, I have raised my children as a single parent. It’s important to note here the difference between a single parent and a parent who is single — one who is involved in a co-parenting situation with another adult. No, I was it.
To say, therefore, that I understand “father issues” would be an understatement.
Daddy-hunger drives daughters to look for love, sometimes in the wrong places, and often prematurely, in the arms of preying men who openly admit their preference for girls without fathers at home. Father-absence builds resentment and anger in sons with no role model to respect, which can lead to self-destructive behaviors ranging from gang involvement and substance abuse, to hardcore criminal activity, to behaviors that drive sexism and misogyny, as well as workaholism at the expense of family — generational issues.
For many, Father’s Day is a painful reminder at best of the missing element in that phrase.
Even so, as I look around, I see there are still fathers who can and should be celebrated — not for being perfect, not by a long shot, but for still being in the fight to maintain their place, even if they are no longer with the mother of their children. And I do not say "fight" lightly. Some women don't always make it easy for men to stay in the lives of their children. And no, this is not an indictment — it's just a fact. I recognize too that it's not always the position a woman takes willingly. Many times, it is a judgement call to protect children, who are not always able to process toxic behaviors that are best understood through more adult eyes.
I cannot even begin to tell men how important they are in the lives of their children, especially in a culture that seeks to diminish their significance, ridicule them as buffoons, and marginalize them in a misguided attempt at female empowerment. A woman can do it all and be everything to her child, except be a father. No one can better teach a son, for better or worse, what the man he could become looks like. And no one can better teach a daughter, for better or worse, what she should accept or avoid in future relationships with men. In fact, many psychologists believe that the very self-esteem and self-worth of our children are grounded in the relationship forged with their fathers.
Therefore, to those that are still in the game, I salute you. I admire and respect you for recognizing that supporting your children requires not just a financial component but a physical presence and an emotional investment. This is what should under-gird the bond — and pride — when you show up at graduation exercises, walk your daughters down the aisle, and become that legitimate go-to person who can be depended upon in dark days.
To those authentic ones, I wish you a very Happy Father's Day — a day in which you are honored and feel worthy. And to those who won't, I urge you to find a way to rebuild that bridge to your children. That bridge may hinge on you becoming a better man, but the challenge is yours to take — and benefit from.