When I was very young, my mother and father divorced. For the first several years, I regularly saw my father during our scheduled visitations. That would change quickly after my father began to make some bad decisions with his life. It came to a head when my father attended my brother’s high school graduation. After a quick congratulations, my father informed us all that he was moving. The car was packed and he was leaving immediately. This was a repeat of the very day my father informed my mother he was leaving her. He drove away and a million excuses later it would be nearly twenty years before I saw him again.
When I think back to the times in my life that should have been painted with memories of my father, I no longer feel hurt or pain about those missed memories. The reason is that the only thing missing was my father, the memories were still there. It takes a village to raise a child, when a mother is on her own. My memories are painted with men who stepped in when there wasn’t a father there. When I think back to all of these men who invested in me, and my future, I realize how blessed I truly am. I know that not every fatherless child knows that feeling. It is something as a society we need to consider changing, and standing up in the void.
My Uncle Chuck was the greatest influence on me. He took me to the theater and art museums, broadening my view on the world to see things in new and interesting ways. He would be my inspiration to pick up a paint brush, act on a stage, or sit back and enjoy the world around me. He was a man who was driven, and through his example I would push myself to achieve goals that I had set pretty high. He influenced my love of learning, interest in politics, and would be the root of my strong opinions on everything under the sun. There was never a time that he allowed me to think I was less just because my father was gone and our finances were tight. He didn’t spoil me or bribe me, he pushed me to achieve on my own and celebrated those victories with me.
Our neighbor Miguel was from Cuba, a grandfather figure, and he spoke very little English. It was Miguel who taught me how to ride a bike, basic Spanish, and doted on our family. If he saw me outside struggling with anything, he was quick to come over and help. I learned a lot from that man despite our language barrier. When he became a grandfather for the first time, I would spent countless hours at his house with his granddaughter. He loved me as part of his familia, and I adored him.
My best friend’s parents would invite me on family camping trips, and I spent many weekends at their home. It was an opportunity for me to see what a family looked like (which had a major influence on my own marriage & parenting today). Harry, her father, had a group of best friends who acted as Uncles to me as well. When I had my first date it was the Uncles who sat the boy down to establish the rules by which he would treat me & the consequences if he failed to mind his manners.
When I was in sixth grade, my mother began dating an amazing man named Jim. He taught me how to fish, and to row a boat. He was the one I went to when I felt like my mom was being unfair. I have pictures of my childhood milestones like graduating elementary school, my first middle school dance, my high school proms… where he was beaming like a father would. In fact, had he not passed away from cancer, Jim would have walked me down the aisle at my wedding. He knew this too, because I told him so. That’s what daughters talk to their father about. When I turned sixteen he helped pick out my first car, taught me how to care for it, and prepared me for the realities of life. They were the stiff conversations that a dad has when he is starting to let his daughter loose to the world.
When he died, it was my college professor who stepped in offering sage advice to a struggling girl who’s world seemed to be falling apart. Dr. Allen sensed that things were not right with a student he had come to know well. Enough to say the hard things, that she doesn’t want to hear… but needs to. He pushed me to be a better student in spite of circumstances, to dig down deep and use these bumps and hurdles to motivate me toward greatness.
These many men influenced my life in a way that I can never put into words. A man isn’t a father simply because he reproduced. A man is a father because he loves like a father. Fathers take the time to know their children, they say the hard things because they love these children in their lives. Fathers invest time, wisdom, and energy into little lives that need someone to lead the way. Any man who is willing to step up and fill the gap is a man who can be a father. To the child living next door, the kids at the local boys and girls club, or that child they see struggling in the classroom or on the ball field. You can even be the father to that kid sitting behind prison doors, the orphan, the neglected, the forgotten, the hurting, and the broken.
When you see a child who doesn’t have a father present in their life, and you have the ability to do so… STEP UP! We want someone in our life who is in it for the long haul, who is not going to show up and take off… over and over again. We don’t want you to buy us things and spoil us, we want your wisdom, your knowledge, and your love. Tell us funny stories, sit down to a cup of ice cream and ask us about our day, encourage our interests, teach us to play ball or ride a bike (or change the oil in our car). Show us a world we can’t see on our own, take us to places that will challenge our perspective, equip us with tools to survive and to thrive.
We don’t want presents, we want someone who is PRESENT.
If you are already a dad, do your best. That’s really all your children want from you, even if you are not married to their mom anymore. Do your best to get along with your ex-wife, show up for those important events, but most importantly spend time talking to your kids about their lives and what is important to them.
If you are not a father, there are still many ways in which you can pass down the legacy of your life to children who will never share your last name but will always share your heart.