He sits patiently on the living room couch. Waiting. The clock says 15 more minutes. A long time for a 4½ year old. Sitting next to him as if to keep him company is the dinosaur-motif backpack that Mom packed for him with extra socks, underpants, Pokémon pajamas, favorite bedtime books, a sealed yellow plastic container with his favorite crackers, and other things. Most importantly, he has his two favorite action figures: one for him, one for Dad. It’s fun playing action figures with Dad – like they did that one time. Mom really doesn’t do it right. These two are brand new – so cool. He’ll let Dad play with the blue one; he’ll take the red.
The clock says it’s time now. His attention moves from the clock to the front door, looking for signs of movement; listening for any sound of a car pulling up the driveway. It’ll be soon now. He can’t wait for the adventure to begin. It seems like forever since he’s seen Dad. He’s Dad’s “little man”.
It’s 15 minutes past now. It’s hard to sit so long. Waiting. Mom is in the kitchen on the phone. He didn’t hear the phone ring. He can hear her muffled talking. Her voice gets loud, then stops. Soon she’s there. “Honey, somethings come up and Daddy can’t make it today. He says he’s really sorry and he’ll make it up to you next time.” But today was supposed to be “next time.” Eyes fill with water. Some of it spills out and trickles down. Not as much as last time. “You know Daddy loves you. Let’s go watch Power Rangers and I’ll fix your favorite lunch.”
The dinosaur-motif backpack sits forgotten on the couch. It will sit there for the next day or two until Mom notices and empties it out one night after he’s asleep.
While most of the stories you hear these days deal with divorced fathers fighting for more time with their children, the foregoing scene has been replayed to me time and again by clients, friends, and even workmates. I tell divorced fathers who engage in such antics that they might as well smack their children with a two-by-four for all the pain and disappointment that it causes. As reprehensible as such physical abuse might be, it probably leaves less lasting damage than the inescapable message conveyed by such no-shows: “Daddy doesn’t love me”.
No bruise is bigger than that. It often lasts a lifetime.
There are few times in our lives when we receive the gift of unconditional love. Young children freely bear that gift to their parents. Yet I have seen too many fathers carelessly fling that gift aside through their own self-preoccupation, inattentiveness, and/or lack of caring. Most are then completely surprised and angry when their children finally give up and stop wanting to have anything to do with them after repeated disappointments – apparently motivated by the belief that the mere act of procreation gives them an inviolate right to the unquestioning love of their children, no matter what. The truth is that being a father is acting like one.
Father’s Day is a few weeks away. Keep in mind that the day is not just a celebration of fatherhood. It is also a day to recognize and appreciate the importance of being a father. It is realizing that you are your children’s world and their wanting to feel your love and return it is as important and natural to them as eating, playing, and sleeping. To put things in perspective: what brings the greatest joy on Father’s day – receiving the bad ties and goofy “#1 Dad” mugs, caps, and T-shirts, or experiencing your children’s joy and satisfaction over their belief that they got you the best gift ever? Being a father is a big responsibility. Bigger than many fathers comprehend. But so much is riding on it.