Sunday, June 18, 2017

a Father's Day essay

Happy Father's Day to all you fathers out there. I'm posting an essay I wrote for the CBC 19 years ago. (Wish I could reduce it in size but I don't know how.) It's about fathers in general but also secretly addressed to my ex-husband, a nice man and a workaholic. I found out later the piece was being used in a law school course about divorce law. Without royalties, of course, but still, I was glad, because it's just as true now as it was in 1998. Don't get me started on how our world is ignoring the crisis of lost young men. What are terrorists, after all?

And just so you know ... I am working. It's like wading through peanut butter, trying to fix the front of this memoir, but I'm working at it. "Arse in chair," as Colum McCann says in his terrific book, Letters to a Young Writer, that I just got from the library. I'm not young, but I'm drinking in his words, and "Keep your arse in the chair" is among them.


Not long ago, I wrote a short article about my father, and read it to a writers group. It was about the difficulty he had conveying love, as I grew up, and how long it took before I understood that he really did love me, he just couldn’t say so. “Our communication was subterranean,” I read. “I learned to decipher his signals like secret code, like sign language.”

When I’d finished reading, there was complete silence. “Oh oh,” I thought, “they hate it,” and then I looked up. Around the table, every face was stricken; two were in tears. This was not just my story, I learned. Trying to read love on Daddy’s face, or to hear affection coming from Dad’s mouth, was a search we all shared. Heartbreakingly so.

A search that our fathers, ironically, shared with us. For how many of our fathers had ever heard loving, supportive words from their fathers? How could they learn to speak lovingly when their own fathers were sternly silent, as men were meant to be? It’s only now, in our post-feminist time, that men are allowed - even expected - to speak of feelings, tenderness, love. 

Now that men have new emotional freedom, will our children be the first generation raised with the guarantee of affectionate attention from fathers? Well, no. Because, having addressed that problem, we’re reeling from another, a crisis of disastrous, almost unknowable proportions. Just as we encourage men to be more open in marriage, marriages are falling apart at a record rate. Just as men are freed to connect emotionally with their children, they’re increasingly living somewhere else, apart, and so are able to connect only sporadically, if at all. In some ways, I think many modern fathers are even more painfully distant from their children than the hiding-behind-the-newspaper, go-ask-your-mother, Father Knows Best fathers of the Fifties.

There’s no blame here. Our society has lived through several earthquakes in recent times - the permissive sixties, the self-centered seventies, the workaholic, driven, selfish eighties and nineties - and, especially, the feminist revolution. None of these things made marriage and child-rearing easier and more secure for men and women. Women, in particular, found an entirely new world of possibilities, and men were left figuring out where they fitted in the new scheme of things. We’re an interim generation, rejecting what our parents had, but not knowing quite how to fashion, successfully and workably, what we want. 

The greatest tragedy in all the flux is this: because of widespread divorce, fathers are vanishing, and children are suffering the consequences. I fear that we as a society will suffer the consequences, too. Our fathers may have been aloof, but most of them were there. So many divorced fathers now, it seems, are living on the other side of town, or in another city, or have a new girlfriend or are plunged into work. It’s not that they don’t care for their children; I’m sure they do. They’re just not sure how to connect without the structure of marriage and family and home. They seem to feel, eventually - well, the children’s mother is keeping me out; or - she’s taking good care of things; I might as well go back to the office. The kids don’t need me.

They need you. They need you more than ever - even if it’s the children, now, who are silent, and can’t speak of love and need. Boys desperately need a role model, to watch Dad in all kinds of situations, to understand what men do and how they do it. Girls need to hear a man’s point of view, to feel themselves growing up under the appreciative gaze of a loving man. These things are fundamental, and so often, now, they’re missing.

Children don’t need that much; they just need you. My own son, a few years ago, flew off for a special visit with his dad, who now lives an hour and a half away by plane in another country. And his loving, generous father laid it on, all kinds of fancy events - expensive outings and shopping and shows and restaurants. Later, my son wrote about the visit for school. “The best part of my trip,” he wrote, “was playing catch in the park with my dad.”

There’s a saying women know about - that if you asked your children which they’d prefer, their mother nearby and wretched, or somewhere else and blissful, which would they choose? No question. Kids need their parents to be there, happy or not. If I’d had a choice between my father as he was, judgmental, sometimes even cruel, but present, and my father far away but sending adoring letters, which would I have chosen? No question. I needed him daily, difficult as he was. And eventually a love grew between us which nurtures me still, though he’s no longer there to love me back.

All fathers - but especially divorced fathers - there’s an emergency out there. Your children are hungry for you. Don’t worry if you’re not the type who can say ‘I love you’; that’s not the issue any more. You don’t have to say it, though it’s nice if you do. You don’t have to be living under the same roof as your children to be an involved, committed, passionate father, who’s there. All you have to do is be ready to play catch as often as you possibly can, to catch and throw, to listen and talk, to listen, and talk, as fully as you possibly can, until the day comes when the need for you to be there stops. 

Which, if you play your cards right, won’t be until long, long after the day you die.


  1. Thank you, Theresa. Sometimes it feels like you are the only reader of this blog! Well, it's good we are reading each other with such pleasure.

  2. So true Beth. My son and his partner have recently split up,their beautiful twin daughters spend nearly as much time with their dad as their mum. Heartbreaking to watch, but we hold those sweet girls close and tell them how much they are loved by us all. Their father is always there for them and does tell them he loves them.
    You see Beth, you have at least TWO readers of your blog! Carole

  3. Carole, separation and divorce are hard for kids to understand, but I'm here to assure you they do get through with enough support and love, which your grandchildren will certainly have. And in some ways, they're stronger than their peers because they've had to figure a lot of things out. Thank you for coming along on the journey.