While visiting with friends and family who work with the homeless population and elderly veterans, the conversation turned to how many of these men are estranged from their families. Some have had no interaction with their children for decades. This brokenness, deep and searing, is probably encrusted in dark stories of abandonment, addiction or abuse.
In my last column, I noted that 25 percent of this country’s children are raised by single mothers. This statistic also denotes the widespread phenomenon of dads who are AWOL.
Father’s Day happily offers an official day to put our dads on the pedestal for their love, sacrifices and impact on us. Yet, clearly not everyone has this wonderful dad. The relationships between fathers and children are often painful, and many father narratives include shadows and wounds: some small and some big; some long healed, others still gaping; some making us laugh, others drawing tears.
Sometimes damage gets carried forward from one generation to another. We probably know a father whose explosive temper, modeled after his own father, shut down communication with his children. Or a young woman whose father left her mother, and so she is gripped by fear that all men would do the same, thereby placing a heavy burden on each person she dates.
These stories abound and testify to the impact of fathers on their children. Given fathers’ primal significance to us as shelter and security, affirmation and first authority, these dynamics can mold us in behavior, attitudes, sense of worth and even perspectives about God.
A recent op-ed in The New York Times, “The Birth of a Mother,” observes that there is woefully insufficient attention given to the psychological transformation of a mother because the focus is on the physical well-being of the mother and child. Worse, discussion on the transformation and trauma of fatherhood is almost nonexistent. Prenatal classes teach dads what to expect during birth and how to hold, feed, burp, change and bathe the baby.
This constitutes THE preparation for fatherhood. The rest of it, like how to deal with the fear of such a huge responsibility, the resentment of losing one’s independence and how to set boundaries for space, time and resources are left to the individual’s improvisation from scripts in one’s own background and from trial and error.
When does guidance become dictate? How does correction become humiliation? At what point do expectations cripple the child? How does one recall angry words? To whom can a father turn when he feels inept, overwhelmed and wants to flee?
This essay is not about passing judgment, giving an easy pass or diminishing the hurt and suffering from these father-child experiences. But it is a call for empathy for our fathers for their failings or inability to express love and regret even when they have these feelings.
It is a call to let go of the father we wish we had or the one who disappointed us for the father who needs grace and our tenderness. It is a call for healing that may be beyond us, but not beyond God, the only perfect Father.
Woo is distinguished president’s fellow for global development at Purdue University and served as the CEO and president of Catholic Relief Services from 2012 to 2016.
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