I’ve been spending a lot of personal time with my children since they came over for the summer. I’m trying to compress as much fatherhood as possible into the short time I have with them, and although it hardly seems like enough, I’m coming to realize how absolutely crucial this time is to children.
Actually, I already knew that; my own father was barely there when I was a child. It’s something I haven’t written much about, but it had a profound effect on me. It wasn’t my mother’s fault — she may not have always had the nicest things to say about him, but she never deliberately kept me away from him. In hindsight, it seems like she sometimes went out of her way to accommodate him and my paternal grandparents. No, it was him. He just wasn’t up for being a father; maybe, not having been very close to his own father, he didn’t think there was all that much to it. So for most of my childhood I’d see him no more than a couple times a year, and it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I started to seek him out on my own. Despite his imperfections and general carelessness about his role, I still felt the need to know him and find my own way to love him. Ultimately, I did. He died three years ago, and I can say that by that time I had accepted him for who he was and come to terms with my disappointment. It’s an enormous relief to me that I did so before he died.
However, the pain of being a child with an absent father left an indelible impression on me. I guess you could even call it a scar. A scar that was torn open once again when I lost my own children to divorce. All of the fears and pain of my childhood were brought crashing back with the terrible realization that I might lose my children for good, and they could suffer the same alienation I did. I immediately resolved on the very day my wife left never to stop fighting for my kids. Although I knew I stood a good chance of losing, I also knew that if I gave it my best shot they would never have to feel as though they’d been written off or abandoned by a parent. My life over the last five or so years has been devoted to that goal above all others. For me personally, it’s been something of a disaster, but when you’re a parent you learn not to think so much of yourself. Suddenly, your own future becomes much less important — even an afterthought sometimes. It’s something that might be hard to explain to people without children of their own, but it’s paradoxically fulfilling.
As I spend time with my children in this window of sweet, trusting innocence before they begin to really grow up, I find myself marvelling at the sheer importance of fatherhood. Children have a hunger for it that approaches need, and it seems so obvious to me that I am appalled when I think of the casual attitude our culture has developed around the institution. I can only conclude that, like my own father, people are fooling themselves into thinking it makes little difference. The only alternative explanation would be that most people have a visceral hatred for children, and I don’t think that’s likely.
I can’t guarantee that my time with my children this summer or my frequent trips up to the border during the school year will make all the difference. So much of life is out of our hands that we have to concede a great deal to fate. But there is one thing I know: spending time with them is one of the few things I can do that will comfort my children for the rest of their lives. For that alone it’s worth it.