Wednesday, March 04, 2009

What Makes for a "Good" Father?

While this may not come as a shock to anyone who really knows me--and I mean knows me--it bears being clearly stated: I am not the easiest significant other to be with.

Yes, I am extremely low maintenance. Nope, I'm not needy in any sense of the word. In fact, any guy whose been with me for a substantial amount of time very likely has wondered at times if I even like him, I need so little. I'm an eternal optimist, even as the world comes crashing down. Just today, Wes called from work to inform me that he's losing his job for at least a month, if not longer. My first thought was, Wow! We can finally finish painting the family room. It's been half done for 3 years!


I have high expectations when it comes to parenting. Only, I didn't know they were high. To me, they seem reasonable and obvious. I believe in being involved in the lives of my kids. Not when it's convenient or easy. Not when I feel like it. Not when I don't have something else I'd rather be doing. I believe in it at all times. Both parents.

And by involved, I don't mean overbearing or hovering or coddling. I don't tell my kids they're awesome when they're not. I don't heap praise on them for behaving as they should. If they're acting like brats, I tell them they're being bratty. I'm not politically correct. I use the words "shit" and "hell" and "damn" because sometimes they're the only words that express what I mean. I yell when I'm mad and don't act any differently around other people's kids than I do my own. What you see of me in public is what you'd see of me at home.

What I'm trying to say is, I am far from perfect. I make mistakes. But I don't let a day go by without telling every one of my kids I love them. I try to have a few uninterrupted moments with each of them every day. I don't hesitate to tell them I'm proud of them if the situation calls for it, and I am available to them when they need me. I advise, listen, discuss, debate. Together we learn, butt heads, compromise, concede. We are a family. A messy, loving, loud family.

Recently, one of my kids' friends' dad told me he's a good father to his school-age children. I asked him why he thinks that, and he said he drives them places, cooks for them, helps with their homework when he can. He puts food on the table.

This same dad thinks it's okay to drink himself into unconsciousness every couple of weeks because he used to do it every night. He thinks it's okay to smoke a joint or bowl and then try (and fail) to be responsible and attentive (he and his wife are divorced, so he has his kids on his own 3-4 days/nights a week). He leaves the house without tellings his kids while they're out playing, then doesn't answer his cell phone when they call, worried and wondering where he is. He doesn't pay his bills, doesn't work much, doesn't give them any sense of security.

His house is not a home; the kids have very little of their things there. He commits to attending and participating in school functions and then backs out last minute. His kids say they're used to it. I hate him when I hear them say that.

I understand that perhaps this father is an exception to the vast majority of dads out there. But I'm not sure he is. Why do so many men who have kids believe they should get gold stars for doing the bare minimum? Why do they think putting food on the table is all that's required of them? Why do they think they can drink and party and set a horrible example and then smack their kids around when they fall out of line? Why are so many dads assholes?

I know there are some fabulous, dedicated, loving fathers out there. I know some. I read about others. Some of them, I see at school when I'm picking up my kids. Some are reading this column right now. I know they exist.

And I know there are some frighteningly awful mothers. I see them too. Even know a couple. But there seems to be some sort of internal mechanism that tells a lot of guys that this parenting thing is like a hobby: Do it when you feel like it, but don't let it take over your life.

Being a volunteer in the schools, teaching classes and making presentations, I see a lot of wounded kids. A lot. More than I ever thought there could be. They're hurt, angry, distant. I know some second grade kids whose defenses are already in place; their lives will not be easy.

Life's hard. I get that. But when we have kids, we must put them first. All the time. That doesn't mean we need to be perfect, or with them at all times. It doesn't mean we never allow them to struggle or fall, fail or fear. It means we love them. And when loving them isn't enough--and most days, it isn't--we must put our weaknesses and desires aside and step up to the plate.

Being good enough should be the exception, not the rule.

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