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Absent fathers miss children’s many intangible gifts

How do some men — and some women, for that matter — acquire the idea that child rearing is about mothering? How do some men so objectively, even passively, subordinate fathering to mothering, some to the point of abandoning the role entirely?

Maternal relationships are sometimes abandoned, too. But not nearly as often. Traditionally called “maternal instinct,” mothering begins as symbiosis. It’s a bodily event. The bond between mother and child is quite simply different from the bond between father and child. Not better or worse. But different.

Let’s be clear: I am not talking about adoption. The decision to surrender a child for adoption is an act of sacrificial love. And I’m not talking about extraordinary calls to vocation, such as going off to war or serving an unjust prison sentence to stand against some great wrong. No, here I’m talking about a man who makes a baby and simply withdraws. In some cases, disappears. He is never related to his son or daughter.

And, yes, I do know that, as the era of escalating divorce rates came upon us, family courts were for too long decidedly, absurdly prejudiced against fathers. Many fathers battled themselves to exhaustion fighting this gross ignorance. But, again, I’m not talking about beleaguered fathers; I’m talking about absent fathers.

That a man could father a child to whom he would then blithely decide not to be related represents a terrible fracture in the masculine. Easy to judge, but much harder to try to comprehend. The wound sustained by the child is obvious. Less obvious, I think, is the savage injury dealt to the absent father.

A father’s love and nurture of his children is every bit as vital to his own soul as the souls of his children. To walk away is to forever cripple oneself. How could we not know that?

My message to absent fathers is not first, strangely enough, “Save your sons and daughters from a fatherless childhood.” My message is, “Save yourself!” My position on absent fathers is not first moral indignation, it’s incredulity.

When I’m dying in hospice — assuming, of course, I’m afforded that privilege — there are a lot of sins and shenanigans I can tolerate about my life. But there is one non-negotiable sitting atop my list of ways I will measure a life well-lived, a life that will let me die in peace: that I was a present, faithful, albeit painfully imperfect father. That I was there. That my children knew me as a credible and authentic human being.

That they would remember the joy and wonder upon my face as they learned to crawl, then walk. As they learned to stack blocks. Navigate a glass of milk. Conquer their first day of school. Catch their first fish. Kiss a girl for the first time. Stand strong and accountable by their own mistakes and failures. Stand strong and proud by their own victories and accomplishments.

I love them, yes, but some days that pales when compared to how much I admire them. Respect them. How ridiculously happy I am when they are happy. How their hearts could never break without mine breaking, too.

Yet there remains another, profoundly humbling dimension to fathering. As the Hebrews make their way home from exile, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah: “I will save you, oh Israel. I will save you through your children.”

Whatever the combination of good and bad, gifts and burdens that I will bequeath to my children, how can I make them understand what they have bequeathed to me? Being steadfastly related to my sons is part of my Maker’s plan for my becoming. For every father’s becoming. Faithful fathering shapes men into the wholeness of manhood.

Fathering is a vocation and responsibility, yes. But, beyond that, an extravagant gift. An honor. How to say “thank you”? Words fail me.

If the question is who got the better end of the deal, me or my children, well, I’m tempted to say it was me. At the very least, we’re dead even.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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