I’ve learned it’s really easy to become an absentee father, but if you can be a dad who stays, you can make a profound difference.
I recently went back through time and revisited my My Top 10 Favourite Movies Ever. Even decades after watching it, one of my favourites is the hit 1997 Jim Carrey film Liar Liar. It’s about a divorced dad who continually lets his son down with empty promises to the point that his son makes a birthday wish meaning Jim’s character can’t lie for 24 hours.
Hilarious in practice, but it is kinda sad in reality.
In truth, there’s a whole bunch of movies in the 90s about absentee dads and many movies like Liar Liar with an attempted message at getting dads to stay, or at least be more present in the lives of their kids. I found the same thing when I was doing a list of Christmas movies or even just thinking about a bunch of older movies and shows I have enjoyed in the past – think Jingle All The Way, Mrs Doubtfire, Click, or even that savagely poignant episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, “Papa’s Got A Brand New Excuse”.
These and many more aimed at dads in particular with a plea to be present and accessible to their children.
And then as time went on, when TV stopped trying to convey as many overt family values or messages, it became less about being a dad who stays and more about the people who had been left behind by dad’s decisions trying to live with it.
I’ve worked in the IT industry for 15+ years to this point now. And it’s an industry plagued with a lot of people in this boat of choosing career over children, overtime over playtime, respect in business over respect in the home.
Granted, our industry often does necessitate longer hours or super late nights given society’s dependence on technology for mission critical purposes, but it became obvious to me when I was younger that many people – dads in particular – would work far more than they needed to, especially on salaries and projects where all that overtime didn’t amount to a whole lot more actually being delivered.
And I remember as a young man thinking wow, I’ve known so many people growing up who wished their fathers were around more. Some cases a family breakdown meant dad didn’t have full custody and opportunity, but even then you would see some dads still working crazy hours unnecessarily even on their weekend or evenings with the kids. And here they were, hiding in their computer.
Men can be really good at hiding. I think it’s because we actively compartmentalise our lives, whereas women (generally) tend to address everything at the same time. I think this is really handy for certain types of decisions where we need to face things in a more staggered approach – but the obvious downside that TD Jakes points out in He-Motions is we put things in their box, and we just leave it there. Festering. Unaddressed. Not receiving our attention or effort.
That’s okay when it’s a stressful project at work, around the house, or relationally that needs a more measured approach, or for a temporary period of time. But when it’s our children that go in that box, we’re not the dad who stays, we’re the dad who gets hit with the “absent” label.
And then I became a dad myself. And I realised something personally of myself rather than just theoretically that I had seen and researched about absentee fatherism in others – that I too could very, very easily hide from the pressures of fatherhood in my work, my serving, my hobbies, my outings, my whatever.
That instead of being available to help when I knew I could, that I could oh just work a bit later. Or not be available that weekend. Or go out for hours at an important time when I could be helping.
And it was such an equalising realisation that being a father is very confronting and difficult. And I could see in those times when those ideas to stay hidden came up exactly what has happened in so many homes previously. I will say I feel like I have done my best to be as present as possible, but I’d be lying if I said there hadn’t been several times when that thought or pressure had built up internally.
It is really, really easy to be an absentee father. We have the opportunity and the societal “acceptance” that we’re not always going to be available. Because so many fathers before us weren’t, right? That’s just what dads do. All the jokes tell us how distant dad is. All the biographies and complicated backstories of real and fictional people tell us that so many others have been in that boat. We all know dad is either at the pub, the golf game, or the office when his son or daughter are at their dance recital or even just for playtime.
But to be a dad who stays… I think that’s where real power is. Possibly even the greatest power we have as men is to buckle up and be present for the whole ride.
Even in today’s society, many secular and religious studies have all confirmed that when dad is absent, everyone suffers. Particularly the children.
Stats from the United States over 2021 a consistently measured increase in absentee fathers being a factor in increased substance abuse, higher incidences of mental health issues, increased risk of going to prison, and higher risks of school dropouts and poverty. And this is not the first year these observations have been made. I’ve read the research of the authors of On Becoming Babywise which showed a strong correlation between dad’s presence in the early years and behavioural issues later on way back in the 80s, and even some more recent statistics from the last few years confirm this to be the case.
Canadian research found that brain development is altered in the early years by the absence of the father. Children of fatherless homes were found to be 5 times more likely to attempt suicide, and 32 times (!!!) more likely to become homeless or runaway.
You can research this for yourself in any country, and the echo chamber of research, stat after stat, story after story, resoundingly confirms that dad being absent is devastating. I still am haunted by the fact that the last verse of the Old Testament is that when the fathers refuse to turn their hearts back to their children, a curse is present. I think these stats confirm just how dire it is when it’s like that.
It can be really hopeless when you realise how devastating a problem we have.
But I take it as a real encouragement and a recogition of just how serious and significant our role and contribution as fathers is.
In a world where it can be hard to feel like you’re really making a difference, by our presence and participation we can improve our children’s brain development and set them up for strength and greatness for their life ahead. Yes it’s utterly terrifying to think how bad the stats are when we aren’t present, but conversely consider how much of an improvement you can make in the lives of your children by showing up and staying present.
But if it were that easy, we’d all be doing it. Here are some factors I think play into the challenge.
The law and custody. American research puts marital breakdown as the leading cause of fatherlessness making up 30% of those fathers considered to be “absent”. In Australia I have talked to so many fathers of various ages even recently who are trying their hardest to be present in the lives of their children in a joint-custody situtation but the law makes it very difficult being geared against men. If you’re in this boat my brother I would urge you to keep fighting to be present, even if isn’t anywhere near as frequent as you would like to be. The data shows us that your sustained presence makes a significant difference, and is worth fighting for.
Embrace, and have a sense of, purpose. I’ve written before looking at even more of the stats around the difference it makes in a man’s life when he has a sense of calling and purpose about him. Even moreso as a father. Even if you’re unsure about every other area of your life, recognise you are called to and are capable of make a marked difference for your children. More in Why Men Need Purpose, Direction, and Income.
Don’t hide. Man I’ve never felt that internal pressure to hide from the stress and pressure of life more than I have since becoming a dad. But I want to be a dad who stays. Myself and all of us need to make sure we’re finding coping strategies and strength that don’t involve us being out 4-5 hours a night and never being present with our children. Not saying you can’t hang out with the boys or keep up an active social life, but as long as the whole family is coming with us on the journey overall.
Toxic masculinity. A real man stands by his kids. We can be so worried about how we appear to people who really don’t care about us at the end of the day. It’s more important to be who we need to be with the people who really need us the most. More in Men and Rape Culture
Deal with the crap. All of us have big issues to deal with, and fatherhood is extremely confronting. It pushes every single big button you have – your relationship with your own parents, how you view your competence, your ability or confidence in earning income, the traits about yourself you never want to pass on to others, and especially how much you love or don’t love yourself. Anger, substance abuse, porn addiciton, lack of self worth – all of these can make being a dad who stays very difficult when you always want to run away from yourself. It’s not too late to start working through these things.
Prioritise your relationship with your partner. A Brisbane psychologist told me a few months ago that it’s very typical in her decades of counselling in cis marriages that when life gets tough, the mum in the relationship will throw herself into raising the child and the dad will throw himself into his other pursuits. You’ll see this all across much of the Internet when dads die inside as their relationship dynamic changes. More than just the dynamic change, much of this can occur around marital angst – be it emotional, sexual, or big disagreements that you haven’t resolved. I would encourage anyone in that boat to seek professional help and/or the help of a support network and friends. I continue to see it and I firmly believe one of the worst things we can do for our marriages is to hide away from others. We all need to live in the light. More thoughts and experiences in 10 Ways To Minimize Fights In Marriage and Love and 8 Things That Kill Your Marriage (If Left Unaddressed).
There was a profound song written by the band Relient K a number of years ago in response to the issue of human trafficking and how many men in particular can be so cruel and abusive of their families and children. This part of the song has always stuck with me:
Want to cast a light into this pit if I only had a way
To restore the hearts of vile men to the love from which they’ve strayed, but I’m afraid
Let one man find hope again
Maybe in his very own daughter’s life
You could be the difference maker in your family’s life. I am very fortunate and grateful in my own life who had a dad who stayed and we still have a great relationship today. It’s made a profound difference in my life. You can do the same for your kids. Not just him but a lot of other great men who have mentored me, believed in me, spoken into my life, corrected me when I’ve been off course, and inspired me by their example and diligence.
And I would encourage you if you’re doing well in life, why not embrace the opportunity to be a father figure to the people around you? They could be other people’s children or even just younger guys and girls who need a helping hand to get through the current season of life. If we’ve been blessed with strength and opportunity, we should be sharing it as much as we can.
My heart in all this to encourage any man who finds himself willingly or by surprise to be a father, to embrace the opportunity you have. Be a dad who stays. Be a cycle breaker. We can only ever do our best and our kids will one day make their own decisions in life if they aren’t already. And that’ll be on them.
But what is on us is today – to be present, to be available, to fight for our families, and to be a light in a very dark world.