Saturday, June 15, 2013

Missing Fathers

How many Americans grow up with their fathers physically and/or emotionally absent? Barack Obama is one of them and today he says, “I still wish I had a dad who was not only around but involved.”

Five years ago, as candidate Obama, he was blunter. In a Chicago church he told African-American worshippers, “Too many fathers are MIA, too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.”

Citing his own father, who left when he was two, Obama stressed how lucky he was to have had loving grandparents who helped his mother give him support and stress education.

"A lot of children don't get those chances,” he said. “There is no margin for error in their lives. I resolved many years ago that it was my obligation to break the cycle--that if I could be anything in life, I would be a good father."

Looking back over a long lifetime, I would add another definition of manhood: When your kids are in trouble, you go and get them. In the 1970s, the gentlest man I knew went halfway around the world when his teenage age son was in a drug crisis and fought not only criminals but local authorities to bring him home.

In today’s world, how many men and women of any age, ethnicity or social position are sure their fathers would do the same when they are in physical or emotional danger?

“Deadbeat dads” is now a cliché, but even without divorce or separation, children are being cheated of a bedrock certainty that can help them grow into generous open-hearted human beings.

One of the novelist I admire most, Richard Russo, has made such men a staple of his work (think Paul Newman in the 2005 movie of “Empire Falls”). Now in a memoir titled “Elsewhere,” Russo writes about his lifelong emotional struggle with an abandoned mother and a long-gone dad who shows up occasionally to tell him, “You do know your mother’s nuts, right?”

On the day of greeting cards and small gifts, American fathers like Russo and Obama should be honored most of all for not turning out like their own, for showing up in the lives of their children and, no matter what else happens, being there for them.

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