For a young boy, the most important relationship is that of a father and son. The offspring looks up to his creator; he learns from his example and hangs on his every word. Many young boys see their fathers as heroes; they care not for their flaws. To a young male, the father is the very person he aspires to be.
Though no man is perfect, a father who sets a terrible example makes it so much harder for his young son to be a good man. The basic notions of what it takes to be a man are imprinted on the child from his experiences with his father. My father was a drunk, and his alcoholism led to our estrangement in the last years of his life. He chose drink over his son and drowned himself in a sea of alcohol. All the courts asked of him—to earn the right to be in contact with me, his family—was that he became sober.
Sadly, his addiction to alcohol was stronger than his devotion to his child, and he died just before my 13th birthday.
Despite experiencing first-hand the damage alcohol causes, through both my father’s violence and his absence from my life, whenever I’m faced with a stressful situation, one of my first instincts is to have a drink. My father impressed on me that men handle stress through alcohol, and that basic instinctual reaction is extremely difficult to overcome. Some fathers beat their sons. Others display a stoic lack of emotion, reducing the father-son relationship to a never-ending chase for approval on the part of the son. Patterns of behaviour are learned and often repeated; however poorly the example is set, it defines the son’s life.
It is equally as dangerous to insist on taking on what’s mistakenly perceived as the “positive” or “good” antithesis of such unambiguously poor parenting. A father who’d been denied freedom and choice as a child may easily give too much freedom and choice to their children, thus neglecting the importance of boundaries. The direct opposite of an extreme behaviour is another extreme behaviour—and thus equally damaging.
The thing, however, is that despite how poor an example my father was, I still needed him in my life. My adolescence was a troubled time, as it is for many people. At a stage where I was discovering who I was as a person, the lack of knowledge of my father made understanding my own self that much harder. Every child is biologically equal parts of their parents; when half of that is missing, it becomes very difficult to comprehend yourself and the development you are undergoing.
It’s not just the psychological aspects that are important. My father never saw me play sports; he never felt the pride of knowing his son had been made captain of his school rugby team. The sad irony is that the period when I became a leader amongst my peers was when I needed my fathers’ guidance the most.
My saddest memory of adolescence is something that may seem insignificant: I had to teach myself to shave. In perhaps the most prominent aspect of transforming from boy to man, I was alone because my father had neglected his duty to his son.
With single-parent families becoming more common, the traditional family unit is harder to find. As courts generally keep children with the mother in custody cases, it is imperative that the father strives to maintain access to his child or children, however limited. Although there are extreme situations where the child benefits from no contact, it is my opinion that having a relationship with both parents is crucial. Even if one parent is a poor example, in the long-term, it is better for the child to have discovered this for themselves, as unanswered questions and biased perceptions impair the youngster’s development through adolescence and self-discovery.
The onus is on parents to maintain these relationships, in whatever format is deemed both safe and acceptable to every party. When parents use children as weapons in custody battles, or allow their own opinions of each other to cloud their parental judgement, it is the child who suffers the most. Parents need to remember that, just because somebody is a bad partner, it does not make him or her a bad mother or father.
A child needs to know who their parents are.
There are always going to be situations where the parents are absent through no fault of their own; they may be sent to war, or they may pass away from an illness, or a tragic accident. Sometimes, absence is unavoidable. Addiction, laziness, or personal disputes among parents aren’t acceptable excuses, and they will damage their children—in ways they would never have envisaged.
I will never know who my father truly was. His family and friends will always eulogise him while those he hurt will always have an understandable bias against him. I wish I had known him, as there are parts of me I will never truly understand. I know he must have had good traits, just as I know how destructive his negative aspects were. With his passing, I will never discover for myself what they were.
Becoming a parent isn’t something that should be taken lightly. It is a lifelong commitment, and as a parent, your duty is to do your very best by your child. Your own wants and desires are secondary to the development and nurturing of your offspring. If, for instance, you have an addiction as in the case of my father, you need to seek the help that is available. Not tomorrow, not after “one last binge”—you need to get the help now. If you are in a dispute with your ex-partner, resolve it. If you are scared your child will reject you, you still have to try.
Don’t be an absentee father. However long it has been, whatever mistakes you have made, pick up the phone and make the call. You’re a parent – you owe that to your child.
Originally published November 30, 2012