Father Wantobeism: Telling a More Compassionate Story of the Missing Dads
I remember my father’s visits vividly. He would pull up in a blue truck to the house where my mother and I lived with a present in his hands. The visits did not occur often, but when they did I would rush to the door to see what he had gotten me. I could not contain the excitement I felt as a little boy. My favorite gift from his visit was a red and white toy tractor-trailer that I still have to this day.
There were no more gifts, no more visits, after the age of nine. When he left, my life changed drastically. I began searching for a sense of importance in a desperate fashion, which often led to unhealthy coping mechanisms like picking fights with people every time I felt small, and lashing out at people that I loved. I remember when the children in school used to ask me about my father. I had a range of lies ready to share with them so they would leave me alone. One of my favorites: “My father owns a business out of town that requires him to travel often.”
As our nation celebrates Fathers’ Day, it’s important to remember the boys like me, confused and making up stories where solace should be, and the men like my father, so often wanting to be with their kids, but prevented by structural and psychological barriers.
Too often, the assumption by the family, the community and the children is that a father is missing because he doesn’t care. In fact, there can be many reasons why fathers are absent from a family, none of which is due to a lack of love. Understanding these reasons is critical to restoring such dads’ involvement — something I see everyday in my work at Fathers’ UpLift, the country’s first mental health and substance abuse treatment facility specifically for absentee fathers and families.
We must change the narrative from intentional absenteeism to “wantobeism,” meaning that so many men want to be good dads, but are frustrated by real challenges that demand recognition. Of course some men don’t want to be involved fathers, regardless of income level, ethnicity, or religion. But that percentage is extremely small. For the vast majority of dads who are not present in their kids’ lives — particularly those from distressed communities — incarceration, extreme poverty, and negative self-esteem play a role in keeping them away.
How do we support fathers to stay in their kids’ lives? For starters, we have to stop thinking about fathering as an individual act. Parenting doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it happens in a community. A recent study found that the quality and depth of a parent’s network is strongly associated with the quality of their involvement in their children lives, both at home and at school. Too many parenting programs place a strong emphasis on the teaching of techniques and knowledge, like how to engage in play with a child, physical and brain development, and basic care with little emphasis on how societal factors may interfere with parents’ ability to apply this learning.
We must begin to view mental health services for fathers as a necessity for them to be able to be their best selves for their children. I have seen so many fathers cycle in and out of depression and anxiety as they battling systemic oppression and try to maintain relationships with their kids. As a therapist, I can be present to guide them so they could make the best decisions for themselves and their families. I’ve seen it work over and over again. And yet, it’s the kind of support the vast majority of fathers have no access to in their daily lives.
My father certainly did not have that kind support. And neither did I. In 2008, at the age of 22, the worthlessness and frustration I held about my father’s absence reached a boiling point. I stood at a window overlooking the Duke University campus and said to myself, Charles, you don’t deserve to be here. Your father didn’t want you and no one else will. I was seconds away from jumping out of the window to end my misery.
But in that moment, I thought about the individuals that cared about me and how they would have been affected by my death. I thought about my mother who made countless sacrifices to ensure that I would one day live a life she did not live herself. She was the reason I gave this life another shot. I made a vow shortly after that. I would not allow my pain to kill me. From the age of nine, I had been reliving the day my father left my life.
When I was 23, I traveled to my father’s hometown, Valdosta, Georgia, on a personal pilgrimage to search for the truth. I found out that he wasn’t around, not because he didn’t love me or because I was unworthy, but because he had a different family. I plead with my cousin to show me where he lived. We drove by the house slowly, circling back around once so I could take a picture. My question had been answered: Dad was absent because he had another family.
Today, having studied these situations — I’d bet that he didn’t know how to navigate having two families. Shame of an affair kept my dad away. He was no doubt weighed down with embarrassment and guilt. My father still struggles with acknowledging the emotional barriers he faces, even though it prevents him from bringing me and my siblings from his marriage together.
It is simply untrue that most fathers who are absent do not care about their children. My father always cared.
We must change the narrative around absentee fathers and why they go missing. We need more research to fully explore the complicated reasons why fathers leave their children. We need to make sure they have the mental health services they need, and the community supports, all while fighting back against structural poverty and racism. It’s no small challenge, but the rewards are eternal. I have healed my own wounds, in part by becoming a father myself. I spent this past Fathers’ Day with my boy, which makes me lucky, but not more deserving than all the fathers out there who are prevented from being with theirs in the United States of America. We all deserve a chance.