Can I Be a Good Father if I Never Had One?

I was 4 years old when my father died. Now I’m a father myself.

Steven Ma
Steven Ma
Jun 13 · 7 min read
My son and I after he turned one.

I don’t remember too much from my early childhood, but this scene is burned into my memory. It was the day I found out my father died.

It’s maybe a 30-second memory. I was standing in the hallway. The walls were white and the carpet was beige.

My mom was sitting on the floor against the left wall. She had an enveloped and letter clutched in her right hand. Tears streamed down her red face as she let out loud, horrific wails.

My 2 aunts were crouched in front of her, trying to take her hands and comfort her. My mom just flung her arms away and continued to shriek.

I stood watching, paralyzed. My uncle stood behind me with his hand on my shoulder. The scene itself was traumatizing. I didn’t know what was going on.

A little bit later — I’m not sure if it was minutes or hours later — my mom knelt in front of me. Her hands were shaking and her voice was quivering. She was barely able to utter out the words.

“Dad died.”

We Came to America for a Better Life

My dad was supposed to join us.

My mom and I are immigrants. We’re from Vietnam.

When the US left Vietnam during the Vietnam War, the North took over the country and it became Communist. Over the next decade, people began fleeing however they could, many by boat.

My aunt had fled by to boat and made it to the US. She later sponsored our entire family to come to the US. My mom and I, along with other family members, flew to the US. Our plan was to work hard, save money, and then sponsor my dad to come over.

That never happened.

Only a few months after we arrived in the US, my mom received a letter from family back in Vietnam.

My dad died in a motorcycle accident.

Life was Difficult Without My Father

It was even more difficult for my mother.

I was 4 years old. She was 33. We were in a foreign country. We didn’t know the language. She had no formal education.

During the first few years, we lived with extended family while my mom went to college part time and worked at McDonald’s part time. But life circumstances changed, and we ended up on our own.

My mom had to drop out of college and work full time to support both of us. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment until I was in high school. We didn’t have much. My mom would pinch pennies so we could go out to eat once in a while, so I could have decent clothes, and so I could have some of the toys I wanted. I often feel guilty now for wanting those things as a child because of how difficult it was on our finances.

I didn’t see much of my mom and mostly raised myself. It wasn’t her fault, she had to work long hours and overtime to make ends meet. So at around 9 years old, I did most things on my own. I got up, made breakfast, packed my lunch, got ready, and walked to school. After school I walked home, watched cartoons (though I lied to my mom that I didn’t), and did my homework. Sometimes my mom was home in time to make dinner. Other times I just made it myself.

As I grew older, the absence of a father began to weigh more heavily on me as I passed through all the markers of growing up.

He wasn’t there when I learned how to swim or ride a bike.

He wasn’t there to teach me how to throw or catch a baseball, or even how it was played, so I showed up to Little League tryouts without a glove and felt completely embarrassed not knowing what to do. He wasn’t there when I got my first hit, or scored my first run, or pitched my first strike out.

He wasn’t there to teach me how to shave. That was a bloody first week. I had to navigate puberty and girls on my own, with the help of my friends who weren’t actually all that helpful.

He didn’t see me walk across the stage and get my high school diploma. Nor did he watch me give the graduation speech. I think he would have been proud of that.

Over the years I’ve gone through phases of being angry at him for not being there, angry at God for taking him, angry at life in general, and angry at myself for being so affected by it. But more than that, I’ve just been sad. Sometimes that sadness has driven me to excel more. Other times it’s been a weight that’s held me back.

Since becoming a father, that anger and sadness has turned to fear.

I’m Afraid of Being a Bad Father

I’m even more afraid of not having the opportunity to be a father.

Luckily I had a lot of examples of fathers throughout my life.

In my early elementary years, we lived with my aunt and uncle. My uncle was the one who taught me English, bought me a dog, and was a father to me. Due to family circumstances, we moved away and I didn’t see him much. He passed away, and I don’t think I ever told him how grateful I was.

I also had my friends’ fathers, church youth leaders, and teachers and coaches that had some sort of mentorship role in my life. Though I’ve got a lot of issues to work through still, I credit many of them to helping me become a decent human being.

As I raise a son of my own, I tell myself that I won’t be a bad father and I won’t make the common mistakes that so many others do. I won’t be absent, I won’t be cold, I won’t domineering, I won’t be short-tempered, I won’t be abusive… but then again, isn’t that what every father thinks? How many new fathers start out thinking, I’m going to be a horrible parent and make life hell for my kids?

But it happens, and it can easily happen me. My son is under 2 years old, but I’ve already yelled at him out of anger, slapped his hand out of impulse, and ignored him out of frustration. How do I know it won’t get worse? How do I not become a bad father?

But the greater fear is not being there at all.

I hope to be able to see my son go to school, play sports, graduate, get a job, get married, have children… but I’m well aware that I’m not guaranteed any of those things. Shortly after he was born, I bought a life insurance policy. Buying life insurance is a weird feeling, it’s like admitting that you will die ad coming to terms with it.

I hope to live long enough to be a good father to my son, but I may die early and not have that chance at all. I think the more I accept that reality, the better father I can become.

Letting the Fear of Death Drive the Reason to Live

I’m a fairly healthy person, so I don’t expect to die soon. But general health means nothing to things like cancer and car accidents.

I grew up in financially difficult circumstances and my mother sacrificed a lot to get me to where I am now. And like most parents, I want my child to have every opportunity possible, to live a better life than me, and to succeed at what they strive for. And so I freelance in addition to my full-time job to try and provide that future for him.

But that work also takes me away from him. I justify it by hoping it’ll provide me with a better career and better finances so I can have that time in the future. When I do spend time with him, I’m often so tired that I’ll gravitate towards watching TV or being on my phone while he plays. And I feel horrible every time. (But to put this in perspective, I work remotely and watch him at home the majority of the day)

So there’s this tension of being emotionally absent now from trying to provide a better future, but also knowing that I may not be around for that future.

My son and I

It’s odd, but the more I think about death, the more it drives me to savor the moments I have with my son. I try to have as much fun as I possibly can with him. I try to invest all my attention and energy into him. I try to be as patient as possible when when I’m tired.

Even though it feels strange, I try to setup my phone to record all those interactions. Because despite all the time I spend with him, he won’t remember any of these early years. And if I die early, as my father did, my son will never really know how much I love him.

Not having a father drives me to be the best father I can be, because my time as a father is not guaranteed.

Steven Ma

Written by

Steven Ma

Blogger, Photographer, Vlogger, Consultant

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