Father Knows Best (unless he disagrees with SJ)

14 06 2012

People sometimes complain that I don’t write enough about fathers. They don’t complain that I don’t write enough about giraffes, which is strange, as giraffes are another awesome creature that I only see very occasionally. As Father’s Day approaches, I’m considering it more.

There just aren’t many dads on my caseload. I am currently at an all time high with dads, as three out of my twelve families, 25%, have a father involved. My wacky director talked to us during one ritual suicide staff meeting about the “myth of the absentee father.” Her point was that even when the fathers aren’t there, their presence still matters. OK, I agree. Her other point was that we need to be seeking out dads more often. Easy to say when you aren’t in the field anymore. Believe me, I ask. So where are they?

Some are far far away-they’ve moved out of state, and contact is limited to an occasional phone call at most. The move is frequently accompanied by a new family, and that is kind of that.

A lot of our families have histories of domestic violence, meaning that the dads are often legally prohibited from seeing the mothers, and at times the children. (Definitely for the best when you’ve threatened to kill your children and their mother.)

And some dads are not too far away, but they’re just not around. They’re not interested, or they’re not consistent. Obviously plenty of the mothers I work with fall short of their parental responsibilities. But there’s a difference in how the men and women I see experience finding out that they’ll be having a baby. For the mother, it’s real in that moment. For the father, it’s hit or miss.

The thing is, most of the men I work with don’t have a better idea of how to be a father. If your own personal example of a father is someone who you see only occasionally, who breaks promises and doesn’t support you and your family, it’s a struggle to do something different. Even if you know it made you feel terrible.

But we all know that some people do the hard work of making changes and breaking cycles. My father’s example of a dad had a lot to do with supporting the family financially, and drinking in the basement. (The laundry was always done!) Yet my dad managed to be way better than every other dad. Including yours, sorry.

Yeah, let me pick up you and your friends from that ska show in Jersey at 1 am, no problem. Your little league team needs someone to pitch, because we don’t have a tee and five year olds can’t throw? Awesome, I’m in. The man genuinely enjoyed Girl Scout father-daughter dances. He had a true knack for making social studies interesting, and was by far the best at playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (Also, he reads my blog regularly. Hi, Dad!)

There are some dads who, like mine, didn’t have the best example of how to be a good father. Or had much worse. But something made them decide to go above and beyond, and be amazing dads.

  1. There is one single father on my caseload. He recently took his teenage daughter and her cousin to see “Think Like a Man” to facilitate a discussion on romantic relationships. Sure, that discussion contained the line, “most boys are just trying to get at your cookies,” but the man gets credit for trying.
  2. The father of an eight year old boy realized he wasn’t spending enough time with his kid, so he managed to secure an extra ticket to ComicCon. It was a surprise. The boy walked into a room full of superheroes and his head exploded.
  3. A proud, and I mean proud father of six told me about the family’s recent trip to the Botanical Gardens. And then showed me pictures…and pictures…and pictures. His wife was telling him, “SJ doesn’t want to see all of them!” while he scrolled through to the last one, because, “look, they’re so cute.” They were pretty cute.
  4. A father of seven who somehow managed to get our entire office, staff and clients alike, engaged in singing Christmas carols at the holiday party. (The moment was ruined when I attempted an “O Holy Night” solo.)
  5. During one home visit, the father of a three year old girl painstakingly painted his daughter’s nails throughout our conversation. He was also a really good sport when it was his turn. Sparkly pink was totally his color.

Fatherhood is tricky. It seems dads are either labeled idiots or saints. Single dads are cheered as heroes in a way single moms rarely get. But it’s also pretty insulting when people act like you couldn’t possibly know how to take care of your own child, or ask if you’re “babysitting.” (People apparently actually say that to fathers about their kids. Gross.)

We’re always analyzing what role fathers play in this work. Why aren’t there more involved fathers? What do we do to change this? How can we teach boys the importance of being an involved parent? Who is going to teach the next generation about cheesy jokes if they don’t have dads?! Sometimes, it’s nice to take a break from that and celebrate the good.

Happy Father’s Day!



5 responses

16 06 2012

I agree that engaging fathers can be difficult in the work we do, but I believe it goes to a much higher level than individual workers. Our society prescribes roles and responsibilities that pigeon hole not just mothers and women but men and fathers. Men are labeled violent, tough, told to “be a man,” and are pressured to determine their worth by the size of their paycheck. Even our president (who I adore) talked in a speech about having a child doesn’t make you “a man” raising one does. Now, while the sentiment is good, the words only perpetuate societies expectations of what it means to be male.
Society also does not allow the type of family support that is necessary for struggling parents to both support their family and be involved with them. What we know about father involvement is a lot. It decreases the likelihood of children growing up with health issues like obesity and diabetes, increases children’s school achievement, decreases their juvenile justice involvement, decreases time in out of home placement, decreases re-occurrence of child protection involvement, increases children’s emotional health….and on and on.
Also, as a child protection worker, if I involve the father, or talk to him, or do anything to understand who he is, it opens up the door to a whole side of the family that can be amazing informal supports for the child. Involving the father does not mean the mother and father have to be involved. It does not have to put the mother or child in danger even if there is domestic violence. I think we need to have further conversations on how domestic violence is used as reason to not contact fathers and ways we can both keep mothers and children safe from harm and re-traumatization but also engage fathers and their family in service planning.
I also wonder about the fathers who are uninvolved or uninterested in being involved. I wonder about their previous experiences with “the system” and with attempting to parent. I wonder about their role models. I wonder about allowing them to feel some success as a parent and how that might change their involvement. I really think the principle of meeting them where they are at may show these fathers are not “uninterested” but scared, feeling like failures, or unsure of how to parent.

16 06 2012

For my families, the issue in involving the father when there is a history of domestic violence is supervision. Statistically, a history of DV does not necessarily mean that the father is abusing the children. However, the parents obviously need a neutral place/party at which to exchange the child. The mothers are, understandably, concerned about leaving a man they know to be violent alone with their kids. (Especially when kidnapping the children is so often a threat.) We don’t have the support for families that we need–they’re told they need supervision, but that they have to provide it themselves.

As a preventive worker, I don’t have the legal leverage of a CPS worker. Engaging a father in preventive work, as I said, is always my goal, but if the dad isn’t interested, my hands are tied. Again, like I said, I understand that many fathers’ lack of interest is due to their own history or societal expectations. But some overcome that, and my goal here was to celebrate them and give them the credit they deserve.

16 06 2012

Absolutely! It was clear that was your intent, I just wanted to shine some light on the societal rules and roles that can create problems. I totally agree there are not enough services and supports to make sure father engagement can happen in a safe way.

16 06 2012

Oh good 🙂

26 06 2012

I’ve received a sad education in what fatherhood really means on a family and societal level. My wife had sabotaged me on numerous occasions with the raising of our son. The first big one came when we talked about when to tell him about sex. She insisted we tell him together, which I agreed to, then she went ahead and told him by herself. When she left me she took our son and stayed in unknown locations for 8 days without any contact. When I went to my son’s elementary school to see him, my wife had persuaded the school not to let me and to call the police whenever I appeared. Then she filed for a protection order for herself and for my son. Of course I never behaved violently toward anyone and at the trial I acted as my own attorney and as there was no evidence or testimony, even from my wife, of anything remotely dangerous coming from me the protection order was denied.
I was disappointed at the ease at which people assumed I was violent. I had lived an exemplary life as a father. I bought the safety, comfort and well-being of my family with everything I had. I tended to every need and never shirked a task. My son and I have a great relationship and now there are two households since the divorce. However the courts see me as the secondary parent. The child support obligation seems to be the only thing that primarily belongs to the father. When my ex-wife does not inform me when she takes my son to the emergency room, or when she leaves him in the care of strangers, or won’t tell me where he is, the courts provide no remedy. I could file a motion that she isn’t abiding by the terms of the divorce agreement and all they’ll do in the end is give her a warning. But if I were to miss support payments she would only have to call Heath and Human Services and all sorts of consequences would happen for me.

I am truly saddened by the life my son is forced to lead because of the divorce and it is shameful that he had to witness the legal system move against his father because of the false allegations of his mother. I can only hope that the calm and logical demeanor I believe I displayed throughout serves as an example to him.

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