It seems like the societal message has been… dads aren’t that important. There are lots of movies and television shows which make jokes about the father in the family, showing him as incompetent or silly or stupid.
But, from what I hear in my therapist’s chair, this is the opposite of the truth. Dads are important and emotionally influential. Whether absent or present, kids want to know who their dad is and have a relationship with him. Children may be disappointed by him, angry at him, or feel deeply loved by him…whatever the relationship, kids have strong feelings about their fathers. In fact, when dads are absent, the desire to know him, communicate with him and have him know us does not diminish. The desire to know and be known is very strong and heartbreaking for the many kids whose dads are not actively involved in their lives. Many fathers do not seem to know-even the ones living right at home- how much their kids want to have contact with him.
I knew a young girl who was conceived by in-vitro fertilization and she wanted to know who her dad was. She lived with us for a few weeks and in that time she began to call my husband “dad”. She adopted him emotionally as her dad; her need for one was so great.
I knew a capable adult whose dad was in and out of her life during her childhood. She described waiting for him to show up when he was supposed to visit, and how she sat on the porch hour after hour, waiting for him to arrive, holding out for him long after the hour of arrival had come and gone, waiting patiently and finally being told by her mom that it was time to come in for dinner and being sick at heart from all that unrequited love. After many years of silence, she wrote him a letter and told him how his behavior made her difficult for her to love as she expected those she loved to not show up.
Boys too have strong desire for connection with their fathers. Even in their father’s absence, boys do things to try to connect or disconnect with their fathers; their behavior is their way of communicating with their dad.
A man I say in therapy, whose father left him early in his life, felt deeply rejected. It was hard for him to feel that he mattered and while he himself professed that he didn’t miss his father, he worked hard to win him father’s praise by becoming a great basketball player. Inside his heart, he had a secret hope that his father would see him play and be proud of him.
I hear from my male clients over and over again their wish to be related to in a positive way by their dad. For too many, either their dad was an ephemeral figure who did not pay much attention to them or their day was angry and scary presence in their lives. My clients say that they want to be different when they are dads.
A dad I know told me that he felt unhappy at his daughter’s interest in Disney stories. I suggested that he try to enter her world, without preconceived ideas of “this is a good interest” or “this is a bad interest.” He did. He reported to me that he let himself enter fully into her dress-up and story-telling activities and discovered a world of fun, creativity and happiness. He got to be with his kid and she got to have him. Who can imagine better than this?
I believe if we, as a society, acknowledge the value dads have for their kids, dads themselves will know their worth and find their way to connecting with their children.