As Father's Day approaches, my thoughts turn not to the fathers who are a constant presence in their children's lives. Rather, I find myself thinking of fathers who want to be there, but can't.
For some people, the word "can't," will no doubt conjure ugly memories of their fathers, because children who grow up without a father's consistent presence hear "can't" far too often.
"I'd like to play ball with you, but I can't."
"I want to come to the school play, but I can't."
"I wish I could attend your graduation, your birthday party or your class trip, but I can't."
"Can't" has become an overused refrain for those who refuse to father the children they helped to create. But there are times when, "can't" is more than an excuse. Sometimes, when fathers say, "can't," it is the kind of truth that rises in your throat like bile.
A caller's story
I thought of the word "can't" this week when I appeared on Voices in the Family with Dr. Dan Gottlieb, along with two other guests, to discuss fatherhood.
A caller phoned in and said that he had a great relationship with his children prior to his separation from his wife. But now he sees his children once every other week. He wants to see them more, but due to the custody arrangements, he can't.
Dr. Gottlieb and another guest wisely told the man to maintain a respectful relationship with the mother of his children. They also told him that when his children get older — the youngest is 3 — he could explain to them that he wanted a different arrangement, but couldn't have it at the time.
I could relate
I firmly believe they counseled him well, but after I left the studio, I felt a terrible sense of guilt, because I know from experience that a father in that situation has to do what Dr. Gottlieb advised. But after that, he has to do more.
My oldest daughter was born when I was 24, during a time when I was trying to get my life in order after a series of bad decisions.
In the years after her birth, there were court hearings to establish child support. There was an ill-advised custody agreement. There was rancor and bitterness, and before I knew it, a Family Court judge had ordered me to pay child support while ignoring my need to see my child.
I spent many years and thousands of dollars trying to correct that mistake. When I did, my daughter was in her early teens. I sat her down to explain what had happened when she was younger.
"I wanted to be there," I said, "but because of the custody arrangements and other issues, I couldn't."
My daughter listened to my explanation and gave a three-word response: "You weren't there."
I've never forgotten the lesson I learned from that painful but necessary conversation. The lesson was simply this: Children don't care about the circumstances that create a father's absence. They only know their father isn't there.
So if I could share anything with that father who called in to learn what he could do about his lopsided custody arrangement, I would tell him exactly what Dr. Gottlieb did, and then I would add one thing more: Fight to see your children.
Fight respectfully, fight honestly and fight fairly, but fight to see your children, because you will never get these years back, and frankly, neither will they.
You will never have another chance to see your 3-year-old run his first race. You'll never again have the opportunity to go bike riding with your 5-year-old. Your 7-year-old won't have the solo in every school play.
And years from now, when you sit them down to explain that you wanted to be there, they may not understand the intricacies of court-ordered custody and support, but they will understand the one truth that was clear to them every day: You weren't there.
I've been married for 13 years now, and I have two more beautiful children.
Those of you who've read my columns over the last decade know that my family is my greatest joy. What you may not know is that my oldest daughter taught me the importance of my presence. I love her not only for that, but for the relationship we've formed over the years.
This Father's Day, my greatest gift is the opportunity to be present in the lives of my children, and to love them through every single moment. I wouldn't miss that chance for anything in the world. No good father should.
So, if you are a loving father who wants only to be present in the lives of your children, these words are my gift to you: Fight to see your children, no matter what the obstacles.
Fight to see your children. I don't care how long it takes.
Fight to see your children, because they need you more than you know.
Fight to see your children, because your presence is the best thing you'll ever give them.