Sunday, January 21, 2007


I am long overdue for a melancholy post and I am in a melancholy mood, so readers beware. Ages ago I reported on Carol Gilligan and Kyle Pruett's "slam" of Rev. Dobson. An ensuing discussion with "justme" piqued my interest in Dr. Pruett's work and so I ordered his book Fatherneed from Amazon. Today I decided to read carefully Pruett's chapter on divorce and its affect on fathers and their children, especially boys. I read this chapter because I am engaged to a man who has been essentially cut off from any meaningful relationship to his boys by an acrimonious divorce. I have grappled with understanding the decisions that he and his ex-wife came to in setting up their custody agreement, and quite honestly, I don't understand how separating, by miles and miles, a father from his children is ever in the interest of children. Dr. Pruett only confirmed my haunting suspicions.

Like many American, my parents divorced. I was almost done with college and I had no home to return to upon graduation. The actual graduation ceremony was painful as I tried to figure out how to both talk to my father and my mother in the midst of the usual mayhem. Neither wanted anything to do with the other, and having been away from them during their intense fighting, I hadn't really internalized the reality of their separation. It was on graduation day that the truth revealed itself. Shortly after graduation, I boarded a plane with three suitcases and moved to Boston. At the time, that was as far away as I could possibly get from my parents. I was heartbroken and I couldn't handle trying to figure out how to negotiate relationships with either of them as a separated and bitterly fighting couple. I did what I have always done best, I just ignored it and focused on rather ethereal matters such as Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind.

Overtime, my mother sort of won over my affection at my father's expense. For over 10 years I barely had a relationship with him. My mother had tapped into my growing enthusiasm for feminism, and understandably, sought me out as an ally to understand how stifled she was in a marriage to a man who was unable to commit or value her. My father, totally disconnected from any family, or stability, totally disintegrated. I was terrified to see him when I did, and calling him was out of the question since he was almost always drunk beyond comprehension. By the time I earned my Ph.D. I had convinced myself that my father had played no meaningful role in my life. This was, of course, a toxic lie.

During my intellectual journey in graduate school, my father underwent his own emotional and spiritual journey. He gave up drinking, he started to volunteer to serve the least privileged, he suffered a heart attack, and he built up a supportive community. When I allowed myself to really reconnect with him, shortly after meeting Za and reflecting deeply on a father's loss in divorce, I started to remember how profoundly he shaped the very person I am. While I endured my share of pain and suffering from both of my parents, particularly when they were screaming at each other or dragging me and my brother into their squabbles, I also benefitted immensely from having both of them actively and passionately involved in my life.

My father nurtured my intellectual curiosty from birth. His compassion for others and his spiritual hungering is an undisputable aspect of my identity. My father also taught me to take risks, to push myself harder that I would normally do, and to believe in my capacity to succeed. Even though I didn't talk to him from age 22-34, his affect on me was real.

Being with Za and watching him suffer, usually in stoic silence, because he is no longer involved in his children's life has forced me to really look at how badly father's fare in divorce. One of my best friend's is dating a recently divorced man as well. She finally met his eldest daughter and was astounded by how horribly she treated her Dad. She yelled at him for being a "misogynist" and not attending her sports events or school functions. Hearing Emma tell me this transported me back in time to the conversations my mother and I had about my father when they divorced. I knew instantly that this 16 year old's insults were really the plaints of her mother. Children of divorce ineluctably become footballs between their parents. And, what is worse, the father almost always gets sacked.

Look a lot of Dads are schmucks, no doubt. But, let's be honest so are mothers. And above all, the real dirty little secret is that neither parent is usually a saint or a martyr. Neither parent was solely the victim of a menacing partner. Humans fail each other. They fail to be compassionate, understanding and giving. They become selfish, insecure, and mean. And the children are the casualties of these all-too-human wars.

I realize this post is almost never-ending today and if I were to write everything on my mind it would turn into an epic. So let me just leave you with my honest assessment of what divorce does to Dads. It takes a little bit of their heart away. It confuses them about their role in their children's lives. Are they supposed to entertain them for the few precious days they get to see them (whether it be a week, a month, or over a year)? Dads pay out a lot of child support because the court mandates it. This is money that they otherwise (at least the ones I know) are happy to spend on their children to enrich their lives. But, when they must send a check every month and conversely have little to no relationship to their children, it is alienating. Divorced Dads are treated as too incompetent to be the custodial parent by the court system. The entrenched gender roles feed an antiquated and harmful view that all Dads are really supposed to do is provide materially for their children.

Fathers love their children indistinguishably from their mothers, with the same intensity of love never before felt for another human. And, when their children are gone from their lives, they ache, perhaps over time it becomes a dull ache, but nonetheless a constant pain gnaws at them everyday. When my father dropped me off at college, I will never forget the tears in his eyes as he said goodbye. He realized that he would never have a physical closeness to me again; he would never be in my day every day, living with me, and seeing me grow. When Za's children moved across country, he collapsed into quiet sobbing in my arms for hours until he passed out. I will never forget that moment, particularly because it was so intensely authentic. We never spoke about that night again. And, when he is asleep and smiling, I hope that his dreams are filled with the technicolor memories of raising his boys.

There is so little I can do to ever fill the empty space in his heart, but to honor it by acknowledging its very real existence and loving with renewed energy my own father.