What it Means to Be a Dad

On the rare occasions my son speaks with his father on Skype or Facetime, I often contemplate his distant role in my child’s life, and what it really takes to be a proper dad.

I have a very loose relationship with the father. I allow him as much (or in this case as little) contact as he wants with his son. He initiates the contact when he has time, and when he is not travelling somewhere. When he makes an appearance, it is always via a video call once every five, six o sometimes eight weeks, depending on whether the father has something to say, or whether he wants to find out how the child is doing at school or on a holiday.

The last time the two met in person was on my initiative, when we were ready to move out of New York in August 2015. I have so far failed to get the father to visit again or meet us in South Africa, even though there is a pressing need for his presence to sign the forms for our son’s South African passport. It is always too expensive, or there is no time. I try to process, and get over,  my resentment at how little my ex contributes, and how much he complicates our life by the mere fact of his legal status and existence as a father. It hurts my pride that I have to pursue this futile effort of demanding his cooperation on some issues, passport approval and travel permissions for instance, when in fact he bring next to nothing to our lives.

I know my son enjoys the long or short conversations he has with with his father. The man is technically savvy, and a bit of a nerd when it comes to subjects that interest my son. Yesterday evening they spoke about aircrafts, airlines, international aviation and travel. They shared information about YouTube videos they both follow, and opinions on recent air travel trends. My son is quite knowledgeable in these things. The problem that I see, though, is that my ex teaches my son certain attitudes. They spoke, for example, about germs and how they spread during air travel. According to my ex the worst places to carry germs are the tray tables, the magazines, the safety cards, the carpets and the top of the headrest where people usually grab a hold to get into their seats. This information might be of some importance, but I fear that it will make my son into the kind of germophobe my ex is. I have nothing against people who are aware of the possibility of contagion. I always carry a hand-sanitizer in my backpack, although I rarely use it. I do, however, look askance at people who make a show out of opening and closing bathroom doors with pinky fingers or using a paper towel. The action itself is not a problem, it is the attitude that underlies it that bothers me. And this is one of many things that eventually eroded any pretense of companionship I shared with my ex.

For me what is most important in a dad is to show moral leadership. My ex shows nothing of that. He is a man with an attitude and a grudge against the world. He is critical of people of certain body types, grooming, intelligence and sexual orientation. He does not come outright against them, but he has this poisonous attitude of one-upmanship. This poor parenting style is quite different from what I experienced as a child. My father is an old man now, and he is quite set in his opinions, attitudes and mind. He is quite inflexible on some moral arguments to the point of rigidity and sometimes extremism. He has always been, however, a principled man, who can show deep compassion. His love to us, his children, is the one constant that always shines through. He can argue with us for hours over petty things, and a minute later offer some huge amount of material or physical sacrifice if he felt we needed help. I could never expect any of my son’s needs to trump his father’s sense of entitlement or comfort.

My son loves his father. He said that to me, with a bit of an accusing tone, “I will always love him, no matter how he is”, and my heart ached for my little boy. I know that he enjoys what little the father offers. But I truly wish I could have brought a better father in his life.

Son, I wish you had a good man for a father. Someone who can teach you to accept and love people, the way they are, without judging them. Someone who could love you in the same way without judgment and accept whatever choices you make in life, and whatever path you follow. A man who would teach you how to respect women, protect their rights and treat them as peers and equals. I would not trust your father to teach you these things correctly.

I am also sad that I could not offer you someone to step-in as a father figure. Good men are hard to find, and when I did find one, he was already taken.

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