I read an article recently in Redbook about dads who don't feel like they're involved enough in their kids' lives. And I immediately thought of my husband, Matt, a father of three (ages 12, 10 and 2), who despite being the world's best father, has always suffered from tremendous guilt. He's divorced and he travels a lot for work, an unfortunate combination when it comes to feeling like you're falling short in the dad department.
It was a morning like so many others. I tiptoed past my toddler's bedroom, a spring in my step as I rejoiced in the fact that she was choosing to sleep past 6 a.m. I had a lot to do before she and my two bonus kids woke up (start the coffee pot, empty the dishwasher, get breakfast started. Did I mention start the coffee pot?), especially because Matt was already off to the airport, to catch a flight to Omaha, or was it Orlando? I knew it started with an O. He traveled for work so often that, admittedly, I didn't always know where he was going.
And then I saw it, a love note he'd written to the three children (and me) that would be waiting for them when they stumbled into the kitchen, groggy-eyed and hungry. I must have read it a dozen times, still having no idea how hard it must be for him to leave his children for days at a time. But as I read the note, suddenly I was feeling it in every word he'd written.
I love you all so much, and will miss you... Please remember that when I go, I go for you. I think of you, and I count the days to be with you again.
When I decided to write this article, I asked him to try to put into words what he was feeling when he wrote a note like that, what he was hoping they'd feel when they read it. He said to me, "I wanted them to know they are loved. That I am away, but I'm never gone."
"Daddy!" Our 2-year-old daughter squeals with delight in a way that makes your heart want to cry as she sees her dad walk through the door after days away, sometimes as many as four in a row. She's missed him all week, asking where Daddy is in the morning as she bounds into our bedroom and then after looking for him in our closet and bathroom pronouncing that, Daddy's at work. She'll ask for him again at night when he doesn't come through the door and then again she'll answer her own question: Daddy's at work.
I want to tell him he's thought of, but I don't want to add to the guilt. I don't want him to feel bad that she misses him even though it comes from a place of love. I send him pictures and videos and I hope that they make him feel better, not worse.
"She looks older," he'll say as he scoops our toddler into his arms, returning home after several days away. "I feel like I miss so much when I'm gone," he adds, kissing her and holding her tight. The truth is, she is older. And she is more talkative. And he has missed things. But that's OK...
I wish I could erase the guilt and somehow make him understand that it's not about the quantity of time he spends with them but the quality. That my own dad traveled excessively for work when I was a child but I don't remember when he was gone, I only remember when he was there because he made an impact when he was. Just like my husband does. He takes the 2-year-old to swimming lessons, he drives the 9-year-old to school, he goes running with the 12-year-old.
My husband coaches his son in football, he volunteers at the school's pancake breakfast and he's never missed a parent-teacher conference. Not to mention, on the weekends, he takes the kids sledding, even gets on the floor and plays princess castle with the toddler.
But when I asked him why he still doesn't feel like he does enough, he said, "Society has helped build this added dad pressure I think. It wasn't long ago that society didn't 'expect' an involved dad. Cigars in the waiting room while Mom delivered was the rule of the day. The pendulum seems to have swung the complete other way. Today it's: Be successful at work and be home for dinner, coach soccer, and make s'mores for the sleepover."
He sees his older children frequently as we live in the same town as their mom. They live with us almost half the time. But when Matt travels, he often misses some of that time too. "My concerns about leaving them is their awareness. They 'know' when I'm gone in a more tangible way than our toddler does, and when I mix that with the guilt I feel that they have divorced parents, it can be hard," Matt acknowledges.
I've had teachers and school administrators stop me in the halls and tell me what a great father Matt is. When he coaches the kids' sports teams, I routinely have parents come up to me and tell me how great he is, how well their own children respond to him. He's just that guy who is really great with kids. Not just his own, but all of them! But even knowing these people feel this way, it still doesn't make it any easier for him to head off to Erie, Pennsylvania and know he's going to miss the band recital.
I can't take away the guilt, but I can continue to tell him that I am lucky to have him. And the kids are too. I'm excited for the day that his kids can tell him in their own words that they are lucky to have him as their dad.
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