Not All Fathers

It’s impossible to avoid all the memes, retweets, and sentimental odes to fatherhood being shared this time of year. And for everyone who is lucky enough to have had a great dad, I am very happy for you. Go, celebrate his wonderfulness. Tell him how great he is. Recognize that not every person who manages to make a baby is also a good, loving father. If yours is that kind of wonderful, he deserves a big “thank you.”

Not all of us got so lucky.

I came to terms with that truth decades ago. While growing up I was lucky to have two incredibly wonderful grandfathers (one was Mom’s adoptive father, rather than her biological father) and a wicked fun great-grandfather, so I wasn’t lacking for great role models in that regard. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Dad. I haven’t talked to him in a few years. We were never close, he was a physically and emotionally abusive parent and I was frankly happy that he was denied custody in the divorce and we moved half a continent away when I was fifteen.

So while I did write about the bad kind of dad last year, most of the time I don’t think much about him. I usually only wind up mentioning him when someone else broaches the topic. But I noticed a couple of articles about having a bad father that seem to be being linked by everyone this year, and I have a few quibbles with their advice.

One is written from a religious perspective, and talks about the Biblical command to honor your father. I totally agree with the author that the command doesn’t mean one is obligated to obey, respect, or even love your father. But the article went on to talk about one’s moral and spiritual obligation to treat the bad father with common decency and dignity and even said that we must do everything we can to bestow that minimal amount of honor upon our fathers.


And I’m not saying that as an anti-religious or non-religious argument. That holy book doesn’t say “honor the provider of the sperm necessary to conceive you,” it says “honor thy father,” and when a male parent fails spectacularly to love, nurture, and care for his kids, he ceases to be a father, and becomes merely the sperm donor.

I agree that every human deserves to be treated with common decency, but we are not obligated to make an extra effort to do so for anyone who has abused us, remains unrepentant of the abuse, rejects all culpability for said abuse, and actively continues to behave badly toward us and/or others.

Yes, I give him credit for putting a roof over his family’s heads and usually seeing to their physical needs while they lived with him. I give him credit for teaching me some valuable things (though more often than not by serving as a counter-example to how one ought to behave). I give him credit for stepping in and doing the right thing sometimes. I’m even willing to believe my Mom and Grandma when they said that when he was younger (before I was born, mostly) that he was a loving, kind person.

I know he is capable of love in his own way. I remember when my great-grandpa (not his grandfather, but his grandfather-in-law) lay dying from a brain tumor that Dad drank himself nearly unconscious and he cried and cried over great-grandpa. It was the first and last time that I ever saw him cry. I’ve heard him choke back tears a couple times. There are a few other ways that he occasionally lets the mask slip.

Which is to say that he isn’t all bad and he isn’t heartless. And the same can be said about any and all of the bad fathers out there.

You don’t have to read much of my writing before you come to the conclusion that I love a good redemption story. There is nothing that would please me more than for Dad to have an epiphany, make peace with himself, and change for the better. He doesn’t even have to try to make amends. Just acknowledge what he’s done and try to get better.

Fathers who have wronged their children that badly—and who not only don’t admit it, but vehemently deny it—are owed nothing more than our wish that they find peace.

4 thoughts on “Not All Fathers

  1. I like this- but there’s one more thing you have to bear in mind. People can only do what they’re capable of. Wait as you might under a lemon tree, you’re not going to get an apple.
    They did what they could with what they knew. We did what we could with what we knew. Sometimes it was enough, sometimes it wasn’t 🙂

    1. I’ve made that point previously… except here’s the thing: everyone is capable of refraining from beating their children so severely that trips to the emergency room for stitches and/or broken bones to be set are required. I know he has reasons for being the way he is, but when all five children have those sorts of literal scars, we’re talking about more than just a lack of capability.

  2. I think there is something healing that comes from writing about complicated relationships. You’ve said some kind, gracious things about your Dad and I don’t doubt that some of the best of him lives in you.

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