By Barry Lillie
This past October, my daughter and son-in-law took a picture of this seventy-one-year-
old grandpa (me) with my three-year-old granddaughter hand in hand on the Gulf of Mexico in Naples, Florida. I realize now how uncertain my journey to this time and place was. The reason—I became a separated dad twenty-five years ago.
Becoming a dad is transformational for men. It changes everything. It gives a purpose, a new priority to life that had been previously absent. Fathers recall the moment when they became dad and the love and commitment made at that time to their child.
Recently a distraught father spoke to me about the emotional birth of his child. His eyes misted over as he talked about the infant’s serious health concerns and the oath he made that first night to be at the child’s side, forever. He feared that his marriage ending would mean his oath to be always there for his daughter was now in jeopardy. This is a common fear for separated fathers as they enter a journey with unpredictable outcomes for every parenting relationship.
A father from our community wrote the following words that capture what many dads “grudgingly accept” in order to restore calm to their children’s lives. For most it feels like it is a breaking of their oath to their child.
His words: “…it’s the days you wake up with the kids and put your kids to bed that count. Full days with dad. I love them, my kids love them. The rest become transition days, you are excited to see them on one end and depressed to see them off on the other, emotional baggage that unchecked can pollute your limited time together.” (a separated dad)
I became a father in my own unique way through the courageous decision of a young woman to place her child up for adoption. I vividly recall the social worker placing him in my arms. Ten minutes later, she returned to ask if my wife and I wanted to keep him. I still laugh at the question—she didn’t seem to understand that he became my son, through whatever, the moment she placed him in my arms.
I remember that the adoption process was a time of anxiety, scrutiny and fear. Would we make the list of approved parents? Power rested in the perspective of the social worker and her mandate to ensure the best interests of that child. It was a difficult process, but one that you necessarily endured. Pushing back against the intrusiveness and judgment was not a viable option. My son and later my daughter had not yet been placed in my arms.
Curiously, the birth of my youngest daughter had no such intrusiveness or scrutiny as she was placed in my arms by a caring nurse in the birthing room.
The next many years, no one questioned whether I was a full parenting partner or quite frankly whether I was the best of parents or the worst of parents or somewhere in between. I was dad!
The common bond of separated fathers commences the moment that the intimate relationship breaks down. It brings with it in some ways the scrutiny of the social worker EXCEPT that the children are your children NOT the children of social workers or lawyers, judges or the Canadian Bar Association. A separation with lawyers is a process built for mischief, not for ensuring that children have both parents and grandparents in their daily lives.
“My boys’ dad is not an unpleasant obstacle; he’s an integral part of their lives.” (Jennifer Fink, a Wisconsin mother from Building Boys)
This insight comes from a Wisconsin mother who originally fought a determined battle in Court in an attempt to minimize any participation by the dad in her boys’ lives. The Wisconsin family court justice “insisted” that Wisconsin’s presumption of shared parenting applied here. The boys would have their father as an “integral” part of their lives forever.
A similar presumption of shared parenting was rejected last year by Canada’s Parliament.
Before starting our little agency I met a teenage boy age 14. His parents had separated several years earlier. The son had written a note to his parents for Mother’s Day/Father’s Day acknowledging and thanking them for ensuring that he had both of them in his life and as such an ‘almost normal upbringing’. In doing so he realized that through their cooperation he was able to learn who he was- an impossibility if either had faded away or vanished from his life. He recognized the gifts of character that were part of him-his mother’s sense of humour and joyfulness, his father’s gentleness and generosity.
Acknowledging and supporting each parents’ contribution provides the opportunity for a family to find their own form of renewal.
When I was on that beach that night on the Gulf of Mexico, I was accompanied by probably 200 mothers, fathers and grandparents all quietly standing in awe of this experience. I knew that my father and gramps also were with me in spirit, hand in hand, with the little one.
Father’s Day is every day for a father who has made it through the darkness with his children and grandchildren.
Barry Lillie is a son, father, and grandpa. His is the 2013 Recipient of the Fernand Lozier Award of Excellence in Father Involvement Practice and coordinates Kids n Dad shared Support; firstname.lastname@example.org