How Much Dads Matter

An excerpt from Keith’s new book:

“Dad, why did your dad leave your family?”

JD’s question stunned me. He was only a first grader. We were playing chess on the floor while away for a few days at a mountain cabin. Nothing we were saying or doing could have prompted his question. My mind raced. Why would JD ask this? Why now? What can I say that would be honest but appropriate? How honest should I be? I searched JD’s inquisitive eyes. He seemed sad. I stalled, “Well, let’s see, um….”

My boys knew my parents divorced when I was young and that I didn’t grow up with my dad nearly as much as I wanted. Because we had talked about these things in general, age-appropriate ways, they knew I missed having a father who loved me and stayed with me.

By the time JD was born, my dad had essentially isolated himself from people. He lived in a one-bedroom apartment only 40 minutes from my house in San José, California, but we rarely saw him. He had grown cynical. After a life of failed intimate relationships and broken dreams of love, he had given up his quest for true love—a passion and search that had seemed to control his life since his college days. What’s more, he never recovered from the death of my brother 20 years prior. I remember Dad as a charismatic, though unhappy and lonely man who resigned himself to live a mostly solitary existence, absorbed in a world of sexual fantasy—aching for the emotional and physical intimacy he was never able to sustain in real relationships. In his very private world there was ultimately no room for me or for my children.

Dad drove to visit JD a few times when he was a baby and a toddler, with gaps of many months between visits. He enjoyed walking JD to the park in the stroller and playing with him for a couple of hours. My father and I didn’t talk much during these visits. After many years of hurt and rejection, I never knew how much to say or what to ask of him. I was just glad he was enjoying his first grandson, and that I was able to see him at all.

Then suddenly, he stopped visiting and cut off all communication. JD was two years old and Cal, my second son, was just six months. My dad died two years later. My sons’ experience with my dad ended up being like my own. He visited when he wanted to, disappeared for long periods of time, and then vanished entirely. Kai, my third son born sixteen months later, never met my dad.

Now, five years after my dad disappeared from our lives, JD was asking me why my dad left my family when I was a boy. How would I answer this difficult question? I fumbled this reply, “JD, my dad didn’t know how to be in a family. He wasn’t happy, and I don’t think he wanted to be the kind of husband and father a man needs to be to commit to a family. So, he left to do what he thought would make him happy.”

JD stared at me. He tilted his head to one side as if trying to find a place in his brain for my unsatisfying answer. JD responded quietly, “Okay.” And we continued playing chess. I thought that was the end of that conversation.

The next day we played in the snow. We rode sleds and had a raucous snowball fight. My boys, then three, five and seven, formed a formidable offense and attacked me repeatedly, without mercy, from all directions. I was a willing target and dramatic victim. We retreated to the cozy cabin, took off our cold, wet gear, and warmed ourselves by the fire with some hot chocolate. JD grew quiet, then looked at me and asked, “Dad, why did your dad leave your family?”

Why was he asking me again? I tried to answer in a clearer way. “JD, I don’t think my dad thought much about how his words or actions might hurt other people, including his family. So when my dad decided he didn’t want to be married or be a full-time dad anymore he left our family to live his own life.”

When I heard my own words, I didn’t feel great about that answer either. It was honest, but it hardly made sense to me at forty-four. What could it mean to my nearly seven-year-old son? JD stared at me, distant and confused. “Okay,” he said.

The third day we had a pillow fight in the morning that led to a full on wrestling match. We laughed and ran all over the cabin imitating big time wrestlers—flexing our muscles, grunting and growling. I was called for using illegal tickle tactics. When it was time to leave, we cleaned the cabin and packed the car. We ate our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and began our trip down the mountain toward home. About thirty quiet minutes later, JD leaned forward as much as he could stretch and put his head between the two front seats. A third time he asked, “Dad, why did your dad leave your family?”

JD was obsessing over this painful reality of my life, but I had no idea why. I needed a different approach. I reached my hand back to hold his and looked into JD’s eyes in the rear view mirror. “JD, I just don’t think my dad understood how much I needed him.”

My son sat back with a troubled, distant look. “Okay,” he timidly said. The car was completely silent for what felt like ten minutes, though it must have been just a moment. JD leaned forward between the front seats again and with a soft, unsteady voice said, “Dad, you know how much I need you?”

Oh my. This must have been the question my son was trying to ask and had been brooding over for days. He was scared. He knew that my dad left my family when I was seven years old. JD was now a couple of weeks from that same birthday. And though I’m sure I had never given him reason to think so, in his mind he must have made a connection that it was at seven that boys lose their dads—that’s when dads leave.

In my previous answers I provided JD information. What he craved was affirmation. He needed me to assure him that I was his dad and he was my son, I loved him, and that would never change. I said, “My boys, I will never leave you. I love you. And I will be your dad as long as I live. I’m not going anywhere.”

There were no fireworks or grand recognitions of my resolute daddy speech—no award given for my enduring commitment and devotion. JD smiled, leaned back in his seat with a noticeable sigh and said, “Good.” He’s never asked again. He’s fourteen years old now.

In that life-defining moment, I began to absorb what I thought I already knew: how much I matter to my boys—how much all dads matter to their kids. For the rest of the ride home, my heart was full with love for my boys. I reveled in the value I felt as their dad. I still don’t know why it didn’t matter more to my father to be a dad to me and to my brother. What I do know is that being a dad matters to me. Although I already desired to be a good dad, on that drive home I let that defining moment sink in. It transformed how I perceived my identity from that point on. I dedicated myself to the awesome responsibility and privilege and joy of becoming a great dad—whatever that took.

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To read more from Keith, take a look at his book:

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