In 2006 I was working as a school consultant for a Montessori school. It was the only job I ever had that left me to greet each day having no idea what would transpire and what my role would be in supporting their community. Montessori schools work on a community theory, and when a child presents with a problem the whole community (classroom) gets involved to help resolve the problem and restore the child's integrity. If a problem is going on at home, the child brings it with them to school. Kids are direct and their family is their source of life.
Matthew was about 6 when I met him. He was pensive, anxious, and had eyes that made you want to look away. He was too sad and too revealing of what was going on at home. The first day he visited with me, we took a walk in the garden. He explained to me the rules of "garden behavior" from the school code (this was done after I asked him why more of the butterflies weren't caught by the children). The garden was full of butterflies and his story affected me so much that every time I see a butterfly now I think of Matthew.
Matthew drew me pictures as we began talking more and more. His pictures consisted of butterflies, superheroes, and his family. His dad was always drawn to the side of the picture and much larger than anyone else in the family. As we spent more and more time together, Matthew began trusting me more with his anxiety and pain. His dad had left when Matthew turned 5-and-a-half. The cause was never known, but his mom had told Matthew that his dad was "lost" and needed time to find himself. A 5-year-old would take that literally, and he thought his dad was really lost. Matthew had set out to help his dad find his way. He drew pictures, begged his mother to call his dad, and prayed.
One day Matthew was particularly withdrawn and I asked him to write a note to his dad. I told him I would talk to his mom and help him send it. Matthew became so full of hope he cleared the table and began writing. The note was a painful, laborious process because Matthew was a perfectionist and this note demanded perfection.
This was the note:
I miss you. The butterflies left our house, but they follow me to school. Mommy cries, I think she is sad. I know we will find you. I am starting to forget how you look. Don't worry, daddy. I am learning to tell time. Please come home.
Love Matthew, your son.
My eyes were wet when I read the note, but Matthew for the first time looked hopeful. Matthew's mom and I talked that day. I explained to her that Matthew's anxiety may be stemming from him not knowing or understanding what had happened. I went on to tell her that even if the marriage is over there could be a place for Matthew's dad in Matthew's life. Mom then revealed that Matthew's dad had tried to be involved with Matthew but she had been concerned that she would lose Matthew if dad was in his life.
My work with children has poignantly shown me the importance of having dads in our children's lives. Divorces break the marital bond, but don't allow them to break the parenting bond. Healthy, engaged dads give our children 5 important gifts.
Five Important Gifts
- A sense of protection. Dads are bigger and physically stronger than moms. Kids who don't have a dad in the home frequently tell me they feel unsafe.
- Dad is usually more playful with the kids. Play is a child's work. It is very important for healthy growth and development. It is also a wonderful way for children to bond with their dad.
- Healthy dads model respect for women by how they treat the child's mother. No one has more influence on how to treat women in our society and families than dads. When you see a child who doesn't respect their mother or other women, watch their dad.
- An engaged, loving dad is a strong predictor for girls to delay having sex, and also making wiser choices with relationships.
- An engaged, healthy dad is the best role model for raising a son who will practice the morals and values passed on to him. Dads also teach daughters how all men should behave toward her. If a dad is attentive and engaged with his daughter, he is the one who sets the bar high for whom his daughter will date in the future.
Matthew and his dad did talk, not once, but frequently. Dad learned he didn't need to leave his son just because he left his mother. Mom continues to grow and struggle with her fear of losing Matthew. Mom understands that in order to be healthy, Matthew needs both his mom and dad. I asked her the most painful part of the experience she has been through. She told me, "I have to focus on loving Matthew more than I focus on resenting his father for what he did to me." I told her that by doing this one action, she was showing Matthew what a parent's love really is.
Celebrate your child's father this Father's Day! They are invaluable to their children! If you are married, continue growing and supporting each other in your parenting role. If you are divorced, remember you broke the marriage bond, not the parenting bond! "Dads, please come home."
Mary Jo Rapini, MEd, LPC, is a licensed psychotherapist and co-author with Janine J. Sherman, of Start Talking: A Girl's Guide for You and Your Mom About Health, Sex or Whatever.