As someone who does not like to delve too much into the deeply personal matters of my life, I find it sometimes disconcerting how often my own private concerns and melancholy musings are mirrored in the experience of my friends and acquaintances. One common refrain that haunts the lives of many of the younger people I know in this particular generation is the absence of fathers (and sometimes even mothers) from the lives and affections of those whom I know whose well-being I reflect upon. Having been a person who has a bit more experience than I would like dealing with distant parents, it is an issue about which I am very sympathetic, and one in which my reflections are often very serious.
Distance between parents and their children can come about for many reasons. Although I am not yet a father myself, or even a husband (or anywhere remotely close to marriage and family at this point), I reflect deeply upon the responsibilities that parents have towards their children and I would like to succeed well enough to enter into that state myself when the time and opportunity is right. Among the responsibilities of parents towards children that fathers in particular feel heavily on their shoulders is the responsibility to provide for the material well-being as well as the safety and education of children in a world where dangers and threats to young people appear omnipresent and where much of education appears tainted by moral and political corruption. Some fathers, if they are tender-hearted and sensitive souls themselves, may also care greatly about the emotional well-being of their children, desiring for their children to make wise decisions in education and relationships and to be secure in the gifts that God has given them and in the love and acceptance they have from their families.
Yet these various responsibilities often appear to conflict with each other. For those who see as a primary responsibility the need to support a family economically, it may appear advantageous or even necessary to work hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the rest of the family using one’s skills to earn a good living and therefore support a family in times where economic insecurity is a common problem plaguing many people. It is an especially threatening attack on the honor and dignity and self-worth of a man to be unable to support himself (much less his family) based on his God-given gifts, a threat that creates all kinds of evils. However, the need for a father (or mother) to provide for the material well-being of a family is often in tension with other needs, such as the need for education and support of children, presence in their lives as well as wise advice and encouragement so that young people may grow up equipped emotionally, mentally, and spiritually for the challenges of adulthood in a corrupt and wicked world. Whether because opportunities for work may require long hours or distant working locations, or because someone may be a bit of a workaholic and fail to spend enough time with children, all too easily children may suffer the physical or emotional absences of parents and miss out on the benefits that result from close and affectionate relationships between generations.
Fathers in particular may be absent from the lives of their children for other reasons besides economics. For reasons of abandonment, imprisonment, or estrangement, many parents may not present a unified front to help defend the well-being of their children or to provide an example of how to become successful adults. Though the most common image we may have of this matter is the picture of women and children weeping over the abandonment of fathers in Malachi, fathers who for political reasons had left the wives of their youth to cleave unto well-connected heathen wives of aristocratic families, I have known many fathers who wept because of the abandonment of their families by their wives, either taking their children or abandoning them to seek their own fun and to avoid the responsibilities of parenthood. Men have no monopoly on the abandonment of their children, nor do women have a monopoly on deep concern for their children’s health and happiness.
The suffering that results from this absence is all too easy to see. It is difficult for one parent to provide the right kind of balanced upbringing for children, as hard as they might try, though God is indeed often merciful in providing help to those who seek it and are willing to find it among other family members and brethren and neighbors. Daughters may grow up either lacking in the ability to be compassionate and warm and loving towards others, or they may seek the approval of their worth and attractiveness from young (or older) men with whom that approval may come with dangerous and immoral strings attached. Even where there are no such strings attached, the understandable longing of a young woman for acceptance and affirmation may lead her into situations where there is a great appearance of evil, with a corresponding threat to her reputation and honor, even where no harm is done. (This may, it should be noted, also hurt the reputation and honor of those men who seek to encourage and support her even without ulterior motives.) A young man growing up without a close relationship with his father may also struggle in developing the confidence and self-respect that is necessary to be a successful husband and father, since households dominated by women do not exactly raise men with the experience of being treated with necessary respect for a man to feel comfortable in emotional matters or to be able to provide their wives and children with the right amount of encouragement and support. We can only give love and respect out of the reservoir of love and respect that we have in our own lives, so those who do not feel loved and respected cannot show the proper love and respect that they ought to for others.
When we think of absence of parents from the lives of their children, that absence may be physical or emotional or mental or spiritual. That absence may come from a broken family where father and mother are apart and sometimes antagonistic with each other. That absence may come from a father or mother (or both) that work long hours or at long distances away from their families, unable to provide support any way but financially. That absence may come from those who are physically present but who lack the confidence and/or competence in providing for the emotional support, education, or spiritual model for their children in order to develop successful habits and patterns of behavior. The results of that absence may linger for generations as people struggle with their own ruts and habits and seek to overcome the patterns of behavior learned from their youth but which prove to be catastrophically harmful as an adult. We can overcome those problems, but it is far better if they are absent in the first place, for prevention is far less stressful and difficult than trying to restore what has been lost, or that has never been known in the first place.