Being a “Deadbeat Dad” seems inconceivable and disgusting to most of us. How could any parent turn his back – financially or emotionally – on his own child? Yet things aren’t always as they seem. Having interviewed hundreds of fathers for my book Fathering, including many who’ve had no contact with their children for years, I know that the full picture is considerably more complex, tragic, and intractable. The dangers of becoming a deadbeat dad stem from cultural shortcomings that we all must address.
At the core of the problem is our culture’s failure to raise our boys with the skills to become emotionally healthy men. We send them into the world with a second-grade emotional education when a master’s degree is what they need.
With this inadequate foundation, men struggle to fully participate emotionally in marriage. When a marriage collapses, “Dad” has almost no resources, internally or externally, to help him sort out this crisis. Many men won’t seek counseling because they’re “not crazy.” Without a wife to nurture relationships, men often find themselves emotionally isolated while their world falls down around them. All this makes it harder for a father to stay emotionally involved with his kids.
When couples break up, we must do everything in our power to maintain their children’s strong connection with both parents. When a daughter loses her father, that feeling of abandonment leaves a lasting emotional scar. For a daughter, the breaking of this bond with her father can greatly complicate already difficult gender issues, and can profoundly impact her sense of self-worth and place in the world.
Losing touch entirely may sound extreme, but it occurs far more often than you’d think. Many of the men I interviewed told me, often in tears, that the confrontations that took place when they picked up their children ended with scared kids and angry parents. Sadly, many ultimately backed away, hoping things would cool down. Instead, backing away leads children to get angry and feel unloved – a predictable and tragic cycle that leaves nothing but heartache in its wake.
There are no simple answers. In the long run, we must raise our sons to be more emotionally intelligent. In the short run, we must look more deeply into the hearts of fathers and know that they love their children and want to be part of their lives. The logistics of navigating this emotional minefield will often be difficult and messy, but the costs of not doing so are far too high to contemplate.
The father of a daughter and son, Will Glennon is the author of Fathering: Strengthening Connection With Your Children No matter Where You Are, among other books.