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Fatherhood:
A New Year, New Ghosts

by Will Duchon

Most people associate the new year with the idea of renewal; a new year promises new beginnings, resolutions, new hope for improving the living of life. And with the occurrence of the millennium, this sense of new hope intensifies, as we are offered the unique opportunity to symbolically wipe away the mistakes of the last century, or at least the portion of the last century in which we lived.

A new year, and a new century means new beginnings, and renewal, it is true. But for divorced fathers, living apart from their children, the advent of a new year and a new century also brings a reinforced sense of separation and pain. In fact, every special occasion, and every holiday is tainted with a bittersweet quality. Each birthday, every Thanksgiving and Christmas that passes is yet another occasion spent either apart from our children, or if not, the few hours together at such times brings the year-long separation into a sharper focus.

For many divorced fathers, the holidays are spent trying to anxiously create a meaningful Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Hanukkah within a very short amount of time. This time together with our children is coldly referred to as visitation, a legal term evoking unpleasant similarities to the experience of visiting a prison inmate, or someone in the hospital. We visit friends, and visit distant relatives, but what a sad situation it is to feel as if a father is visiting with his own children; his own flesh and blood. It is a very interesting testament to American culture.

In this day and age of heightened awareness, and sensitivity to issues of racism, sexism, and all levels of cultural and economic disparity, the reality is this: the relationship between a father and his children is minimized. Certainly, the Family Court system minimizes this relationship, viewing fathers as nothing more than providers (or non-providers) of child support. The reward for financial responsibility is visitation.

Which members of society, except for violent criminals, are viewed more detestably than so-called deadbeat dads? Of course, there are irresponsible fathers, (and believe it or not, irresponsible mothers, too). But the facts reveal that there are far more responsible and caring, nurturing fathers, who are actively discouraged from maintaining meaningful contact and involvement with their children. For some reason, we dont hear about these fathers.

My own children are now teenagers; my daughter is almost 18, my son just turned 15. I have a treasure of visitation memories, and what I call the ghosts of visitation. When my son and I throw a football together, or shoot baskets outside on a Saturday afternoon, those moments are sacred to me. The usual sense of unrest and anxiety that I feel all during the weeks that we are apart is temporarily lifted, as I know that he is OK, and that I am there with him, to protect him, and to sense anything that might be troubling to him. I can look at his homework papers. I can make breakfast for him, and wash his clothes, and wrestle with him or just hang out with him. I feel peace of mind, because I believe that being with my son or daughter is completely natural, and being separated from them from the time that they were 5 and 3 years of age is entirely unnatural.

The ghosts of visitation. Remnants and reminders of the time together.

I pull into my driveway on a dark Sunday evening after driving my kids 40 miles to where they live with their mother and her husband. I see the football lying in the yard where it came to rest after my son and I were finished playing. I see my daughters used tissues and hairbrush lying near the bathroom sink from the morning. An empty juice box sits on the bedroom floor near the TV, where my son was watching basketball. I find wadded-up paper by the computer where my daughter was working on a school report.

As I clean up, it feels as if Im erasing the events of the weekend themselves, erasing the time together. And the pain and fear that is so familiar rises up within; the doubts about ever spending good moments together again (why do I always feel this way?). The subtle worries about what I may have missed, or questions I should have asked. And always wondering whether or not they are both OK.

The distance between my children and myself is not just a physical distance, but an emotional distance as well. The bond I want with them is difficult to form sporadically, but it is our only option: through our time together, over the phone, through letters and cards by mail and by e-mail. At a time in their lives when they naturally are striving out on their own, finding their way and their individuality, and emotionally distancing themselves from their parents, this separation becomes even more troubling for me as their father. I know that I am not alone in these experiences. Other divorced fathers have shared very similar stories of their own visitation ghosts, and their own frustrations.

Where then can hope be found, and how can renewal and new beginnings take place for divorced fathers and their children? My personal belief system tells me that renewal begins within, through prayer and shared experience. For too many years, good fathers have been victimized by a dreadfully insensitive court system which virtually ignores the emotional experience of separation from our own children, and compounds the problem by encouraging confrontation rather than healing. The element of healing is completely absent from my long experience with the Family Court system; not only for fathers but for mothers as well. What happens then is that as a divorced father I can easily begin to buy into the notion that beyond mere financial support, I am unnecessary to my childrens development and lives, and therefore should follow suit and withdraw gradually from my role as a father. I believe that many, many fathers have done this, consciously or unconsciously. But again, that inner voice tells me over and over not to give up. So the focus for me must remain on my children, despite any external influences to the contrary. And at times when I feel farthest apart from my children, physically, or emotionally, I remember those early mornings years ago when I held them both in my arms in the middle of the night, giving them their bottles, or just rocking them gently. It was during those moments that I found truth as I looked into their eyes, and they looked back into mine; the truth that we were and always will be one, divinely connected. We always will be family.



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by John Gill


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