When I was a new father I made two small yet profound observations. I see them as profound because it started right at the beginning and continues to this very day- and my kids are 19, 18 and 13.
The first was that I was leaving my kids in the care of other people quite a bit. It started early, in fact, soon after my son was born he was taken away to get cleaned up…let go number 1! Followed by multiple goodbyes and let goes. Whether it was with a babysitter, my wife or daycare employee, this often meant tears, screams and wails. It was heart wrenching to say goodbye, walk away, and hear them cry out my name… not to mention the pang in my heart when I had to leave and let go. (This was not unique to my experience as a dad, my wife got it too and perhaps touched a deeper chord in her. I’ll never forget what she said, the day she ended her maternity leave and went back to work, “There is something so wrong about this.”)
The second thing I noticed is that it was so fun to come home and get a warm if not effervescent, “DADDY!!!!” These greetings mended my heart. Hellos and Goodbyes or more simply put- presence and absence is an inevitable part of being a father. As Father’s Day approaches, I’d like to explore the topic and offer 4 things to consider as you come and go from your baby’s life.
A Father’s Presence & Absence
Saying goodbye matters:
While it’s true that a newborn baby for the first several months is working hard at forming attachments and bonds to her caregivers. I believe it helps form that bond to say goodbye when you leave her. It marks the fact that you are separating from her. Not just disappearing or vanishing but confronting the goodbye with a kiss, a hug or some other gesture that indicates “I am going.” I remember, as a new father, often wanting to sneak out or sometimes just forgetting to say goodbye to my baby. Our babysitter at the time would often say, “You’re forgetting something!” I remember thinking, I’ve got my keys, wallet etc… and then she’d say, “Don’t forget to say goodbye.” I’m so appreciative that she would slow me down and encourage me to pause and say goodbye. It also reminded me that I matter- if it matters whether or not I say goodbye then my presence must matter.
Expect big feelings of disappointment in a father’s absence:
Neil Sedaka had a song back in the 70’s called “Breaking up is Hard to Do” with a line in the lyrics- “Don’t take your love away from me. Don’t you leave my heart in misery, If you go then I’ll be blue, ‘Cause breaking up is hard to do.” As I mentioned earlier, it can be heart wrenching to say goodbye, especially when a bond is created. This sadness is a necessary part of being in a relationship with someone. Ideally the big feelings of disappointment (whether it’s yours or your child’s) are handled in a way that honors the sense of loss and responded to with validation, tenderness and care. For many men the whole idea of expecting big feelings or being present to emotions is new territory.
A father’s presence makes a difference:
There are essentially two kinds of presence: physical and emotional. It is not easy or always possible to show-up on both these fronts yet it is important to work on being present and involved. For many fathers this is a tough one to get their head around because so many men have received and internalized the messages that say, you are not important or your presence is more important focused on other things. Well, I’m here to say, “Your presence matters a lot…more than you know or may think.” In fact studies suggest that a positive father presence is related to improved weight gain in preterm infants and improved breastfeeding as well as leading to better emotional, academic, social and behavioral outcomes for children. I hear a lot of dads say things like, “I want to be present but work, anxiety and other things are pulling me away.” or “My wife is complaining that I am never home and when I am home I’m in the way.” Your presence is not magically going to make things better but it’s through being present both physically and emotionally that you learn how and in what way you are needed and valued. Remember this: presence over perfection!
Be present in your absence:
Since your absence is inevitable and presumably you haven’t figured out how to be in two places at the same time, I would encourage you to find ways to be present even in your absence. You can stay in touch through communication and when you go away you can leave traces of yourself. I had one father tell me the story of leaving a note behind for his kids everyday that he was away on a business trip. For many men, a father’s presence and absence is complicated. For some it may be better off that he was not present; for others it may be an irrevocable loss and disappointment. That being said, I believe there is great power in being present, especially when absent.
On this Father’s Day may this very subtle yet powerful duality, presence and absence, be something that you strive to balance. Not so much in perfect harmony, but in a way that honors emotions and the challenge embedded in doing it imperfectly.
About The Author
John C. Carr, LICSW, is a licensed independent clinical social worker/psychotherapist based in Boston Ma. He specializes in supporting men and new fathers to be actively involved, consciously aware and well equipped to be their best selves. His book “Becoming a Dad: The First Three Years,” has sold more than 50,000 copies and is part of the Great Expectations Series. John lives in the suburbs of Boston with his wife and three children.