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When Fathers Refuse to Be in Family Picture

By Donna Britt
Friday, June 24, 2005

The thirtysomething woman complaining at the beauty shop was gorgeous and eloquent, the type that folks once called "a catch." Yet her words suggested that all she's caught recently is hell.

Of course, she was talking about a man. Her ex.

The father of her two children, she said, is a handsome police officer who pays child support sporadically, breaks dates with his kids, lives with his mom and misses his daughter's school activities and his son's everyday triumphs. Although in his late-thirties, he "says he's trying to get himself together," she said.

Days after hearing her gripes, I wondered:

What kind of Father's Day did this guy have?

Father's Day is over. On Sunday, millions of awful neckties were smilingly accepted, countless Home Depot gift cards pocketed and favorite dinners consumed by the dads they honored.

This column is for the fathers -- the baby-daddies and the husbands-long-gone -- who missed it.

You know who you are. Some of you eschewed the holiday and its offerings with barely a shrug; others felt happy to receive a token card from your offspring -- or from their still-hopeful mother -- despite your failure to be as fully a part of their lives as you coulda-shoulda-woulda been.

Others know who you aren't . Single dads doing their utmost to give to -- and to receive from -- the children who don't live with you: This column isn't about you. Keep up the hard work.

Listening to the woman in the shop made me want to scream -- I've heard, seen, been exasperated by her too often. In some ways, I am her: One of millions of divorced or unmarried moms whose kids love an oft-disconnected dad.

Unconnected -- and often unwed -- parenthood is an American cultural phenomenon that transcends economics, race and social status. Svetlana Khorkina, the haughty Russian Olympic gymnast, now lives in Los Angeles and is eight months pregnant by a man she won't name. Often when I hear of a Hollywood starlet opting for single momhood, or pass a baby-faced pregnant teen, I realize:

It's easy to judge the woman.

Where's the guy?

A few baby-daddies, of course, would gladly be responsible fathers -- but are conspicuously discouraged from joining the mom's parenthood adventure. Others whose link to their offspring's mother was tenuous at best choose full nonparticipation. Many men initially are accepting of fatherhood but find that their commitment wanes or blooms depending on their finances, relationships or mood -- they're dads . . . when they feel like it.

No wonder so many apparently grown-up men are Peter Pans. They're largely unconnected to the people most likely to help them mature:

Their own children.

Kids, I learned the hard way, grow you up. Caring day after day for a bundle of needs whose requirements get more expensive and complicated as it grows has an interesting effect: Once carefree humans find themselves with increasingly less time, money and energy to be self-absorbed, shortsighted and impetuous.

In short, they're less likely to be like the children whose maddening -- and miraculous -- presence pushes them toward adulthood.

Recently, I spied a bumper sticker that said "I {heart} My Wife" and immediately waved down the driver of the Ford Explorer it adorned, getting him to pull over.

Peter Miller, 43, of Bowie is the principal of William Beanes Elementary School in Suitland. He gets so many thumbs-ups about the bumper sticker that his son, David, 6, now says, "Daddy, there's another one!"

Ironically, Miller bought the sticker three years ago after an argument with his wife, Zipporah. Male friends tease him about it, Miller says, "but she's my life partner . . . my best friend. Marriage, it's rough. You definitely have your ups and downs. . . . But I also know she has my back."

This man knows about baby-daddies. After his college girlfriend at Bowie State University got pregnant in 1983, Miller worked several jobs to help support his son, Peter Jr., now 20 and in the Navy.

But raising David -- and anticipating nurturing the baby Zipporah is now carrying -- is different.

"Nothing's like having a child in your own home -- to see them walk, talk, play their first baseball game -- things you don't see if you're not in the house. . . . Now that I've had that experience, it's incredible."

But Miller has a loving wife. I mention the anger of women like the one in the salon, and the bitterness it must evoke in her ex -- who undoubtedly has a different take on things.

First, Miller wants to be clear that he knows "deadbeat dads come in all colors," he begins. "But this is the thing my father taught me: We, as African American men . . . have to do what we're supposed to do -- regardless of what black women do. I understand what, as black men, we have to go through.

"It does not excuse us from our own personal responsibility to our children."

As a principal, Miller sees that "most young folks, not all, still know what's right, what's wrong. They understand it, they can tell you. . . . A lot of young, black boys still do the right thing."

But it's easy to stop doing it in an it's-all-about-me world. We're encouraged to pursue our individual "dreams" -- when often, they're just fleeting desires. Sacrifice, which real parenthood requires, isn't just unfashionable. It's hard.

You know what's comparatively easy? Not creating a child -- and that goes for women, too. Parenting takes a lifetime. Putting on a condom takes seconds.

Don't want the work? Don't make the baby.

Once you have, give your children what they most need: you. Spend enough time with your child and you may find yourself growing up -- and helping him or her to do the same. You'll discover that Father's Day wasn't last weekend.

It's every day.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company