My Real Dads

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Originally posted at The Good Men Project here.

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It seems that talk of fathers not being involved and why, and dads who define awesomeness are all over my corner of the internet today. It’s got me thinking about my father who was not involved and the men who filled the empty space.

When I was 9 or 10 I got my stepfather a plaque that said “Any man can be a father, it takes a special man to be a dad.” Nowadays, I know that is really insensitive to men who wish they could father a child but are unable to, at the time it seemed like grand wisdom to me.

My biological father knocked my mom up, apparently spermicide on its own is not an effective method of birth control. (Thanks mom for the TMI.) They got married because that’s what you did back then, but when I was about one years old, he left.

My first word was “Da!” and my mom cried thinking that I was missing my father. Obviously I don’t know what I was thinking at the moment of my first word but I doubt it had anything to do with him because I can’t imagine him measuring up to my paternal soul mate. Yes, I love my mom, yes I loved others but when it came down to it no one in my childhood was as important to me as my maternal grandfather. I called him My Papa.

My Papa was my idol. He was my super extra-special person in the universe. We didn’t live with him but somehow I remember more of my time with him than I do of anything else in those early years. He taught me that I deserved to be respected. He spoke to me about important things, he listened to what I had to say. He taught me that I was infinitely lovable. He was a solid rock I could count on. He taught me that men were good.

When I was 6 my mom remarried and not long after, we moved across the country from My Papa. He was still a huge part of my heart and I did get to see him once a year or so but he did not remain the center of my world. My stepdad and I got along well when I was little, though I don’t remember it as clearly as I remember my relationship with My Papa. Things got more difficult between us during my teen years and we struggled to live together somehow in some kind of harmony.

During that same time I had an amazing teacher, My Teacher. I had many teachers of course but he was special. He had faith in me. He held me accountable. He taught me how to listen, and how to talk. He appreciated who I was and the work I put into things. He taught me that the best way to feel better about your life is to help others. He also taught me that heroes are human too. He was a coach and I watched his amusing struggle to stop cursing around students. I saw him make mistakes and say he was sorry. He taught me that I was worthy of respect. He taught me that men were good.

Ironically, it was during my mom and step dad’s divorce when I was around 20 that I truly realized that I’d had a dad the whole time. There were a few years when I was disconnected from my family. I stopped having contact with them when I was 18, but somehow my step-dad found out that I’d been mugged. He called me and asked me if I needed anything. I had cut them off. I had been so sure in my teenage spaz that they did not really love me or even notice me. But here he was calling me to see if I needed anything. Of all the things I ever learned, how to ask for help is not one I’ve ever been good at. I made myself tell him that my glasses had been lost during the mugging and I that I had no way to replace them. He said he would buy me a new pair. Just like that. No guilt trip, no conditions, no hesitation.

In that moment something clicked for me. I was able to look back at my life and see all of the ways he had always been my Dad, even when we were not getting along. He taught me the value of hard work. He taught me what family means. What it really means. He gives the most unconditional love of anyone I’ve ever known. He doesn’t care what society says or what someone does, once he claims them as family that’s it. Forever. He won’t force it on you, but he’ll always welcome you back the moment you seek him out. He taught me that I was worth having as a daughter. He taught me that men are good.

I know that having a missing father can be a hard thing for many. For me, it was a huge blessing because of the amazing men who stepped up to fill the space. If my biological father had been in my life, I would have learned what children of alcoholics learn. Instead, I learned that men are good.

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As an adult, I know that not all men are good. But I think it makes a huge difference which default you see the world through. I see the world though the “Men are good.” default. I assume men who are not good are the exception, that something went wrong. I assume that it means we as a culture and society need to work harder to give boys the best possible chance to grow into good men. If I had not had these good men in my life I am sure that my default view of the world would be very different.

To all of the good men out there, I hope you are reaching out, touching lives. I promise it will make the world a better place for the people you’ve connected with. Maybe it will even be one of the drops in the bucket that makes the world better for everyone.

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Photo courtesy of author. That’s me and my Papa!

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