Every time I drop my teenage son off at his mother’s after staying with me for the weekend, he waves me off with a look of intense poignancy that tears me apart. He has stayed over almost every weekend since he was six months old. I am his father and his friend. And I’m also guilt-stricken because I can’t be there for him all the time, the way I think I should be.
I’m sure that many fathers feel some kind of “survivor’s guilt”, the same way I do. I’m sure that they look back at their time with their kids and blame themselves if something didn’t work out the way they expected, or if their kid went off the rails. Perhaps they fall in to the tried-and-true blame game: “oh, it’s obviously his mother’s fault, because I only had him on weekends”.
But that’s an easy out. Responsibility is part of the job of being a father. We help to raise, to develop, to forge our children and what they believe, how they act, and ultimately the kind of adult they become.
Every father loves their children. Every father feels responsible for them, no matter how small a part they may play in their upbringing. Often we blame ourselves, and sometimes we’re right to do so, sometimes we’re not.
For a long time I was the stable influence in my son’s life. I had the stable relationship, the stable home environment, the stable job. His mother flitted here and there, never in one place for too long, moving from one relationship to the next and moving my son from school to school at her convenience. Now, through some bitterly ironic twist of the knife, I’m the unstable one, without a home, without a job, without money, without the confidence and influence I previously projected. My son’s mother now has the stable home, the stable relationship, the steady income. She’s now the picture of solidity and commitment that I used to be.
Do I resent it? A little. But I’m also happy that she’s finally found someone she loves, has finally settled down. I’m glad that my son has another father figure, one who is currently far more responsible and upstanding than me.
At one point, I attempted to take my life. Afterwards, I spoke to a psychologist who advised me that I would have been giving my son a life sentence if I had succeeded. She was right, of course. All too often we don’t think about the impact these things have on those around us. We are overtaken by our sadness, pain and selfishness, and don’t care about the consequences. I still feel guilty about the potential impact a successful attempt may have had on my son.
My son remains the most important person in my life. Sometimes I’m not as attentive as I should be. Sometimes I miss his phone calls because I’m doing something else. Sometimes I’m too critical of him. Sometimes I worry about my own problems more than I worry about him. Sometimes I think that I’m the worst father that ever lived because I’m not there for him when I should be.
But my son loves me. He misses me when I’m not around. He knows that I love him and that I will always be there for him. And when he waves goodbye to me after I drop him off, he knows we’ll be back together next weekend, no matter what.