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How Having An Absent Father Made Me A More Present Dad

The following was syndicated from Medium for The Fatherly Forum, a community of parents and influencers with insights about work, family, and life. If you’d like to join the Forum, drop us a line at

No one taught me how to be a good father growing up. And I mean no one. I knew 2 fathers in my life who I thought looked like they knew what they were doing, and one of those 2 used some drugs once in awhile, so maybe that kind of discounts him some. The other father was a man who I barely knew and only saw from a distance, so I guess, in a way, he doesn’t really count either. You see, I grew up in a place, Alphabet City to be exact, where fathers were few and far between. Don’t get me wrong.

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There were some people I knew with fathers, but those fathers were sort of abusive and sort of drank too much and sort of did everything too much, except for the one thing they should have been doing too much, and that is fathering. I knew men that pretended to be fathers on weekends, coming around when they could or when they just wanted to and taking their kid out to play ball or see a movie, but other than that, they were mostly only good at never being around when they were supposed to be around. That is not to say some of those fathers weren’t great men, but since they were never around much, they never really had a chance to be more than what they were, fathers who loved you, sure, but really only had the weekend to show you how much.

I think about this a lot now as I try to be what I think a good father should be. When I am at a game taking pictures, cheering my daughter on, swearing to high heaven because of some call the ref got wrong that is an injustice against my child, in the back of my head, I am wondering if this is what fathers are supposed to do. I question everything that has to do with me being a dad to my daughter.

Am I right to get angry when some teacher talks to my daughter the wrong way? Am I overreacting or under-reacting? Should I take the parent of the kid who pushed my daughter on the bus to the side, because he took it upon himself to confront my daughter and blame her for his son being a bully? And when I take him to the side, how far is too far before the talking becomes something far more than talking?

Should I be patient with my daughter when she gets a bit too fresh or should I nip that freshness in the bud? Should I let her speak her mind so she can develop her voice or should I go Old School and let her be seen and not heard? Should I follow her to school the first day she walks there without me while hiding behind trees, just so she thinks she is on her own, though I am close enough to take care of anyone who thinks she is really on her own? How far is too far and how little is too little when it comes to everything and anything having to do with raising a girl?

Only a fool thinks he’s perfect in anything. And the biggest fool of them all is the one who swears to God they are the perfect parent.

I pray a lot more now that I have a daughter. How can I not? You turn on the news and as the world becomes smaller, it seems like all the madness in all the many corners of the world comes closer to home. When you see stories out of Nigeria of hundreds of little girls kidnapped and enslaved then what father does not question his security plans he has at the ready to keep his baby safe? When you hear all the anger in the voices of friends and neighbors over all the disagreements that take center stage on CNN these days, that play out not only in the political arenas but also in the streets, then what does a father tell their child to, not only keep them strong, but also to keep them safe?

I often wonder if maybe I would know better and then do better if I had seen up close what good fathers look like. I know about strong mothers, because for most of us growing up in my neighborhood, most of my friends and I, we only made it this far in life because of our mothers. But as for fathers, well let’s just say the only ones we really saw all the time were on TV, and these fathers often disappeared once their TV shows were finished.

Don’t get me wrong, my father was not completely absent from my life growing up. It is only that the few times I saw him, when he asked me for money for drugs and also never once asked me about my life, I kind of gave up on the idea that he was any kind of dad I could learn from. And so when I think about fathers, and about me being a father, I always come to same the conclusion. I had no one to teach me shit about what it means to be a father.

And yet, recently, an older gentleman I have great respect for, a man who raised not just one child, but 2, took me to the side and told me that he was proud of me. He said he loves the way I take care of my daughter. Usually, when people offer me praise of any kind, I shy away from it, say thank you and then try to change the subject. But this time I needed to sit in that compliment for a while and then I needed to know why he said it. And so I asked him why he thought I was a good father. What evidence did he have that would substantiate such an observation?

He must have seen how desperate I was to understand, so he told me to sit down and asked me what was the one thing I thought about in the day more than anything else? Like for the most part, he asked me. What was the one thing my mind always came back to? I thought about my writing, about my job, about sports teams I liked, about books I love to read, about my relationships, about politics, about everything, and then realized that really, all of that put together doesn’t come close to adding up to how much time I spend thinking about my daughter.

He told me that I am so worried about getting this father thing right because I am always fighting so hard to get it right. “That means you have real intention when it comes to your daughter,” he said. “And the intention is to be a good father. There are fathers who have had fathers who had fathers who get loads of things wrong when it comes to being a father and there are fathers like you who get loads of things right. And it is true the other way around as well. What makes a good father is his intention and also the fact that you are present.

You are not imagining what it means to be a father, you are living what it means to be a father, living it in how you eat dinner with her at the table, in how you drive her to school in the morning, how you go to the pharmacy in the middle of the night to get medicine when she is sick, how you praise her when she needs praising and punish her when she needs punishing, how you kiss her on the cheek even though she says she is too old for things like that, how you let her rest her head on your shoulder when she is tired, how you…..

I had no one to teach me shit about what it means to be a father.

And you know that you are not perfect and that you make mistakes and this is why you question yourself. Only a fool thinks he’s perfect in anything. And the biggest fool of them all is the one who swears to God they are the perfect parent. Nobody totally gets this Father thing right, but one thing is real as hell, if you are not present, then you will never even have a chance to try to get it right.”
Since that conversation, I wish I could say that I have become super-confident about my parenting skills.

But I am only human and I know how imperfect I am in many aspects of my life. I also know that being a parent is truly the hardest job in the world no matter what credentials one has. Yet, from working with all the children I develop intervention programming for, I see in their eyes what they want from a father more than anything else. They don’t care if their fathers pay the bills, bring milk home, take out the garbage, or do any of the things any and all parents should be concerned about regardless of their gender.

First and foremost, they care about their fathers being around for more than just the weekends. They want their dads to call them to say they love them and support them and will always have their backs. They want to see their fathers looking at them from the audience when they are performing at the school play or cheering for them from the stands when they are scoring a goal or just smiling at them from the crowd as they are learning about life.

So maybe I have been thinking about this all wrong. Maybe the lesson I should have learned from all the missing fathers in my neighborhood, the one lesson they really taught me, as a result of their absence, was that the most important thing a father can do is be present. Be present with love and understanding and patience and just try your best to get it right. Other than that, what else can any father really do?

To read more from Sean Anderson, check out his Medium page.