Sean O’Connor: I don’t want to be the dad who went MIA

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In the traditional model of the family unit, fathers are protectors, providers, pillars of strength and stability. But this is the age of the modern family, when such stereotypical roles no longer necessarily hold true. What is expected of a father these days, particularly when the family unit is no longer a unit?

Sean O’Connor pic

By Sean O’Connor*

I was spending time with a friend’s father, a straight-talking, kind-hearted man. As I watched him interact with my son, something animated inside me.

I didn’t know it, but I missed my own father, long deceased, and only realised it in my appreciation of this nice old bloke who seemed to like me. He was the same age my dad was when he died. But it goes much, much deeper than that.

Both mothers of my children – the halftime-in-life score is Exes 2, Kids 3 – had absent fathers. One of them took his own life when she was a small girl; the other father was left by a mom who took her daughter away, when she was barely into her teens. So, both of these lovely women had what might be called ‘father issues’.

That’s not meant as a slight. We all have father issues, to some degree, just as we all have ‘mother issues’. And things change, if we dare to work out what they mean. However, the common denominator in my choosing them must say something about me.

Enrolled as a father figure, consciously or not, did they want me to nurture and look after them? And when I didn’t, and failed their expectation – did they resent me for it, for that was their own experience anyway. And what exactly was I looking for? To find reward as the responsible provider, and receive affection or even adulation? A corrupt emotional economy, if there ever was one.

Aah, the complexities of the modern family. Being divorced – pretty happily, most of the time, but sometimes nostalgically too – means I see much less of my children than I’d like, or perhaps they’d like.

My eldest boy is an adolescent, turning into a lovely young man, and needs me, his dad, a lot right now. He also needs to express his emerging independence. It aches that I cannot see him more often, but at least when he isn’t sleeping at my house I make sure to call to let him know that I’m available, and around.

But as he grows and follows his own path in life, there will come a time when we separate physically, and maybe live in different places. Time flies, and the gap between us will change its shape as it narrows and widens. I must enjoy whatever we have now.

Then there’s the youngest, only two and a half years old. He loves his mother deeply, but I wonder what he’ll make of me, this curious chap called dad who pitches up four days a week to take him away and spend time with him and his siblings, whom he adores. Am I missing in action too?

Family configurations confound things. What will he think, when he grows up, about his own missing dad? Perhaps there’s a clue in that word right there: missing. I miss him too. We miss each other. Maybe it’s just that. And it’s the action together that we miss.

And then there are the fathers who are really gone. I’ve heard it said that when a father dies, something stirs on the deepest level. My close friend lost his dad a couple of weeks ago. My heart goes out to him.

His father was hale and robust, and I can easily see how he influenced his son to do some wonderfully crazy things in life. This is because fathers provide a kind of risky play that mothers are more averse too. Mothers tend to worry, fathers tend not to. They say: “Don’t worry, he’ll be fine if he falls.” That’s what I need my dad to say now, to me. At least it’s what I say to myself, because he taught me to.

When fathers go, the void they leave transfers much of the constructed project of masculinity onto the shoulders of the son. As my mother said after my father died: “You’re the head of the family now.”

I do not resent this, but it is a pressure, and a lonely one. Above my shoulders, where I once felt my father to be, there is only a kind of blankness. A whole layer is missing. We truly are on our own.

It’s very good to know this, because we are the only ones who can take care of ourselves, the only ones who can truly make ourselves happy.

  • Sean O’Connor is a happily re-singled parent of three, who runs his own business, producing theatre in the workplace, in communities, and in public spaces. He has written textbooks and DJ’d weddings, and looks forward to DJ’ing funerals someday too. He lives in Observatory, Cape Town, with his dogs Seigfried and Milo, and believes that the quality of his community impacts directly on the quality of his life. Which, he feels privileged to say, is good.
  • This article first appeared on the Change Exchange, an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes. The opinions expressed in this piece are the writer’s own and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BrightRock.