As a girl, Father's Day underscored the other 364 days of the year, bringing a blaring reminder there was no father around to celebrate. The absence of that single, critical male relationship didn't just make me feel lonely and left out, it impacted my understanding of the world and my place in it. .
After reflecting on how my father's absence has impacted me as a girl and now woman, wife and mother in my memoir, The Artist's Daughter, others have shared with me similar stories of abandonment and struggle. Our collective stories confirm what statistics scream: that the bond from father to child is essential. Whether our dads were good, bad, or not there at all, this relationship shapes our understanding of our very identities.
Yet, we live in a country where too many of us have broken relationships with Dad. In America, 1 in 3 kids live apart from their biological fathers. A recent Washington Post article addressed the dad dilemma with the eye-catching title: The new F-Word – Father. In it, Kathleen Parker addresses a question being asked as we discuss the latest stats on America's female breadwinners: In the evolving 21st-century economy, "what are men good for?"
Women have become more self-sufficient (a good thing) and, given that they still do the lion's share of housework and child rearing, why, really, should they invite a man to the clutter? Because, simply, children need a father… . Deep in the marrow of every human child burbles a question far more profound than those currently occupying coffee klatches: Who is my daddy? And sadly these days, where is he?
While single mothers may have enough grit, love, and know-how to raise us, the absence of Dad will still have its effect. Study after study shows that a children with absent fathers are more likely to live in poverty, drop out of high school, have a failing marriage, even be incarcerated than those whose fathers are involved in their lives. The data confirms how much a father matters to a child's physical and emotional wellbeing and development. Fatherhood, it turns out, is a social justice issue.
But that's unfortunately where the church often ends the conversation. We lament the shift in the family structure, express outrage at the latest statistics. We bring absent fathers into the culture wars, wrapping them up with changing definitions of marriage and family. As we preach and debate, Father's Days go by and millions of children remain without the single, most influential male relationship that will continue to shape their identity throughout their lives.
If we take James' words seriously and see true religion as caring for orphans and widows (James 1:27), we must see strong parenting, orphan prevention, as part of the call. How do we practically support the idea of children maintaining relationships with their fathers, if the ultimate responsibility lies on the father himself?
We can—without fanfare—support the fathers we know, including those that live with their children and those that do not. As Christians, we can offer dads opportunities to connect with their kids. That doesn't mean plan another church carnival or father-daughter dance, though those are nice events.
Instead, as Christian families and communities, we should help foster organic relationships between fathers and children. Though relationships can be redeemed at any stage, the earlier the father-child bond is cultivated the larger the benefit is to the child. We can invite a dad and his kids into our lives, the things we are already doing, so they can experience life together. We support fathers as we ask a family over for dinner, ask them to go camping with us or signing up for T-ball together. Putting on the father-daughter dance is easier to execute because at the end of the night it's over, while organic relationships are open-ended. It's this side-by-side kind of journey that presents father and child the opportunity to be together.
We support mom and dad's relationship, despite the cultural shifts around marriage. Many couples choose to have kids before deciding if they will marry; the latest figures show 48 percent of all first births are to single women. While plenty of single or remarried dads remain committed to their children despite not being in a relationship with their mother, that arrangement becomes more difficult and more complicated. Quite simply, a father is more likely to be involved a child's life if he and the child's mother are together.
So, as Christians who care about fatherhood, we need to affirm the importance of the relationship between mom and dad, even if they aren't married. For some of us this is uncomfortable territory, to support relationships that may not look like we'd like. We can practically support these couples so they don't feel isolated. When we offer to babysit for friends to go to counseling or out to dinner, we are we are helping build healthier relationships—both between parenting partners and between parent and child. When we pray with and for couples who are struggling, when we openly discuss our own struggles in marriage we are modeling sticking it out in the difficult and that in turn supports fathers who are present.
Sadly, we must acknowledge that not every father is a safe person, and a severed relationship is in the child and mother's best interests. However, in the cases where connection and reconciliation is possible, we can extend our support.
We do it all clothed in love. Our goal is not to fight a culture war, but to love God with our whole hearts and to love others as we want to be loved. Our goal is to care for orphans and widows, to foster loving earthly families that reflect the love of our Divine Father. To do this, we as Christians must act clothed in love for parents and kids. Supporting fatherhood does not require a project or political campaign, but something much more meaningful: actual relationships with people in our midst. We should acknowledge and be grateful for the responsible, caring fathers we know. We should be patient and helpful with men working towards being better fathers. We should encourage reunion and reconciliation for fathers who live away from their children or who have grown distant over time.
God refers to himself as "Father" on purpose. The title embodies trust, provision and security. Let us help one another move closer to that holy representation, knowing we will always be stumbling and always fall short, but it is a critical relationship worth nurturing.
Alexandra Kuykendall is Mom and Leader Content Editor at MOPS International (Mothers of Preschoolers) a ministry to moms of young kids. Her memoir, The Artist's Daughter, explores her own journey of identity development and significance from childhood to marriage and motherhood. Connect with her at AlexandraKuykendall.com