When I was a child, most kids looked forward to Saturday mornings—a day off school, a lie in, and Timmy Mallet on TV.
But not me. I hated Saturday mornings, for Saturday was the day that my dad would promise to pick my little brother and me up so we could spend the day together. Both common sense and history had taught me that this wouldn’t happen. Still, deep down I hoped it would.
Hopes Dashed, Again
I learned to hide my hope. I’d distract myself with the TV, pretending that I didn’t expect or care if my dad turned up. My brother, however, would stand at the window and stare outside—often for hours—hoping to see my dad’s work van pull up outside the house.
Get away from the window, you idiot! He’s not coming. He never does. I am telling you now if you don’t move, I will smash you!
The hope my brother displayed every time he saw a car pass reminded me of the anticipation I was trying to suppress. The painful disappointment on his face when he realised dad wasn’t coming, yet again, reminded me of the pain I was trying to bury.
I didn’t need reminding that he wasn’t coming. I didn’t need reminding of the pain. The hopelessness and heartache were real. The wound was raw and quickly turned to anger, and because my dad wasn’t there to direct it at, unfortunately, it was directed at my brother.
On the odd occasion that my dad did turn up, he would tell us about his job, his travels around the world, and how he was earning mega-bucks. He’d give us a wad of cash and say that he’d see us again next week.
When my brother and I arrived home, excited about having spent the day with dad, we would tell our mam what a great day we’d had, how much money he’d spent playing in the arcades, how much he was earning in his new job, and that he was going to take us out again next week.
Many single parents, like my mother, put their lives and ambitions on hold in order to take on the extra responsibility of raising their children alone. These sacrifices often impact careers, finances, and relationships. The parent who shoulders the burden of caring for their children alone—whilst being taken for granted—sometimes watches in dismay, as the absent dad can often appear to be living the ‘life of Reilly’ whilst being praised as a hero. Tragically, this was the case in my childhood home.
For the parent who has stayed, there can be a temptation to tell their children the truth—to tell them that their dad is a dosser and he probably won’t turn up next week. Yet the child is probably aware of this. I know I was. I didn’t need (or want) to have it explained to me. If anyone tried to, especially my mum, I would kick off.
In fact, a lot of my time was spent kicking off, and here’s why.
Proverbs 1:8–9 says:
Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction
and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.
They are a garland to grace your head
and a chain to adorn your neck.
God’s intended design for families was for a man and a woman to be married and, when/if they have children, Proverbs 1:8–9 is pretty clear—for a child to be blessed, he is to have both parents in his life. Each parent has a role to play, both spiritually and practically, in raising a child.
The loss felt at losing a parent and the joy of spending time with the absent parent isn’t a reflection on the value that the child places on the remaining parent. Any child missing a parent is missing out on part of the blessing that God intended all children to have. There is a negative consequence to having only one parent, and that brings with it real grief. Losing a parent to death or abandonment is hard and, as much as the remaining parent does to try and cushion the blow, grief is a process and takes time.
So how can we make sense of the awful situation that so many children in our poorest communities find themselves in? There’s no easy answer, but the following three Scriptures are a good place to start.
1. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:21)
Jesus tells us that we should have our hearts set on eternal things, because whatever we treasure will have pride of place in our hearts. Children inherently know this to be true. So regardless of how amicable the separation between the parents has been, the child will feel rejected by the parent that has left, and possibly even by the parent who has stayed if they choose to re-marry. No matter what caused the separation, the child will see that the absent parent has chosen their preferred lifestyle over them and their family.
- For the parent who leaves for another man/woman, the child will feel second best to the new partner.
- For the parent who goes to jail, the child will feel second best to the criminal lifestyle.
- For the parent who leaves for career advancement, the child will feel second best to the job.
- For the parent who leaves because of addictions, the child will feel second best to drink/drugs.
Do you get the picture? Whatever the reason for the abandonment, the child feels rejected, knowing that they are not loved as they should be. They know where the absent parent’s treasure is, and they know it’s not them. They see that they have been sacrificed for the true treasure of the absent parent’s heart. This almost inevitably leads to deep and profound anger.
2. “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph. 6:4)
If anything is likely to provoke a child to anger—and is the exact opposite of bringing a child up in the instruction of the Lord—it is abandoning them. Rejection is painful. It hits the emotions hard—fear, sadness, and low self-worth being some of the most common.
For many children and young people, this emotional turmoil vents itself in anger. More often than not, it’s directed at anyone other than the source of the anger. When I was younger, my anger would be directed at my mother, my brother, and even at people I went to school with. Very rarely did I direct my anger at my father (even though he was the cause of it). This is typical of many children in similar situations.
Lack of opportunity to confront the absent parent, fear, denial, confusion, and sin can lead to a child directing their legitimate anger in a sinful and aggressive way towards those that are closest to them. People who are innocent end up on the wrong end of the hurting child’s wrath.
This is a natural and understanding process for children to go through after losing a parent. There’s no quick fix to the problem, but the gospel offers the child real and lasting hope, comfort, and peace. When you introduce your child to Jesus, you explain that, through repentance and faith in God the Son, they can be adopted by God the perfect Father. As a perfect Father—a Father full of compassion and grace—He can and will help them through their grief and pain.
3. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (2 Cor. 1:3–4)
God is a perfect Father who treasures His children and helps them deal with the rejection they have faced from absent earthly fathers. As the God of all comfort, He alone can bring true, ultimate comfort to those who have suffered at the hands of negligent biological fathers.
God is a perfect Father who is never absent, who is always available, and who allows His children to boldly approach Him with whatever they need to get off their chest.
To My Younger Self
If I could have a quiet word with my younger self, I would instil the need to memorise these three Scriptures, not just for my benefit, but also for that of my children. You see, it is only since I’ve become a father myself that I’ve realised how difficult it is to be a good one.
Not making your children feel second best, disappointed, or provoking them to anger is a daily battle, and it’s one I don’t always win. That’s why these Scriptures are so important, because regardless of whether your father is absent or present, good or bad, all our children need to know that through Jesus they can have access to a perfect Father in heaven. One who is always there, who will never let them down, who will only and always do what is good.