“Child Support is more than just money.”
These words greet me whenever I log onto the New Jersey Child Support website to check the growing arrears on my daughter’s account. According to the 2017 U.S. Census Bureau, out of about 12 million single parent families with children under the age of 18, more than 80% were headed by single mothers. While there is no denying monetary support is essential to pay for my daughter’s physical needs, she also needs something equally as important – emotional support from her father.
A father is truly an important part of a child’s life; he is the one who teaches his son how to be a man and shows his daughter how a real man behaves. The lessons he teaches, the example he sets, and the core values he instills, remain with his children for the rest of their lives. I am blessed to have had my father in my life. Until the day he died, he always made me feel safe. He was by no means perfect; like all of us he had his regrets.
I believe losing his father at age four and his mother at age seven, fueled dad’s desire to be a good father. I enjoyed hearing him talk about my grandparents; his stories were filled with the loving sacrifices they made for him and his siblings. My brother and I, the oldest of dad’s four biological children (with my mom’s six children from her previous marriage we became a family of 12), were born during the struggle for Civil Rights in the 1960’s, and grew up in the still turbulent 70’s. Dad used the mood of those times to give us life lessons. I can still hear his husky voice answering us as we peppered him with questions. At a time when hate ruled the day, he inculcated in us the principle that having pride and respect for ourselves did not release us from the obligation to respect and accept the differences of others. Today, our country is almost as divided as it was back then, and I truly wish that my daughter had the opportunity to ask her own father “why?” and that he welcomed the opportunity to help her search for the answers.
Although he never stepped foot on a college campus, my dad cherished education. He could speak with anyone on any subject because he was an avid reader. Every week during the summer, my brother and I had to pick a topic to research and prepare a five-minute discourse. We could have one or two note cards for assistance, but we couldn’t read from them. We had to present the material expertly with confidence, and enthusiastically accept and answer questions. No matter how much we felt we knew the material, dad always came up with questions out of left field that stumped us. Without a doubt, my love for reading and writing began with preparing those weekly assignments.
I remember the summer we lost our home. Many times, there was no money for a hotel room so we slept in the car. Every morning, I was afraid that my father wouldn’t be there when I woke up, so I would only open one eye half way. It was only when I saw him sitting in the driver’s seat that I would open them both. If he was with us, I knew we would be alright. I’ll never forget that same feeling many years later when my daughter was rushed to the hospital for one of her five emergency brain surgeries. It was 3:00 a.m. and I was in the emergency room waiting for the decision to transport her to another hospital for the surgery, when a nurse came to tell me I had visitors. Scared and exhausted, the sight of my father and my baby sister fortified me. They had driven an hour and a half in the middle of the night to be with me. I’ll never forget dad’s words that night standing next to my daughter’s bed. “I’m really proud of you,” he said. As we sat together silently listening to the beeps coming from the machines connected to my daughter, his presence dried my tears. I felt safe and protected.
Father’s Day is not celebrated with the same fanfare as Mother’s Day, although a memory from my childhood reminds me that every day is Father’s Day. It was wintertime and my father had a bad cold. As a construction worker, he would be outside in the cold all day. So, as my mother argued with him to go back to bed, he fixed his coffee while she finished fixing his lunch. After she left the kitchen, I rushed in and threw my arms around his waist. “Daddy, please listen to Mommy and go back to bed. I don’t want you to catch pneumonia and die.” He looked down at me and smiled. “Brigitte, don’t you know fathers don’t get sick; they just feel bad.” When I became a parent, I learned that indeed we do get sick, and at times we feel bad, but we keep going. That’s what dad’s example taught me.
My family is still recovering from my father’s death in 2009. The void his passing left is inexpressible. Whenever we reminisce about the things he did or said, we get a little stronger and the void seems a little smaller. Unquestionably, his legacy has nothing to do with money. Dad’s legacy is a memorial of his unwavering love and dedication to his family.
My message to fathers is simply this: Being a father is a choice. Always remember, every tear that you wipe away and fear you demolish, every effort to succeed you praise, whenever you acknowledge a fall then hold out your hand to steady your child as they stand up, whenever you take part in constructing your daughter’s self-esteem, and help your son to realize that making babies doesn’t make him a man or a father, that is – The Real Child Support!