Although their biological dad has disappeared, Michele Weldon’s three sons have not been fatherless. Weldon believes the men who have stepped-in to act as substitute dads have generously embraced her sons with love and served as valuable role models.
My late father was a prince of a man, unapologetic for deceiving all six of his children into believing each one was his favorite. I expected nothing less for my three sons than to be adored by their father.
This was not to be.
My former husband’s disappearance played out incrementally over the last fifteen years since our divorce. Now it is complete; he has vanished. A phantom parent living overseas, he has no contact with our sons, now aged twenty-one, nineteen, and sixteen.
Over time, my fury about their paternal loss has cooled. The anger that once felt flammable has been replaced by a sense of gratitude to a number of gentle and forthright men who willingly elect to take part in the lives of my boys.
I believe a father is born from many strangers.
My oldest son had two English teachers who guided him and his pinballing emotions through middle and high school. But it is his beloved high school wrestling coach who has been his fervent mentor and life guide. Between push-ups and takedowns, Coach Mike Powell offered my son his heart and earned his trust, a gift he is reluctant to share. Now in college, my son still calls Coach Powell with good news before he calls me.
For my middle son there is not only this same wrestling coach, but a cast of uncles whom he respects, admires, and emulates. He will listen to my brother Paul when my words are no longer heard. It is Uncle Mike, my sister’s husband, who helps him with his chemistry and takes him on long walks. For a time Uncle Mark, their father’s brother, appeared at tournaments and football games to cheer for each nephew. Two years in a row, he drove 150 miles to the state tournament to see my oldest wrestle.
My youngest found a youth football coach he imitates and respects. “I want Coach Tim to be my dad,” he announced midseason of seventh grade. Though I explained that his coach had his own family, he countered that Tim was exactly the kind of man he would want as a father—funny, affectionate, tough, and in possession of his own Super Bowl ring. But now my youngest son is wrestling as well, and Coach Powell has once again moved to the dominant spot of influence.
It is not just teachers, coaches, and uncles who populate this volunteer father club, but also men like the friend who once quietly left a $50 bill in the pocket of the blue cashmere overcoat he gave my oldest to wear to a formal dance.
As their mother working fervently to answer their needs, I frequently feel overwhelmed with what I must do to ensure I raise these men well. I am charged with lassoing their strong wills so they can know success without being derailed by youthful mistakes. Relief from my panic arrives with every gesture of goodwill from these generous souls.
No one fills the shoes of a father. But the footprint that the man who fathered them left behind does not have to stay empty. I find it a profound act of selflessness that each of these men has chosen my sons, and a blessing that my sons have chosen them. In some ways, this is my boys’ declaration of independence from abandonment. These men who are not required to care—but do—convince my sons they are worthy of being loved.
Michele Weldon is an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and is the author of several nonfiction books. A journalist for more than thirty-two years, Weldon leads writing workshops around the country and speaks on issues related to media and women. She is the mother of three sons.
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