Facing Fatherly Failures - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Facing Fatherly Failures

Facing Fatherly Failures

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because you might have, or know, a father.

By Eugene S. Robinson

No one gets married with the expectation that they will get divorced. It’s very clearly a possibility, but only the kind of possibility that falls under the rubric of “assumed risk.” Like for people who are into parachuting but not dying while parachuting: It might happen, but it could also be the biggest blast you’ve ever had. 

It’s something that very specifically registers in a different sort of way for that first wave of kids of divorce. The last gasp of the baby-boom generation was the first boom of breakups, if you remember that in 1960 only 2.2 per 1,000 Americans were getting divorced but by the end of the decade that had climbed to 3.2 — or about 639,000 people who were over and out.

My parents were in that early-adopter group, and while they pulled it off with as little muss and fuss as could be expected of people in their late 20s, my very rough and self-directed take was I’d be getting/having to spend less time with my father. My stepfather as a substitute worked well despite him not working well as a husband, but by the end of the 1970s, when there were 5.1 divorces per 1,000 Americans, we rode a second wave into a second divorce, and I remember telling myself, Not for me.

“How bad could things be that you can’t hold out for 18 years?” asked an 18-year-old me to anyone who would listen, as I bolstered my personal resolve to do that which each generation should strive for: things a little bit better than what came before.

“Are you joking?” My two oldest were half smiling, unsure. My youngest had no kind of smile on her face. She knew.

And so, like a fairy-tale hero, I did everything I thought was right, and I did it correctly. For five years of dating, 20 years of marriage on top of that and three wonderful, life-changing daughters. Whom I loved, and still love, very much. So much so that I was greedy for time with them — seeing them wake up in the morning, go to sleep at night. And as their classmates’ parents got divorced, sunk in various degrees of marriage-ending dysfunction, and even amid signs of very real personal difficulties I was having being married, I openly scoffed at the notion that I would succumb — I loved them that much.

“Hey, I heard a funny story today …” The kids were older now. Two were in high school. One getting there. “A friend of mine and his siblings got called into a meeting with their parents. They’re all in their 20s now. I mean the kids,” I explained. “Anyway, their parents told them that now that the kids were out on their own they were going to get divorced.”


My kids waited for the punch line, since each and every one of my fatherly tales had one. Usually with an unexpected, though by now fully expected, untimely death. “And the kids — my friend and his sisters and brothers — were furious. I mean, what more does a parent have to do?” I thought this parental sacrifice in the face of what they knew was a marriage working its way to its end was admirable. 

“We’d be angry too!” My oldest put a fine point on it. “We’d never want you to be miserable because of us!” And I stammered, surprised, “Well … I guess they thought they were doing a good thing.”

“Being happy is a good thing,” she said. “Being miserable isn’t.” She and her sisters nodded, and I tied it off with a fatherly defense along the lines of “well, at least they got to be around the kids together longer,” and like daughters of mine, they scoffed: “Because everybody wants to hang around miserable people.”

But for me and their mother — also a child of divorce — this was our marathon, and being tough Type A’s, we’d make it work. Until we didn’t, and then her telling me something that I had not fully considered after walking away is what we decided to do: “Well, you’re going to have to tell the kids.”

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A happy day.

Source Eugene S. Robinson

And there it was — the first time since they were born that I’d have to introduce into their lives something that was very possibly not at all in their best interests. It’s one thing to accidentally hurt your kids. It’s something else entirely to choose to do it. And no amount of imagining that things would be OK could shake the creeping sense that they very much would not be.

So Sunday, after we all gathered for a late breakfast of French toast — the conversation convivial; easy, even — as the meal was winding down and I could see the kids were edging off to their own lives doing schoolwork or hanging with their friends, I said, “Hey … your mother and I are going to get a divorce.”

My affect hadn’t changed much. I didn’t look happy or sad. It looked like I had just said, “Make sure you take your plates to the dishwasher.” Which I may have said right before that.

Looks of confusion. Looks I can’t talk about now without crying. It was heartbreaking. It still is, when I think about it.

“Are you joking?” My two oldest were half smiling, unsure. My youngest had no kind of smile on her face. She knew.

“No.” Then a very calm and measured, but brief, discussion of logistics. They left the table, and their mother and I talked quietly, cleaning the kitchen as we did.

And in the half-decade since then? A stunning bit of satori, or sudden enlightenment: You don’t necessarily have to do something hard really well to be a good father, but maybe, just maybe, it’s (if not a start) just a better way to be better. Or, put more succinctly, sometimes it’s the attempt that swings you into the win column. Something I’m remembering every Father’s Day as I try to continue to be worthy of the love we share. I mean is there a better way to spend the day and not feel like a fraud? Not nearly.



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