Father Dave

The Pain of Non-Custodial Fatherhood

I am sitting at my daughters bedside. It is well past midnight. She is asleep.

She is 15 years old now. She has overdosed. I am at the children’s hospital.

Surely this has been the worst night of my life - getting the call, rushing to the hospital, seeing her lying silently in bed with tubes sticking out of her, waiting to hear from a doctor about what sort of future she can expect, if any.

I should feel terrible, and yet I feel strangely at peace sitting here, with some strange sense that finally I am where I ought to be - at my daughter’s side. I feel like a father again - somehow useful.

My mind goes back to that time when she had the boating accident - she couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8 years old.

It had been my birthday, and we’d hired some boats to go out rowing on the Lane Cove River. It was all very pleasant at first. It was a sunny day. My daughter was in a boat with some of the other kids - mainly older than her - and they’d been splashing water at our boat, that was slightly ahead of them.

Then their boat started to fill with water and some of the crew decided to abandon ship. This was fine, as they all had life jackets on, and we weren’t far from the shore. But then the last girl left in the boat, apart from my daughter, decided to make an exit, and she did so by standing up on the rim of the boat and pushing herself off. As she did so, she overturned the boat, with my daughter still in the middle of it.

The result was that my daughter was now underneath the middle of a capsized boat that was rapidly sinking, and the buoyant life-jacket was preventing her from escaping. She was being dragged down with the ship.

My boat was not far away and within a couple of seconds I was in the water and under her boat. The water was pitch black, like pea soup, but by the grace of God I found her leg trashing around and pulled her down and out. We both resurfaced with her screaming wildly. She told me later that she thought she had been caught by a sea-monster that had hold of her leg and was pulling her under.

Thankfully her lifejacket kept her afloat, regardless of her emotional state. My predicament was the opposite. I felt great, having retrieved her, but I was sinking. I hadn’t thought to take off my leather jacket before going into the water of course, and my boots were quite heavy too, and I am not a great swimmer.

Thankfully another boat got to me before I sank. We all ended up just fine. It was only my mobile phone that never recovered.

Why is this event still so significant to me? Is it just because it was the only time I was really able to help her? No, it’s more than that. It is because that event at the river that day defined for me what it means for me to be a father.

Being a father doesn’t necessarily mean sitting-alongside my girl in the same boat, doing all the rowing, but it does mean being somewhere in an adjoining boat, ready to dive in if I’m needed.

Being a non-custodial father, I can’t be in the same boat. My time with my girl is a series of stolen moments - moments that seem to have been growing shorter and less intimate over the last few years, as she makes her transition towards adulthood.

In truth, I’ve never had the oars. I’ve never been her major provider, and her mother has always had a firm hold of the rudder. I can look back on this in regret now, but it doesn’t change the situation, and with the law being the way it is, I don’t know whether I really had any other options.

Until recently though, I’d always felt that I was at least travelling in that adjoining boat - always keeping one eye on my girl’s progress and ready to jump in if I was needed. This is what I’ve lost more recently, as she’s embedded herself more deeply into her peer group and allocated more hours to staying with her mother. I feel I’ve been relegated to the shoreline.

This is the struggle for me as a father. I want to be her man - her provider and protector - but I can’t be. I’m excluded from most of what is going on now, to the point where I have no idea where my daughter is going, whom she’s seeing, or what she’s getting up to.

I know that not all of what she’s up to is good, but I’m not near enough to the action to see clearly any more. I’m no longer in that adjoining boat. I‘m on the shoreline, calling out to her, telling her to be careful, but knowing that, from where I stand, if she’s not careful, there’s really nothing I can do about it.

This is not just my problem. It’s the dilemma of modern fatherhood, particularly acute for non-custodial fathers. We’re supposed to be in the picture, somewhere, but not as fathers, not acting like real men. We’re supposed to be in the background somewhere, on the shoreline, offering helpful advice when it’s asked for, but if we see our children going down, our hands are tied. We can appeal to the mother, to the police, to the school, or to child welfare, but we’re unable to act like men and do anything.

And yet tonight I feel at peace with myself.

No, I wasn’t there when she overdosed. No. I wasn’t in a position to do anything to prevent this from happening. I didn’t see the signs because I wasn’t there when the signs were being displayed. But now at least I’m in the right place at the right time. I’m at my daughter’s side when she needs me. Now I feel like a father again!

Of course the feeling is illusory. I’m not really protecting her from anything here. The dangers she needs protecting from are not in the hospital, and when morning comes, things will begin to return to their familiar routine, and I’ll almost certainly find myself back on the shoreline.

This is the pain of non-custodial fatherhood. To be a father of a teenage girl, you need to be more than an observer, but an observer is all you’re allowed to be, and you’re supposed to be a happy, friendly and affirming observer. The great temptation is simply to turn away and not watch at all.

©2011, Rev. David B. Smith

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Never contend with a man who has nothing to lose. - Baltasar Gracian

Rev. David B. Smith is a Parish priest, community worker, martial arts master, pro boxer, author of Sex, the Ring & the Eucharist: Reflections on life, ministry & fighting in the inner-city and a father of three. Get a free preview copy of Father Dave, the 'Fighting Father's book when you sign up for his free newsletter at or

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