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 childrens 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
daughters side. I feel like a father again -
My mind goes back to that time when she had the
boating accident - she couldnt have been more
than 7 or 8 years old.
It had been my birthday, and wed 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
theyd 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
werent 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 hadnt 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, its 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 doesnt 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 Im
Being a non-custodial father, I cant 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
In truth, Ive never had the oars.
Ive 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
doesnt change the situation, and with the law
being the way it is, I dont know whether I
really had any other options.
Until recently though, Id always felt that
I was at least travelling in that adjoining boat -
always keeping one eye on my girls progress
and ready to jump in if I was needed. This is what
Ive lost more recently, as shes
embedded herself more deeply into her peer group
and allocated more hours to staying with her
mother. I feel Ive been relegated to the
This is the struggle for me as a father. I want
to be her man - her provider and protector - but I
cant be. Im excluded from most of what
is going on now, to the point where I have no idea
where my daughter is going, whom shes seeing,
or what shes getting up to.
I know that not all of what shes up to is
good, but Im not near enough to the action to
see clearly any more. Im no longer in that
adjoining boat. Im on the shoreline, calling
out to her, telling her to be careful, but knowing
that, from where I stand, if shes not
careful, theres really nothing I can do about
This is not just my problem. Its the
dilemma of modern fatherhood, particularly acute
for non-custodial fathers. Were supposed to
be in the picture, somewhere, but not as fathers,
not acting like real men. Were supposed to be
in the background somewhere, on the shoreline,
offering helpful advice when its 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
were unable to act like men and do
And yet tonight I feel at peace with myself.
No, I wasnt there when she overdosed. No.
I wasnt in a position to do anything to
prevent this from happening. I didnt see the
signs because I wasnt there when the signs
were being displayed. But now at least Im in
the right place at the right time. Im at my
daughters side when she needs me. Now I feel
like a father again!
Of course the feeling is illusory. Im 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 Ill
almost certainly find myself back on the
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
youre allowed to be, and youre 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.
* * *
Never contend with a man who has nothing to
lose. - Baltasar Gracian
David B. Smith is a Parish priest, community
worker, martial arts master, pro boxer, author of
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 www.fatherdave.org
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