“Who has helped you the most in your fathering?” We asked that very question to thousands of men as part of our research. Some answered, “My father” or “My pastor.” Several mentioned Dr. James Dobson. But the most popular answer by far was, “My wife.” And when we asked, “Who helps you overcome struggles in your fathering?” the number one answer was, again, “My wife.”
You may be comforted to know you’re not alone as a parent, but you should also be challenged, because your power as a father is greatly affected by your relationship with your children’s mother. Are you striving together with her as you progress toward a common goal, or are you struggling against her, and spinning in circles?
She’s your number one asset and ally as a father, and showing her love and respect is one of the best things any father can do for his kids.
1. Two Indispensable Perspectives
Even if you were some kind of Superman, you could still only supply your children with a masculine perspective of the world, valuable as it is. It takes a woman—ideally their mother—to provide the deep feminine input that rounds out their world and opens up more of the wonders of adulthood.
By virtue of carrying, bearing, and caring for your children in her own unique way, your children’s mother sees things in them and about them that you may miss completely. Her perspective can be quite illuminating when you compare notes, especially when it comes to understanding growing daughters. And her natural sensitivity to her children’s needs makes her an expert on how to meet those needs. Don’t be jealous; be humble. Ask her advice, and really listen; or sit her down and say, “Honey, how am I doing?”
2. A Model for Chivalry
“Date your mate” is more than just a clever phrase. It’s a philosophy. It’s a mind-set in which you reinstate some of the conditions of your dating relationship. You probably don’t have to ask her father for permission or worry about an eleven o’clock curfew any more. But your purpose is worth revitalizing: to continually re-win your true love’s affections. You revive dinners and movies, take walks in the park, visit the old hang-outs and even start showing affection in public again.
During your wedding ceremony, you verbalized your commitment all at once. Marriage is an opportunity to demonstrate those vows every day. During periods of richness and health, you say, “Honey, things are really going well, and I want you to know there’s no one else I’d rather enjoy all of this with.” During times of poverty or sickness, you repeat: “sweetheart, we may be struggling right now, but we’re rich in other ways, and I’m going to stick it out with you, no matter what.” And the vow “from this day forward” also bears repeating: “Well, Honey, here you are turning ‘the big four-oh,’ but I have to say, youÍre more attractive to me now than when we first married.”
Show your affection physically as well: a peck on the cheek, a spirited hug when you arrive home, holding her hand, sharing space on the couch, and maybe even an occasional kiss that’s long enough to embarrass your teenager.
Living out your wedding vows also helps your children. You can talk your kids through their first dates and let them know what to expect, but you can show them a lot too. Your son is taking subconscious notes. He’s asking, “How should I treat women?” “What does it mean to be a husband?” Your daughter also has her eye on you. The thought of giving herself to a man in marriage can be frightening. SheÍs asking herself how well her mother fared in the deal. Your children watch when you open car doors for your wife. They listen closely when you compliment her on how radiant she looks in that new dress, or express your appreciation for all she does for you.
Dad, be passionate about the one who provided you the opportunity to be a father in the first place.
3. A Sense of Security
What would happen in a business if for some reason the two controlling partners started feuding? What if these two presiding officers suddenly had conflicting visions for the company or developed an intense personality conflict? regardless of how earnestly each partner communicated his or her commitment to the employees, the company would still suffer. Morale would drop. People would begin to worry about job security. Mid-level executives would bail out. The emotional atmosphere of the entire organization would reflect the quality of the most important relationship—just as it does in families.
A fourth-grade girl wrote about her father, “He treats my mom very nicely, which makes me feel wanted.” Daily expressions of affection for your wife will do wonders for your marriage, but your children also pick up on it. If the atmosphere of the marriage is distrust or anger, then that mood will permeate the entire family. If the atmosphere of the marriage is noncommunication, the children get used to silence and foreboding. On the other hand, if the atmosphere of the marriage is love, the whole family will absorb that love.
Words and deeds that demonstrate your love for your wife provide your children with convincing proof that the foundation of their lives—your marriage commitment—is not going to shake, buckle and split apart. When Dad loves Mom, all is well in the universe.
What to Do When …
…you’re a divorced dad. Your challenge is even greater. Your children may very well blame themselves for the failure of your marriage. Their sense of security has to be shaken, and their ideas about marriage are surely hazy at best. Make every effort to restore whatever stability you can salvage by being reliable with support, both in terms of finances and by making life easier for your children’s mother. Be consistent and prompt in your involvement with the kids and, even though it may seem like the most difficult thing to do right now, respect and honor her, especially when sheÍs not around. Help your child see that the relationship between the two most important people in his life—you and his mother—is solid, if not perfect.
…you’re a stepfather. You’ve courageously stepped into an atmosphere of pain and mistrust. The most important thing you can do for those kids is to love their mother. What they need most is family stability—that means keeping the promises you have made to their mother and, in the process, redeeming marriage in their eyes. Their entire outlook on life may change when they see love and commitment between you and their mother. That stability must also spill over into the way you relate to their biological father. Cooperating with his efforts to be involved in his children’s lives is one more step that can smooth out a volatile situation.
One of the greatest legacies you can leave your children (and yet-unborn grandchildren) is the firm belief that marriage is not to be taken lightly. It’s worth your commitment, and worth sticking it out through the tough times. Show them that your marriage is worth every ounce of effort you put into it and that, some day, theirs will be too.