OPINION: Simple message for fathers: Just show up


I’ve never been a fan of the self-help industry. I don’t do diets, books, or Ted Talks; I like to figure things out on my own—experiential information gathering, I’ll call it. That’s why I always hated going to church on Father’s Day.

Without rehashing my religious past and detailing my non-religious present, there was a time in my life when I was in church every Sunday and Wednesday. I heard every sermon - from the Garden of Eden to the breaking of the seven seals - from start to finish. But, man, did I dread Father’s Day.

For whatever reason, Father’s Day was the day my pastors chose to seemingly find every verse in the Bible about the shortcomings of men and roll it all into one 45-minute tongue-lashing. The post-service awkwardness at Morrison’s was always palpable.

By the time I was a father, I was only a casual church-goer - Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, maybe Easter every few years. The sermons never seemed to lighten, though. And because I had never been much of an advice taker, I generally tuned them out. It’s not easy to heed advice while someone is talking at you rather than to you.

But someone finally talked to me.

Ironically, it was during a Maundy Thursday service long after I had stopped being a regular church attendee. The three words said to me that night were meant to ease my angst about being a single father, but they formed the foundation for every parenting decision I made from that point forward: Just. Show. Up.

I went through a divorce in 2008. My daughter was a year-and-a-half old. Her mother moved to Texas from Tennessee, and I allowed my daughter to move with her. It’s still the single biggest regret I have to this day.

Being a parent is hard. Being a single parent is even more challenging. Being a single dad who lives in Tennessee is the final boss-level of parenting. Out of 50 states, Tennessee ranks dead last in the amount of custody time a divorced or single father exercises with his child. On top of that, my daughter lived 550 miles away in a suburb just north of Dallas. No sermon or self-help book would unlock the answer to the question I kept turning over in my head: How the hell am I supposed to do this?

So I drove.

At first, it was 300 miles to Arkadelphia, Arkansas, to bring my daughter back to Jackson for a week each month. That was fine until she started Kindergarten.

Then I drove more.

Every other Friday, I would wake up at 2:30 a.m. and drive west on I-40 to make it in time for the lunch shift at her school, where I would open pints of milk and Lunchables before wiping tables and volunteering to read in the afternoon Kindergarten classes. That was fine until she started playing rec league soccer on Saturdays.

So I drove even more.

Almost every Saturday she played, I was there - by plane, car, or bus. I kept finding ways to be present. But every year, a new phase was entered. If it wasn’t soccer, it was gymnastics. If it wasn’t gymnastics, it was Girl Scouts. As she approached middle school, spending time with friends became paramount. At the beginning of each new phase, I wondered if my situation was even sustainable because it sure didn’t feel like it was.

On the Thursday before Easter in 2017, I sat in the back row at All Saints Anglican Church. The Maundy Thursday service had concluded, and a quiet, reflective pall was hanging in the air. I felt the weight of my situation - the challenges, the sadness, the fraying of the invisible rope that tied me to my daughter.

I don’t know if I said the words aloud or if my body language was so obvious that my priest knew precisely why I was so conflicted. He eased himself beside me, put his hand on my back, and said, “Don’t worry. Keep showing up. Keep being there. Just show up.”

Thankfully, most parents don’t have to parent the way I did for a long time, but there are also some similarities to point out this Father’s Day.

If you’re a dad living with or apart from your kids, you’ve probably had every feeling that I’ve had, too. Am I doing enough? Am I saying the right things? Is this normal for this age? How the hell do I do this?

I think we’re all probably just feeling our way through the dark most of the time, and that’s okay as long we keep showing up.

Three years ago, my daughter moved to Jackson to live with me full-time. In two months, she’ll start her senior year of high school, and I still find myself searching for the right things to say in situations I don’t halfway understand. So, I keep showing up.

You won’t find a link to a parenting book in this column. You definitely won’t see a verse from Proverbs here, either. What I do hope you find, though, is the room to give yourself some grace when it comes to being a dad. None of us are perfect, but the importance of the roles we play in our children’s lives is immeasurable.

I’ve never had all the answers. Hell, I probably haven’t had half the answers, but I’ve tried my best to be present. And in my experience, that’s half the battle.

Enjoy your day, dads. Bask in the glory of your new set of golf clubs or your propane accessories. Most importantly, though, pat yourself on the back, stay involved, and keep showing up.

Gabe Hart is a local educator and has written opinion columns for various publications. Contact him at ghart14@gmail.com.