The United States Census Bureau reports that more than one out of every four children in the United States lives without a father—biological, adoptive, or step—in their home. Children without fathers are at a substantially higher risk for poverty, are more likely to have a child of their own while they are teenagers, and are more likely to be obese, go to prison, have behavioral problems, and drop out of school. A missing father has a profound impact on a child’s life with significant ripple effects.
I was six, and I was shattered. My dad had asked my older brother to take me for a drive. When we passed my dad on the main road outside of my house, I turned to my brother, “Where is Dad going?” “He’ll be back,” my brother assured me.
It’s hard to articulate exactly what happens to a child when his dad leaves. It isn’t good, that’s for sure. Losing a person whom God intended to teach you how the world sees you and how you should see the world is a particular kind of trauma that impacts all of life. It creates a before and after. A then and now. Some three decades later, when my wife and I reminisce about our childhood, my sentences often begin with, “When my dad was home,” or, “After my dad left.”
Soon after my dad left, as my mom grappled with the reality of her own loss, my grandmother came to my rescue. I didn’t realize what was going on at the time, but she was rising up to take the place that my father should have been filling. She was becoming my protector, the person who would “keep the wolves away,” to borrow a line from Uncle Lucius.
As my mom tried to find her way forward in the coming months and years, I would spend more and more time with Mimi. Weekends and afternoons, summer and Christmas vacations, early mornings before the bus picked me up. Mimi didn’t have to take me on; she’d already raised her own three kids. She took me to church, to her sister’s house in another state, to the library, to the park, to garage sales and flea markets. Mimi taught me to cook, to put together puzzles, to make my bed, and to clean up after myself. She taught me to till the ground, to visit our neighbors, and to take time for what seemed like every single person she saw.
I didn’t realize all those years ago the enormity of what my grandmother did for me. As I watch my own children grow up, and as my family and I minister in a neighborhood with a conspicuous lack of fathers, I’m coming to understand more fully all that my grandmother did for me. Mimi didn’t replace my dad—there isn’t a replacement for a missing father—but I don’t want to imagine what life may have been without her. I’m convinced now that there is a place for Christian men and women to do exactly what my grandmother did—to step into a child’s life and help them navigate this dark world; to point them toward the Father who will never leave or forsake them.
That will mean different things in different contexts, but here are some ideas to get you started. Invite a child to join your family for dinner, or ask them to have an afternoon snack with your children. Bring them to church with you. Throw around a baseball outside—some of my best memories are with neighborhood dads tossing a baseball with me. Going to the zoo? Bring along another child. Trimming the Christmas tree? Invite someone over. Basically, do what my grandmother did—invite a child into your life. Do normal things, but do them with an extra person around. And as you have the opportunity, talk with them about the good news of the Savior.
I won’t lie to you—loving a child who is not an immediate member of your family can take a toll. I could tell you of the tantrums I threw, the things I broke, the screaming, the lying, and the anger I hurled at my grandmother. And that was on my good days. I didn’t become a Christian until long after my grandmother died, and I struggled through years of alcohol and drug abuse even after that. She never saw the fruit of her hard work. And even though my story does have a happy ending, not all of them do. At any rate, we’re not in it for the happy endings—we’re in it to help keep the wolves away.