More than 24 million children live apart from their biological fathers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
That is one in three children in America.
I don’t know what it feels like to live without a father, but I know what it looks like.
I was helping in a first grade classroom when a 7-year-old boy dropped to the floor and started wailing.
This wasn’t a soft whimper; it was a chilling, piercing all-out wail.
I coaxed him off the floor, helped him to a chair at the back of the class and pulled up a chair beside him. He was inconsolable, his shoulders and chest heaving as he gasped for air.
Rubbing his back calmed him down a little and gradually the wailing began to subside.
“My dad left,” he said between small sobs. “And my mom said he’s not ever coming back.”
Then he sobbed some more, tears gushing. His eyes were red and swollen and snot was running down his face.
“My mom says I’m not ever going to see him again.” Then he broke down again.
We sat for a long while. I broke the silence and told him no one knows the future and that he might see his dad one day. He didn’t buy it. He glared at me, shook his head like I was the dumbest turnip to ever fall off the truck and sobbed some more.
When he quieted down, I tried shooting straight and said everybody goes through hard times, really, really hard times, and that I was sorry his hard time was now.
“Sometimes we have to give our mind a break from the hard times so we can function,” I said. “Even in hard times you can find something to be thankful for. Why don’t I say something I’m thankful for and then you can say something you’re thankful for.”
“I’m thankful for a house that protects me from the weather,” I said.
He wiped his nose on his arm. “I’m thankful for my dad — because he taught me everything I know.” Then he threw his head on the desk and started crying again. Now I was fighting back the tears, too. The little guy cried and sniffed, sobbed and heaved and wore himself out.
What was sitting next to me, leaning up against me, was a statistic with a face on it. When the numbers have faces, when you can see their broken hearts, salty tears and snot-smeared cheeks, they take on a different dimension. One in three on paper is cold. One in three sitting next to you radiates the heat of a white-hot hurt.
We’re numb to the statistics. We’re numb to the dismal outcomes that research predicts many of these kids will face. The bottom line is this: If you’re a father, be a father.
Being a father is not just a responsibility, it’s a privilege. You are the only dad your child has.
Lori Borgman is an Indianapolis columnist.