O'Reilly: Imperfect fathers have to be better than none at all
Being a father is a lot harder than I thought it would be.
Before I had children, I thought I was going to be really good at it; now I'm just trying to hang on by my fingernails until my three daughters -- 16, 15 and 6 -- are old enough to set out on their own.
I laugh now at the idealistic plans I once had -- weekly dinners featuring the food, culture and history of different parts of the world; Sunday sessions where my daughters would teach me what they learned in school during the week, to better internalize classroom lessons; nightly prayers sung, like my siblings and I sang when we were kids; and weekend candlelight dinners like my parents had with us. My daughters were also going to have the dictionary memorized by the age of 12, or at least half of it.
In eight years, it's gone from that to:
"One more word and I'm dragging you to your room, young lady";
"Would you please not eat with your hands every night?" and
"Please, I beg you -- I BEG ALL OF YOU! -- to STOP screaming!"
It's the noise that gets me the most. It's not something I was at all prepared for. But raising children, I've learned, is loud. Very loud. Where I imagined three girls with matching bows perfecting dinner etiquette, there are 12-hour-a-day sessions of "I'm-not-touching-you!" As in:
Older sister: "Touch me one more time and I'll slap you!"
Six-year-old response (with finger hovering behind a neck): "I'm not touching you!; I'm not touching you!"
What bothers me most, though, is not my children's minor shortcomings (which really aren't shortcomings at all), but my major ones. I didn't see them coming either, but they are undeniable.
For one thing, I shout now. I didn't do that before I had kids. I'm also irritable half the time, when I used to be accused of having a sunny disposition. I work out of my house a lot, and as appealing as that might sound, I can feel it taking a toll on my youngest daughter. She comes into my office begging for attention at night, and my eyes stay glued to the keyboard. Or it's, "Shh! Daddy's on a work call." I can feel it damaging her self confidence -- how can she even understand what a job is? -- but I have to get my work done. I didn't anticipate things like that when I was planning on being Father of the Decade.
Last week, I emailed my saintly wife from within our house during a particularly chaotic evening (she does all the heavy-lifting with the kids). All hell was breaking loose while I was trying to cobble together a half decent speech for a client. I wrote: "I can't take it any more. I really can't."
I got this perfect reply: "You don't have a choice."
And she was 100 percent correct, because there is no choice. Period. You just deal with it.
I've thought about her answer all week while reading pre-Father's Day stories about the decline of the paternal role in America and the toll it's taking on children in everything from academic success, to drug use, to suicide statistics. Yet the number of fathers abandoning mothers and children grows every year.
Fatherless homes now constitute the majority of households in African-American communities. Sixty-seven percent of black children in this country live in single-parent households, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. In Hispanic households, it's 42 percent; in non-Hispanic white families it's 25 percent. And in Asian or Pacific-Islander homes it's 17 percent, according to the Foundation. That doesn't mean fathers outside the home aren't playing an active role in the lives of their kids in every instance -- I know plenty of divorced fathers who are knee-deep in child-rearing -- but in far too many cases it does. It also doesn't mean there aren't terrific and loving single family households, because there are.
The pressures of parenthood must be much greater for fathers in less fortunate circumstances than mine, but I can't help thinking that it's peer comparison that causes so many fathers in minority communities to walk away from families. In the culture in which I was raised, abandoning one's children is not an option. But in others, it has become one, and an option, hammering away at the synapses day after day, can wreak havoc on one's ethical constitution.
What I most didn't realize before becoming a father, though, is how extraordinarily rewarding it is. Now that I know what fatherhood is, I could never go back to a life without children. Life simply wouldn't be worth living without my three girls.
They may all end up on psychiatric couches complaining about me one day, but at least it will be proof I was around, however imperfectly. Evidently, that's good for something.
William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.