On Fatherhood

In four generations, there’s never been a Hughes man in America that grew to adulthood with his father in his home.

From the time the first one of us set foot here in search of a better life in the steel furnaces of East Pittsburgh, there’s been one painful consistency—men who didn’t keep their promises.

Thomas was the first Hughes to come to America. He was on his way up. A generation removed from the starvation of the potato famine, he worked his way out of the steel mills and into management. On a brisk November morning along the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks, he was struck and killed by a train. Fate changed the arc of the Hughes clan. He left a wife and five kids behind. She went to work as a store clerk.

The die seemed cast from there.

His son, my great-grandfather, was a brutal, abusive drinker whose wife and eight kids ran from him. His son, my grandfather, left my grandmother to raise four kids at a time when single moms weren’t really a thing. My dad, the first college graduate in his family, left my mother when I was three.

Thirty years later it was my turn.


The closest to the edge for me was standing on the tarmac next to a C-17 about to take off for the Al Anbar province of Iraq. I had tried to get out of the military and settle down with my family after two previous deployments. But I was crumbling.

I was a Hughes after all.

Suffocating in the monotony of family life, riddled with the anxiety of stillness, I was on my way to poisoning myself with the lie that something was wrong. That it wasn’t my fault. It was the war. It was the economy that crushed my job and didn’t let me leave the military. It was my mother dying of ALS. It was the pressure of putting myself through business school at night because it was the only hope I ever had of leaving the Navy.

It was everything, except me.

I was running like a hundred years of Hughes men before me. Like so many men of my generation though, I could hide it. I could run to the safety of an endless war, and still play the hero.

And then something happened.

A few weeks after that C-17 left my wife with three boys, 3, 2 and 4 months, my son was diagnosed with autism. The diagnosis and long-term care requirements made me non-deployable. My navy career was over. I couldn’t run off to the comforts of war to hide any more. For the first time, I felt the permanent responsibility of fatherhood. And the need to deal with the crippling, hereditary anxiety that the men of my family hid from in the bottom of a bottle.

I couldn’t leave. I had no choice. There is, after all, a special place in hell for men who abandon their special needs children.The irony, not lost on me now, is the same used to be said of men who abandon their families at all; for good reason.

Today, we’re quite accepting of those of us who simply can’t stay any more. Perhaps we shouldn’t be. And though this may sound like a trip back in time to a type of moralizing that made women dependent on men, the reality is, when it comes to families, we’re all dependent on each other. Too often though, we men get to quit on it.

Nothing drives gaps in outcomes between men and women like fathers who don’t stay.

There’s a bitter unfairness that falls on the women and children of men who can’t meet their commitments. One of my earliest memories was of my mother kneeling by the couch in our living room sobbing with her head on the lap of my father’s mother. We needed money. And she had nowhere to ask. They were two women at the tail end of a hundred years of fall-out from Hughes men, bound together by a conversation passed down for generations. It was a conversation the men of my family never had, all off to other families, a growing career, the privilege of mobility still in tact.

For the women they left behind, it was a different story. And they weren’t alone.

Six out of every seven single-parent households are headed by women. Those households are twice as likely to live in poverty than others. They are twice as likely to receive government assistance. The children of single parents fall behind cognitively, have worse educational outcomes, higher instances of arrest, lower incomes and higher rates of children of their own out of wedlock.

It’s not socio-economic self-selection either. Children in higher income single parent households fall further behind higher income two parent households than their counter parts on the lower end of the income spectrum. And when another man replaces the father, they don’t catch up.

The growing trend of having children and cohabitating without marriage doesn’t solve any of it. Though it may signal empowerment to not “need” another the way marriage implies we do, two thirds of parents that live together but aren’t married at the birth of their first child, will not be together by that child’s 12th birthday. When married, that number falls to less than a quarter. That burden too, falls disproportionately on the women. It’s not moralizing. It’s just math.

While leaving and “staying involved” may sound like a good compromise, the data do not support the tidy narrative. Child support, coaching little league or never missing a high school football game won’t solve for the resource gap grinding through the responsibilities of growing a child from scratch into a functioning adult with just one parent in the home causes. So what ends up solving the gap is the mother’s earning potential, social life and general well being.

A single mother knows this as an unfair reality of life. A father who leaves knows it as a guilt that slowly fades with time, the achievement of adulthood of their children or the arrival of a second chance to do it right.

When it comes to being a father, the unforgiving reality is that if you’re the type of man that makes staying better, than nothing matters quite like staying. Because there are some wounds that time alone won’t heal. And in a society that tells us too often to follow our heart, or do what makes us happy, being a father means a hell of a lot more.

Sometimes things don’t work out, despite all best efforts. And to be crystal clear, staying when staying means abuse, isn’t what I’m talking about. Sometimes, we men, just quit. We all know the score when it happens. And it’s a hell of a terrible thing to do.

It’s Father’s Day. The day when we honor fathers. Somewhere though, there’s a single mom propping up one of us who probably doesn’t deserve it because she knows how important it is for her boy not to think poorly of his father.

One more sacrifice for the greater good of us all.

Today is her day too.


Categories: Culture

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7 replies »

  1. Thank you for this post. It does seem today as though parenting is expected of mothers and celebrated for fathers, although I think a new generation may be sharing the load better than in years past.
    I wondered if you were familiar with the ACE study. Adverse Childhood Experiences can affect health, relationships, and brain chemistry. Cortisol levels in utero can affect the brain chemistry of children, so that generations can be affected even if children’s experiences are not the same as their parents. Everyone can make choices, but without protective factors, if you have four or more ACEs you are likely to have trouble in school, divorce, depression, heart attacks and more. Here’s one overview:


  2. Another out of the park essay. My dad ran, and even 40 years later, when I tried to just talk to him, I came with an open heart, he rejected me again. He is dead now. Today is hard.


  3. I shared this poat on Facebook with the following comment:
    Very interesting reflection … To me, it is the type of honest assessment that will bring us to the 21st Century. This is one man’s take. We need others. I so would like to hear from men not shackled by the mythology of public discourse. There are no fathers without mothers and vice versa. Perhaps we need to work on things like equal pay for equal work, full employment, and what it means to partner with another person — especially in the raising of children.

    An afterthought: in same sex households, are the children less affected by a breakup? I don’t think so. For children, their parents are the significant others in their lives; the ones they can’t do without.


  4. PS I managed to be ok with all the FB posts and all today, but your essay broke me. It was that powerful. I am sad to be feeling bad, and I don’t want you to feel bad, I am telling you, so you know how strong your work is emotionally.