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My son and I have this thing we do. I don’t see him much during the week, so on the weekends I take him out for breakfast, just him and me, usually at McDonald’s. When the weather’s good, we take an extended walk to get there and back, exploring every nook and cranny of the nearby neighborhoods. When the weather’s not so good, we go to Regency Square, an indoor mall that’s about a half-mile from the house.

John Tyler, my son, just loves the indoor mall. That’s probably because there’s not only a very nice toy store inside, but there’s an indoor playground, complete with coin-operated trains and cars he can ride. He’s especially fond of the race car, a big red monster that moves up and down in sync with the race track speeding before his eyes on the monitor.

Woe to the father who forgets to bring enough quarters and dollar bills for the rides. It’s not a pretty sight.

I like the mall, too, but for a different reason. The first time I took John Tyler for a walk inside, I was still fairly new in sobriety and our little weekend ritual was just forming. Knowing how miserably I’d failed my son in the past, I lacked confidence, and found myself constantly asking “What would a good father do?” After my devastating encounter with homelessness and alcoholism, fatherhood wasn’t coming naturally to me at all. That fact alone was starting to stress me out.

So there I was, pushing John Tyler along in his BabyJogger while mentally ticking off my many deficiencies as a dad, when I came across a charming sign. In bold, black, block letters it read

“Have you been a dad today?”

The picture beside it showed a father dozing on a couch, bare feet propped up on the armrest, with his lovely little daughter nestled on his chest. Daddy’s left hand, complete with gold wedding band, held the little darling close, and the girl’s left foot was draped casually off the side of his stomach.

To me, it was a picture of perfect paternal bliss. An ideal I wanted to achieve. But when I thought about the question asked by the sign –- “Have you been a dad today?” –- I realized for the first time that something very important was happening between me and my son. Because, you see, I had been a dad to John Tyler that day. In fact, I was being a dad to him right then and there. I was making the effort to spend time with him, to be with him, and to let him come to depend on me as a part of his life.

There was nothing I could do about all the days that had gone before, days when I hadn’t been a dad. Those were in the past, unchangeable, immutable.

But I could be a dad today. And that was enough.

So what was the deal with the sign, you’re wondering? Well, since you asked, it’s from a group called the National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI), at www.fatherhood.org. It’s a public service/resource organization whose mission is to “improve the well-being of children by increasing the proportion of children growing up with an involved, responsible and committed father.”

According to its website, NFI tries to raise public awareness of the effects and costs of father absence through public service announcements and media appearances. Working with local, state, and national organizations across the country, NFI community outreach programs also try to “go where the dads are” with skill-building resources to help them be the “best dads they can be.” Finally, NFI partners with educational institutions to conduct research on absentee fatherhood and its attendant costs.

It was founded in 1994, after a conference devoted to the growing problem of father absence in America arrived at the following conclusions:

  • Fathers make unique and irreplaceable contributions to the lives of their children.

  • Father absence produces negative outcomes for their children.
  • Societies which fail to reinforce a cultural idea of responsible fatherhood get increasing amounts of father absence.
  • Widespread fatherlessness is the most socially consequential problem of our time.
  • Now, that last item may be a bit melodramatic, but it’s not much of a stretch to say that there’s a fathering problem here in the United States, and that it’s a problem that perpetuates itself, with a generation of boys not knowing how to be a decent father because they’ve never seen a decent father. I don’t know how much NFI can actually do to solve this problem. It’s a big issue, one that’s not open to an easy solution.

    In fact, all I really know about NFI comes from that sign in Regency Square. But that sign worked a small miracle, opening my eyes and changing my thinking about my chances of being a good dad.

    Not bad for a sign.

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