(Note: This was originally written when the Elian Gonzalez saga was ongoing and unresolved. It's been modified to past tense to make it easier to read)
I can remember crying at 8p.m. every night. That was the kid's bedtime. The nightly ritual was etched within our lives from years of repetition. First Pajamas, brushing teeth, reading a story, and then the 'tucking in' and a last couple minutes of chatter before the goodnight kiss and turning out the light.
This tradition, which I came to love as our family grew to four kids, was abruptly halted when divorce hit. I became a single father, a relative stranger to my four kids, relegated to seeing them one night a week and every other weekend. But in my new one bedroom apartment the 8p.m. bedtime ritual would not leave my mind, and tears would not leave my eyes.
Amazingly, the Elian Gonzalez travesty brought back these bedtime memories from over twelve years ago. As a single father, I can relate to the pain and fear that wells up when losing your child turns your life upside down.
Single Fathers were strangely absent from weighing in publicly with their thoughts on the plight of little Elian Gonzalez and his dad. We opened our papers or tuned to our broadcast news and both were filled with columnists and reporters that "covered" the story, but none of them could "relate" to the reality of what transpired like a single father. Even the few "fathering" organizations that made statements on the story cannot relate-as none existed (at that time) to represent the issues facing non-custodial single fathers and their kids.
But the absence of a single father's perspective shouldn't have surprised anyone. Elian's story revealed a truth about US society, an ugly truth. Much of society has written off single fathers as "deadbeats" and deserters, even though reality reveals the overwhelming majority of single fathers love, nurture and support their children. And so it goes, within this framework of society that we judge yet another single father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez. He was scrutinized and vilified to a microscopic level, partially for being Cuban, but primarily for being a single father-albeit a remarried single father.
One argument repeated countless times by the Miami relatives was "allow Elian to stay in the US because his mother died trying to gain his freedom." Added to that were comments that he began to view his cousin as his surrogate mom, and she shouldn't be taken from him like his real mom was taken. Had the parental roles been reversed, and Elian's father had died trying to escape to the US with Elian, I doubt the same cry would be heard. Instead, his father's death would have been accompanied by words like "irresponsible, kidnapping, and abusive." Little Elian would have been back in Cuba safely within his mother's arms a day or two after the event.
It's a shame that the bulk of our society has come to assume that only mothers nurture and only fathers desert their kids. There was a time not so long ago where fathers were seen as the rock solid source of stability within family units. But, a rising divorce rate, and a culture that conditions us to look for "winners" and "losers" in nearly every aspect of our lives has resulted in a single fathers importance being diminished.
Fathers don't cease to exist when divorce hits, nor should they be relegated to a second-class parent status as a result. Kids need both parents, and that has little to do with being married, divorced or even a never-married parent. And if one parent dies, few things should keep our kids from being with the other parent.
I'm certain I am not the only father who spent months getting teary-eyed nightly as I missed out on that family ritual that I had come to treasure. There are, in fact, millions of single fathers who have experienced the same feelings I have expressed here-and sadly, I'll bet Elian's dad was one. When our society begins to recognize the nurturing that single fathers provide their children, then decisions on future "Elian Events" will be a non-issue and child and dad will be re-united within hours when tragedy strikes. For the sake of our young children, especially our sons, I hope society returns soon to valuing fathers, including single fathers, so our sons won't endure the stigma the title now carries.