I will celebrate this Father’s Day by cashing in what’s left of my retirement account so that I can -- once again -- go to court to request more time with my kids. My almost 10-year status as a non-custodial parent has helped me become accustomed to the almost insurmountable odds and legal fees that many parents like me face as they try hard to maintain a loving relationship with their children.
Every morning when I read the paper, I find myself envying parents whose lives are so intertwined with their children that they have the luxury of feeling daily concerns about school funding, drugs, gun control and a healthy environment. It was painful, but I’ve long given up on the idea that through my wholehearted -- though infrequent -- parenting, my daughter will be a concert violinist at age 12, or that we’ll ever be like other outdoorsy families tromping off routinely with our back-packs or cross-country skis.
When I do get to see my children, I’ve tried to redeem my absent parental status through barrages of hiking, camping and backpacking. During the first Father’s Day after my divorce, I will never forget how many Father’s Day wishes I received while hiking in the steep forests of Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge. I guess I stood out: I was carrying a 1-year-old son on my back and 3-year-old daughter in my arms.
Then there was the time in late June 2006 when I decided we’d take a backpacking trip in the Eagle Cap Wilderness outside of Halfway, Ore. My 9-year-old son wanted so much to go that we overcame two flat tires, ferocious swarms of mosquitoes and three-foot drifts, only to be turned back by voluminous snow at the trailhead. Still, it was exhilarating, and that night, exhausted, we camped out on Forest Service land near a creek and relived the day’s adventures.
That was the pattern – what my ex-wife called “the sensory over-stimulation tour” -- always outdoors and intense and fun. Then, my new wife and I moved to Utah, and the time between visits to the children in Oregon began to stretch out uncomfortably. We made the trip to the Northwest this Memorial Day, though, and even while it rained, which you can always count on in Oregon, I was still treated every night to my daughter’s life-giving hugs and picked up where my son and I had left off reading to each other every night. The trip reminded me of past backpacking trips where my daughter showed a naturalist’s bent, and her brother exhibited a reckless derring-do on the trail.
Father’s Day was the brainchild of Sonora Smart Dodd, a woman who wanted to honor her father, a widower who raised his children alone while tending a farm. Since that first Father’s Day observance began in Spokane, Wash., in 1910, marriages in America have been rocked by divorce, with almost 50 percent of all marriages failing, and spouses choosing to break up their families. From my point of view, it’s sad times when a biological father can be limited by court decree to seeing his children only on weekends or occasional holidays.
Our legal “get-out-and-leave-your-wallet-at the door” approach to divorced fathers can be punitive, but there’s one thing it can’t destroy or diminish, at least in my case, and that’s persistence. The struggle to stay connected may even make for better fathers; I certainly hope so. Perhaps the attempts to do things together -- to make memories from hikes and friends and even vacations that go awry -- send a message that we do this out of love.
When my children are old enough to understand, I hope I can look them in the eye and tell them that, like Dodd, I never gave up.
Harold Shepherd is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He works for several conservation organizations from his home in Moab, Utah.