A tribute to the dads without dads who raised us

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Several years ago, for a party my three siblings and I threw for my dad, we had a piñata made.

It wasn’t in the form of a superhero or a wrench or a car. Those “dad” symbols would have worked fine, but they could have appeared at a party for any father. We wanted something that told of our father.

Our piñata was in the shape of the Hamburger Helper mascot.

We had grown up frequently seeing that white-gloved, four-fingered figure on the boxes my dad pulled from the pantry. He and my mom divorced when I was 9 and that meant he had to figure out on his own how to feed us on the nights we stayed with him. During those years, we ate a lot of Hamburger Helper.

If you’ve never had that meal-in-a-box, think of it as a no-frills elopement between noodles and ground beef. The flavors carry names such as “Bacon Cheeseburger,” “Four Cheese Lasagna” and “Deluxe Beef Stroganoff,” and while the seasonings in those boxes vary, the effort that goes into turning them into dinner does not. It’s easy. It’s quick.

When my dad was making those meals, he couldn’t have imagined that years later, his children would look back so fondly on them that they would pay a person to make a giant, papier-mâché version of “Lefty.”

To be clear, that piñata was not an homage to flavor. It was a tribute to a dad who tried his best, always.

What, didn’t everyone’s dad light a fire near their face?

On Father’s Day, people will honor dads in all forms: Dads who worked hard. Dads who taught them crucial lessons. Dads who turned into wonderful grandpas.

My dad is all those things. He’s also a dad who didn’t have a dad in his life when he was growing up.

Many of the dads who will be given hand-drawn cards and hastily wrapped gifts on Sunday will fall into that category — fathers who were fatherless during their formative years. Those dads deserve to feel appreciated — not because they stayed (they should have) — but because they are giving their children what they didn’t have growing up. They are fathering, not by example, but despite the shoddy examples they were shown. My dad joined the army at 17 to help take care of his family.

There are complex, and sometimes simple, reasons fathers are absent from homes. But the numbers show it’s an issue that warrants public attention because it has left too many moms on their own, unsupported. One in four children live without a biological, step, or adoptive father in their homes, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

As a child, I didn’t understand the significance of not having a paternal grandfather in my life. But as a parent and a journalist who writes often about the toll of poverty on families, I see constantly how society tends to throw vitriol at families when fathers leave but offers little support or praise to the dads who break cycles of abandonment.

And those dads are all around us. They are slinging diaper bags over their shoulders. They are dropping off kids at birthday parties. They are clapping loudly at graduation ceremonies.

Many of them might be rocking fatherhood and know it. Others might be scrambling to afford rent, gas or groceries and doubting whether they are doing enough or providing enough or are enough.

For those dads, I offer encouragement in the form of that Hamburger Helper piñata. I tend to think about it when my own parenting insecurities start to creep in, and in a place like Washington, where ambitions are high, it’s easy for that to happen. Summer camps get booked even before it’s warm outside.

My siblings and I grew up in a working-class neighborhood filled with mostly Black and Mexican American residents. As children, we weren’t dining on pricey meats or organic vegetables. When we ate lettuce it was usually iceberg, and we had no idea that apples came in different types. But on those nights my dad cooked, we were fed and cared for and made to feel safe — and that’s what we remembered.

I was a kid when a classmate was shot and killed. That trauma lasts.

When people learn about my background and find out that my siblings and I have all found success in our chosen fields, they often ask about my parents. What did they do right? I’ve been asked many times.

The honest answer is they let us know that we didn’t have to do everything right. They gave us the freedom to fail, by letting us know they would be there for us no matter what.

The best parenting lesson my dad gave me wasn’t anything he said. It was showing me the power of being present in a child’s life and letting them know they are your priority.

He also taught my siblings and me to laugh at ourselves. And we do, often.

After all, you can’t really take yourself seriously when you’re swinging a stick at a giant hand with a face on it.

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