06/15/2012 05:48 pm ET Updated Aug 15, 2012

A Father's Day May Be About Mom as Well

Many things can keep men who have children from being fathers.

Engaged fathers, that is.

Maybe they're divorced and their ex-wives have full custody and live thousands of miles away. Maybe they had a child with a girlfriend, the relationship fell apart and they split. Maybe they're in prison. Maybe they don't make much money and are ashamed of that. Maybe the mothers of their children dislike them and do all they can to keep Dad away. (More later on a mom who, though tempted, didn't do that.)

For whatever reason, the traditional "provide and reside" model of fatherhood doesn't work for these men, and as a result they fear they've failed their children. According to a new book, Nurturing Dads, this feeling of failure helps explain why many fathers are not meaningfully engaged with their sons and daughters.

Authors William Marsiglio and Kevin Roy suggest that we should start paying more attention to the ways fathers can nurture their children no matter what their living situation is. It's a compelling, if not new, argument, especially when the majority of women in their 20s now have babies outside of marriage, which means lots of men in their 20s and early 30s are fathers not living with their children.

"More and more men can do more and want to do more in their kids' lives. And more and more are feeling disengaged," Roy said in an interview with Julie Drizen, director of the Journalism Center on Children and Families at the University of Maryland.

It's especially difficult for young unmarried couples who break up, he says. Both dad and mom are captivated by this new human being and want to take part in the childraising. Yet for various reasons, "it's kind of easier to shut (the young father) out and have the mom and her family deal with it."

That last comment reminded me of a woman I know who, though she had reason to, did not shut out the father of her twin daughters, then 8, when he and she split up eight years ago.

The woman I'll call Michelle and her husband filed together for divorce. As the court proceedings began, she assumed she would get full custody and her daughters would visit their dad on weekend. "It's not because I was angry at him. I just believed kids were supposed to live with their mother and visit their father," she told me.

He, however, insisted on joint custody. Michelle's lawyer told her that if she opposed him in court, she would lose unless she could prove he neglected or abused the girls. He was not guilty of either, so Michelle acquiesced. She would have liked to move away with her daughters, but chose to stay in the town in which they all lived so that the girls could continue in school and split their time between parents.

Michelle became a massage therapist so that she could schedule her work around her daughters' lives. Her ex paid child support and a small amount of alimony. The girls lived with her Sunday through Tuesday, and with their dad Wednesday through Friday. They rotated Saturdays.

Michelle and her ex argued -- and still argue -- regularly. Their latest disagreement was over whether their daughters should take Advanced Placement calculus next year or Advanced Placement statistics. She said statistics would be more useful, he argued for calculus. She acquiesced.

Lots of things about her ex still bother Michelle. She has noticed that he withholds affection from the girls if they resist doing something he has asked them to do. She wishes that recently, when she gave him her ticket to one daughter's honors banquet, he had thanked her.

He didn't. But her daughter "knew her dad got to see her shine." That was the most important thing.

"So here's this man," she said. "I don't like or respect him, but he has the right and responsibility to be involved in our daughters' lives. And they, by living with him, know both his bad and good sides."

That, she hopes, will prepare them at least somewhat when it comes to choosing their own partners.

Sometimes, I think, we pay too much attention to the structure of what used to be the traditional family unit and not enough to the relationship that can grow between father and child no matter what the living arrangement is. If, that is, Dad makes the child his priority and Mom supports that.

So. Happy Father's Day to single and divorced fathers who stick with their kids -- and to the mothers who encourage them.