True meaning of being a father

Published 11:06 pm Saturday, June 20, 2009

BURLINGTON — He wasn’t sure what he was going to do. But James Linthicum knew exactly what he wasn’t. That was give up.

It will be 51 years ago this August when Linthicum’s life was turned upside down on a foggy humid August as Linthicum watched his first wife, the former Eva Jones, collapse in their home in the early morning hours. The young woman was quickly dying from a heart attack.

The couple had only been married for about eight years and already had a sizeable family: three boys and a girl — Janet, then 12, James Jr., 7, Charles, 6, and Marvin, 14 months. Their daughter was the child of his wife, but Linthicum thought of her as his own.

“I can’t stand that step stuff,” he said.

As he held his young wife in his arms, his own heart pounding, waiting for the ambulance squad to find their way to his house, he clearly heard her last words.

“Her last breath was ‘take care of the babies,’” Linthicum recalls.

Those words gave the young man his mission as he now was forced to redefine himself. Linthicum had just become a single father, which in 1958 was more than a challenge. It was almost an aberration in that post-World War II decade.

“There was a strain when it first happened, but then again you have to change your lifestyle in order to take care of your children,” Linthicum said. “That should be your first priority.”

That was when Linthicum got a crash course in the power of faith, family and friends.

He was working at the Allied Chemical plant in what is now The Point industrial park off County Road 1 when his wife died. There was no question that he had to keep working to support his family, but now he had a household to run as well.

He was able to turn to his mother, who was living in Columbus at the time. She immediately moved in with the family. And then there were his friends, whom he cherished at that time as much as he does today.

“I had a lot of friends, who were always helping me, coming and seeing about me,” Linthicum said. “I have always had friends. I was brought up to respect people by my mother and my father. I never forgot my teachings.”

It’s having support groups like these that makes the struggles of single fatherhood manageable, says area psychologist Dr. Andrea Evans.

Right now the U.S. Census reports there are 2.3 million single fathers in the country. That compares to less than half-million in 1970. Eleven percent of these men are bringing up three or more children under the age of 18 and 22 percent have an annual family income of $50,000 or more.

Yet in this post-feminist era there are still prejudices that single fathers must face.

“You have a lot of stigmas with single fatherhood,” she said. “There are assumptions that fathers aren’t as capable as mothers are. That fathers don’t understand their daughters. That fathers don’t have the ability to be compassionate and to nurture and to soothe the child the way a mother would, which is not biologically or psychologically true.”

Evans counsels that single fathers can also form support groups outside of their immediate sphere by reaching out to the parents of their children’s classmates.

“A father can express his interest in being with other parents of children the same age as his,” she said. “Nowhere does God say he can’t be a good single parent. Sometimes our culture says that is inappropriate but that is not true.”

Steven Feierstein is an Ashland, Ky.-based family and marriage therapist who has watched the family dynamic change over the past 36 years. He has found that those men who are what he calls “fully engaged” with their children from helping with homework to making sure teeth are brushed end up being the most successful single dads. That and knowing what and how much they can really do.

“The healthy folks are the ones who really put balance in their lives. They know how to set limits,” Feierstein said. “The men who pulled off being a single father were men who were able to juggle family life, their emotional side and balance the work side of themselves. I think that has been true throughout the ages.”

James Linthicum Jr. remembers his father as a man who refused to shirk his responsibilities.

“He was what you call a real man,” the younger Linthicum said. “He didn’t try to make excuses … do what you are supposed to do. He believed in teaching us to be respectful, to show good manners. One of the things he drilled into us was when you get up in the morning you wash your face, brush your teeth and comb your hair. I still remember that. I am 58 years old and that is still with me.

“I’m a supervisor at AEP and the principles I learned at home, I use that as a supervisor of other people and I find that works.”

As he looks back on his days as a single dad, the older Linthicum readily acknowledges how his own family and friends provided vital support. But his greatest resource, he says, is his faith in God.

“That is where all the strength comes from,” he said. “I am so glad God has strengthened me. I know who he is. I serve him to the best of my ability.”