This Father’s Day, I’m reminded of the many sacrifices my dad made to give me the chance at a life better than his. I’m also reminded of the smaller moments he and I shared as a father and son.
I’ll never forget when I was a boy and the doctor told me I had to wear leg braces to correct knee problems. I often refused to put them on. But every day when I refused, the phone would ring and – to my great surprise – on the other end would be Don Shula, head coach of the Miami Dolphins. “If you want to play for me one day,” he’d say, “you’d better put on those braces.”
It didn’t occur to me until years later that, unlike Coach Shula, the man on the phone had a Cuban accent and sounded suspiciously like my dad.
Funny as that is, it also touches me. It reminds me that my father was more than merely present in my life, he was active, caring and encouraged me to dream. He truly believed that, with love and support, his children would achieve the things he never could.
Now that I’m a father, I think back on his example and strive to live up to it.
Like most parents in America today, I struggle against the tide of obligations – the competing schedules and collisions of responsibilities – that constantly pushes me away from family life. Yet no matter how late at night or early in the morning my flights between Florida and Washington have to be, I make it a priority to be a regular and present force in my kids’ lives.
I do this not only because I enjoy the time I spend with them, but because every indicator available today shows that the presence of a father is vital to a child’s well-being and future success.
Studies show that an active father increases the likelihood of a child developing lifelong positive emotional habits, connecting constructively with peers, maintaining good physical health, and avoiding drugs, violence, and delinquent behavior. Their likelihood of graduating from college increases by 98 percent.
And the list of positive effects goes on and on, touching nearly every aspect of a child’s life. Yet despite all of this, fatherhood is on the decline in America today. 50 years ago, the percentage of children born to unwed mothers was 7 percent. Today it is 40 percent. One in three children now lives apart from their father.
The result is that millions of heroic single mothers are left to face the struggles of parenthood alone. They would stop at nothing to give their children the opportunities to achieve a better life. But the reality is that these children will face enormous challenges.
To confront this, we must empower these single mothers to improve their circumstances, and we must enable their children to earn an education and overcome the difficulties they face. But just as importantly, we must empower fathers to mend the fissures of modern family life.
First and foremost, we need leaders to acknowledge the impact the breakdown of families has on our children and society.
Second, we need policies that encourage marriage. Our tax code roundly penalizes marriage by hitting married couples with taxes that two otherwise identical singles would be spared from. We need to end this with pro-family tax reforms.
Beyond marriage, we need policies that empower fathers to provide for their children. The reforms that I proposed in January to our federal anti-poverty programs would provide a wage enhancement credit to incentivize work and make these fathers more capable of providing.
In the long term, my anti-poverty reforms, as well as others I’ve proposed this year – such as expanding access to higher education and promoting economic growth – would provide opportunities for fathers to rise from their circumstances, earn a practical education and secure a higher paying job.
But the ultimate duty of encouraging strong families lies with society. We need institutions of faith and community to instill in young people the value of fatherhood and the importance of waiting until marriage to have children, since studies affirm that doing so leads to greater stability for parents and children alike. We also need these institutions to support and encourage new parents who may be struggling.
Ensuring the strength of families and the presence of active fathers is one of the greatest challenges before us as a nation. It’s difficult to have a strong country without strong people, and it’s difficult to have strong people without strong families.
My father knew the importance of strong families because he knew how painful the alternative could be. Growing up in Cuba, he struggled due to his lack of a consistently present father. When he was nine, his mother died and he was left with hardly anyone to care for him. He had to quit school to go to work.
My father passed away during my campaign for the Senate in 2010, but he passed with the knowledge that his life’s struggles had paid off. That even though he worked a humble job as a bartender, he had provided for his children in ways no one had for him, and had lived to see the achievements that resulted from his sacrifices.
So on this Father’s Day, my hope is that all fathers find the same purpose and meaning that my dad found through parenting. I hope they treasure the time spent with their children, and that they succeed in building those children into men and women of strength and character.
Happy Father’s Day.