My Real Dads

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Originally posted at The Good Men Project here.

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It seems that talk of fathers not being involved and why, and dads who define awesomeness are all over my corner of the internet today. It’s got me thinking about my father who was not involved and the men who filled the empty space.

When I was 9 or 10 I got my stepfather a plaque that said “Any man can be a father, it takes a special man to be a dad.” Nowadays, I know that is really insensitive to men who wish they could father a child but are unable to, at the time it seemed like grand wisdom to me.

My biological father knocked my mom up, apparently spermicide on its own is not an effective method of birth control. (Thanks mom for the TMI.) They got married because that’s what you did back then, but when I was about one years old, he left.

My first word was “Da!” and my mom cried thinking that I was missing my father. Obviously I don’t know what I was thinking at the moment of my first word but I doubt it had anything to do with him because I can’t imagine him measuring up to my paternal soul mate. Yes, I love my mom, yes I loved others but when it came down to it no one in my childhood was as important to me as my maternal grandfather. I called him My Papa.

My Papa was my idol. He was my super extra-special person in the universe. We didn’t live with him but somehow I remember more of my time with him than I do of anything else in those early years. He taught me that I deserved to be respected. He spoke to me about important things, he listened to what I had to say. He taught me that I was infinitely lovable. He was a solid rock I could count on. He taught me that men were good.

When I was 6 my mom remarried and not long after, we moved across the country from My Papa. He was still a huge part of my heart and I did get to see him once a year or so but he did not remain the center of my world. My stepdad and I got along well when I was little, though I don’t remember it as clearly as I remember my relationship with My Papa. Things got more difficult between us during my teen years and we struggled to live together somehow in some kind of harmony.

During that same time I had an amazing teacher, My Teacher. I had many teachers of course but he was special. He had faith in me. He held me accountable. He taught me how to listen, and how to talk. He appreciated who I was and the work I put into things. He taught me that the best way to feel better about your life is to help others. He also taught me that heroes are human too. He was a coach and I watched his amusing struggle to stop cursing around students. I saw him make mistakes and say he was sorry. He taught me that I was worthy of respect. He taught me that men were good.

Ironically, it was during my mom and step dad’s divorce when I was around 20 that I truly realized that I’d had a dad the whole time. There were a few years when I was disconnected from my family. I stopped having contact with them when I was 18, but somehow my step-dad found out that I’d been mugged. He called me and asked me if I needed anything. I had cut them off. I had been so sure in my teenage spaz that they did not really love me or even notice me. But here he was calling me to see if I needed anything. Of all the things I ever learned, how to ask for help is not one I’ve ever been good at. I made myself tell him that my glasses had been lost during the mugging and I that I had no way to replace them. He said he would buy me a new pair. Just like that. No guilt trip, no conditions, no hesitation.

In that moment something clicked for me. I was able to look back at my life and see all of the ways he had always been my Dad, even when we were not getting along. He taught me the value of hard work. He taught me what family means. What it really means. He gives the most unconditional love of anyone I’ve ever known. He doesn’t care what society says or what someone does, once he claims them as family that’s it. Forever. He won’t force it on you, but he’ll always welcome you back the moment you seek him out. He taught me that I was worth having as a daughter. He taught me that men are good.

I know that having a missing father can be a hard thing for many. For me, it was a huge blessing because of the amazing men who stepped up to fill the space. If my biological father had been in my life, I would have learned what children of alcoholics learn. Instead, I learned that men are good.

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As an adult, I know that not all men are good. But I think it makes a huge difference which default you see the world through. I see the world though the “Men are good.” default. I assume men who are not good are the exception, that something went wrong. I assume that it means we as a culture and society need to work harder to give boys the best possible chance to grow into good men. If I had not had these good men in my life I am sure that my default view of the world would be very different.

To all of the good men out there, I hope you are reaching out, touching lives. I promise it will make the world a better place for the people you’ve connected with. Maybe it will even be one of the drops in the bucket that makes the world better for everyone.

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Photo courtesy of author. That’s me and my Papa!

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The Art of Saying Nothing But I Love You

Originally posted at The Good Men Project here.

 

I was reading The 7 Hardest-to-Answer Questions My Kids Have Ever Asked… And 2 Surprisingly Easy Ones here on The Good Men Project last week. While I liked it, I had trouble concentrating on it because I kept flashing back to the hardest question anyone has ever asked me. I tried for a week to stop thinking about it because it’s still painful after 6 years. Finally I gave in and began searching for my old private blog to find what I’d written about it then.

This is what I found, edited a bit for clarity and a fair amount for punctuation. This happened almost exactly one year after my ex helped us move back to California and our divorce became final.

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It’s been a couple of months and the boys have been doing well for the most part. They still ask me when they can talk to him or why he doesn’t come to visit or call. They still try to include him in games we play and stories we tell, even though it’s just their idea of him. They still tell me how much they love him defiantly every so often…to see what I will say. I always say “of course!” because I don’t know what else to say and I don’t ever want them to think that isn’t OK to love him.

He’s been gone for almost a 1/4th of my 4 year old’s life now…and I think for him a lot of it is the idea of him. Not actual memories. I am sure there is a bond there but for him he doesn’t remember as much to miss. He doesn’t know this is not the normal way of dads in general or his dad in particular. It helps that he has always had that extra special bond with me. I know I read somewhere that it switches at different stages of development from one parent to the other so maybe is so strong because the other parent wasn’t around for his turn. But I tend to think we are special soul mates. Not that I love my 7 year old son any less at all. Only that my little one and I seem to understand each other in a way I don’t have with him.

I really feel that my older son lost the most in the break up of our family. I have heard him singing to himself, soulful rambling ballads of how much he misses his dad or how he “doesn’t have a dad…and that’s so sad.” Sometimes he acts out and I think he’s testing me or just freaking out in helplessness and fear and pain. Other times he is so full of life and joy he’s almost too bright to look at and I know exactly why I call him my little sunshine. But sometimes I catch him just looking sad. Or sometimes out of nowhere he will suddenly ask me things about where his dad is or why he can’t be there.

Tonight was one of those times. He was being rambunctious and silly. Then tormenting his brother and on and on, until suddenly he was quiet for a bit. Then he started talking to me on the monitor, asking me to call his dad and tell him to come to the play my son is going to be in on Monday. I said that I didn’t think he’d be able to make it on such short notice but that tomorrow he could call him and tell him all about it. He kept talking to me and I kept telling him he needed to go to sleep, that it was an hour and a half past his bedtime. Finally he said in this little voice “Mon (his special name for me), I want to talk to you.” Normally I say no after bedtime but something in his voice made me say yes and go up to sit with him.

I sit down and he says “Mon…tell me the story of you and Pie (his special name for his dad) breaking up.”

Crap, what do I say to that? And that was not the last really really hard question he asked. I can’t really tell you what I said. I think in the end I said a lot of “I don’t know” and “I love you.” Over and over in different ways, in different contexts and sentences. I tried to say as little as possible. No false hope, no condemnation of his dad, no adult details…pretty much nothing except I love you, I appreciate you, I want you with me, I would miss you if you were not here.

I’ve never worked so hard to say so little and so much before.

In the end I tucked him in and came downstairs and a few min later he says to me in this voice full of pain “Mon, I want to tell you I love you more than Pie” OMG I never knew hearing he loved me could hurt so much. So I tried to keep the tears out of my voice as I said “Sweetheart you have enough love inside of you to love me and Pie both more than the whole outer space” and he was quiet for a min…and then he sounded peaceful and a bit happy and he said “yeah…I just wanted to see what you’d say.” I reassured him that he could love us both totally and he got quiet.

I decided we needed to hold each other so I went up to his room again and we snuggled. He said to me, little man that he is, “It’s been a long time since we did this” I laughed and said “You’re getting to be such a big busy boy…but we should find more time to snuggle.” He said “yeah” and then held onto me like he hasn’t done in a very long time. When I finally tucked him in to go, he sat up and gave me a hug and an eskimo kiss. Then fell asleep almost right away.

I’m exhausted. He must be too.

I hurt for him. I can only cry and take deep breaths and remind myself that there is nothing more I can do tonight.

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