Wednesday, February 03, 2010
My friend C is going through a difficult time in her marriage. It's become so bad that she is seriously thinking about leaving her husband. Almost daily, she tells me all of the gory details and all of the research she's done into divorce laws -- including the amount she would expect in child support, most common custody arrangements, where she would live and work... She's got it all planned out. But in the next breath, she says that she doesn't want to leave, that she doesn't want to take her children from their father.
After one of those talks, I was so frustrated with her. What was keeping her? Why was she holding on? Mr. W and I were talking about it and neither of us could come up with a logical reason.
Why, I asked him, would she possibly stay? Why, when a child doesn't even need a father...
I can't even begin to describe the look in my husband's eyes. I knew it was a mistake the minute that I said it, but how could I even begin to dig myself out of that one? How could I have said that and so firmly believed the words as they came out of my mouth? And how, exactly, could I change a belief I have held for 30 years?
I mumbled a weak, pathetic little "Oh, but not you, of course our son needs you" and changed the subject as quickly as I could. I think I actually asked him if he wanted soy sauce. Nice save, no?
Since then, I've spent a lot of time trying to figure this one out. I truthfully always have thought of fathers as unnecessary, an extra, while a mother is essential.
In large part this is because of how I grew up. My own father walked out before I was 3 years old. He was always a non-entity in my life. Sometimes he paid support, most times he didn't. He didn't show up for birthday parties, dance recitals, plays, choir concerts, honor society inductions, surgeries. At some point I just quit inviting him, though his cousin had a son in my class who sometimes mentioned things to his mom and, on occasion my dad would show up. But it was never necessary. He was never the one that I felt had to be there for me. My mom was the one who was always there. In my life, with the father that I had, he was not essential.
I had fabulous men in my life -- my stepdad came into our family when I was 5 years old. At the time he was gone during the week and only home on weekends, something that didn't change until I was in high school. So despite the love that I have for him and all that he has done and been for me? I still basically had the same experience as if I was raised in a single parent household.
I had my grandfather, a man who has proven to be more incredible as the years have progressed than I ever imagined he was. I spent 3 months of every year in their home. I went on trips with my grandparents, he helped teach me to drive (on mountain roads in New Mexico, in a freakin' suburban -- that right there? That's a brave man!). But he owned a restaurant, worked non-stop and most days in their house he was gone for the biggest part of the day. My grandma filled the same role that my mother did - a strong woman, home taking care of everything.
Somewhere along the way, I managed to define the words "father" and "dad" in a different way than most. Those roles were strictly about biology. Dads leave. They aren't needed. We do just fine without those. I remember having hand surgery in 6th grade. I woke up and the nurse asked me if I wanted my mom and dad to come back to the recovery room. I very angrily said, "What is THAT MAN doing here? WHEN did he get here? NO! NO I DO NOT WANT HIM! Just please bring me my mom!!!"
But I always knew that my stepdad loves me. That he's been an incredible father. When Mr. W and I got married, I walked down the aisle between my grandfather and my stepdad (while my father sat in the back of the church). The father-daughter dance at my reception was with my stepdad, followed by a dance with my grandpa. And when we found out that the lowercase was going to be a boy, we gave him my stepdad's name (I wanted my grandpa's name in there too, but, sadly, that is a name that Mr. W just doesn't care for).
Since the first pregnancy, the miscarriages, the birth of the lowercase, I've seen that Mr. W is not the kind of father that I had (nor the kind that he had, for that matter). He's loving, caring, involved. He changed diapers; he comforts our son when he's hurt or scared; he cuddles... He does everything that I do, often in a different way than I would do it, but sometimes even better than I could ever hope to. He is absolutely needed in our son's life -- and yet it never occurred to me how much this conflicted with my knee-jerk response that a father isn't necessary.
I still can't say that there was anything missing in my life by not having my father as a real presence in my life. If anything, my life was much better for his absence. It may have taken me the entire 30 years since my dad walked out of our lives to realize it, but maybe it isn't the role of a father that wasn't needed in my life. Maybe what wasn't needed was the man who biologically filled that role. My stepdad was and is my father. My grandpa took on a larger role than most grandfathers ever do with each of his 4 grandchildren -- keeping us for months of each year, teaching us to drive, he raised my 2 cousins for several years each. So maybe my biological father wasn't necessary. But I had two men who filled that void who are still very much needed in my life.
It's hard for me to separate the words father and dad from the man who gave me half my genes, but I think that I need to. I know now how much those words have hurt Mr. W and I'm certain that I've said those same things in front of both my stepdad and my grandpa. Now to figure out how to do it.
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