Thursday, October 01, 2009

My piece in Rad Dad 15


“Mama, I really miss my dad.” These words, followed by an eight-year-old sized sigh and spoken ever-so-sweetly at bedtime, caught me off-guard.
“Do you want to talk about it?” I asked, hoping- rather selfishly- that she didn’t actually want to talk about it on this particular night, with my then-boyfriend waiting not-so-patiently for me in the next room.
“No. I just really miss him. I just really wish I had a dad. Good night.”
Conversations like this are a new, heart-wrenching phenomenon in my home, and have recently been popping up after a day of my daughters spending time with the other children-and their dads- in my community. My ex-partner- the father of my 8yo and step-father of my 13yo- had been mostly absent- and inconsistent at best- from my daughters’ lives for the first five years after we separated. He made his big come-back, starting with child-support payments and attempts at mending his relationships with them throughout year six which also included his first visit in years. He had even planned a second trip to visit, this time to take the girls camping and to spend some time with old friends. Instead, he fell apart emotionally and killed himself the week the kids expected to see him. His sudden, violent and shocking death brought a whole new level of parental worry, anxiety and fierce mama-bear protective instincts directly to my core- along with a whole new longing for male connection into the life of my lovely little girls.
It also brought an official end to over a decade of the confusion and pain that comes along with knowing and loving someone with mental illness and drug addiction. But, though it is painful and even shameful to admit, there is a dark corner of my heart that feels a sense of relief that he is gone. Now my daughters will no longer get their hopes up and be let down. Now my daughters know why he doesn’t call or come to visit. Now I know I am really in this alone.
My small family has its own unique dynamics. I have no close family nearby, my teenager spends the weekends with her bio dad while my 8yo remains with me. We live alone, and my relationships are few and far between. We live in an amazing neighborhood full of great people who all have children- and who all also have fathers living in their homes. My little one likes to imagine herself living with one of the more “normal” families we know and completely romanticizes the idea of having a dad to take her fishing, to fix her bike and to do other ‘gender-specific’ activities with her. This has been a challenge for me. As much as I believe in confronting patriarchy and raising strong, independent women, I also understand the value of having positive male role-models to balance things out. She has no shortage of male adults in her life but as many of them settle down and start having families of their own, she often asks if they will still have time for their relationships with her.
Naturally, I try to provide consistence in her life. After all, statistics clearly show that fatherless children are more likely to abuse drugs, be sexually promiscuous, and drop out of school. It is challenging enough to feed the kids, pay the bills, help with homework and play referee, without obsessing over recent studies that seem to be designed for the sole purpose of blaming single moms- and their children- for more of America’s problems. I am raising women in a male-dominated culture- young women who’s most present male influence was inconsistent, mentally ill and shot himself instead of taking them camping. Throw that in with the complexities of a social life or even a love life and you can see where things become a tricky balancing act.
Over a decade of solo-parenting (and occasionally trying to date) has reinforced my belief that although it is my full responsibility to provide my children with stability, the men that make conscious efforts to build relationships with fatherless kids have a responsibility to them as well. Too often, I have had the experience of dating men who are na├»vely excited about dating a woman with children only to end up feeling threatened or insecure about the fact that I will not introduce them until the relationship is “established.” My kids, therefore, rarely meet the men that I date. It can be difficult to understand that raising children isn’t always a day at the beach and I often question the motives of men who want a casual relationship and yet want to meet my daughters. Men have expressed to me that they need to know that they’ll “like” my kids before they can get serious with me, which for me is a no brainer- my kids are great! Of course they’d love them! I am personally more concerned about their communication skills and emotional availability first. Complex and even painful situations can arise in any family and it takes twice as much compassion, fierce love and hard work to move through these times with grace and confidence if you are a single mother. For a man to pick this as a time to back away and take space for himself is not always appropriate, but, for me, has unfortunately been the status quo. This only reinforces the stereotypical beliefs that fatherless children have about men, which is not good for anyone. At the same time, however, the very few men that do make it through my so-called “trial period” don’t always understand the parenting/dating dynamics that can be so complex for single moms to navigate through. Again, we have twice as much work to do, with no partner available for support or companionship at the end of the long, often challenging days we work our ways through.
So what can you do if you find yourself interested in pursuing something with that great single mom you met at the Healthcare Rally? You can talk to her, follow her lead and communicate honestly and openly about your fears, reservations and concerns. Pace yourself and don’t dive in head first, panic and back out when things get tough a few months down the road. Ask her what is appropriate for her and her children instead of making assumptions about boundary-setting, interacting with the kiddos or household rules.
In a perfect world, I would not have had the journey of guiding my kids through the abandonment, heartbreak and the grief that they have been faced with. I would have made better choices about who would be a part of our lives and would be walking through life with emotional and financial ease myself. But, as we all know, we don’t live in a perfect world and the most that any of us can hope for is to provide consistency, unconditional love, strong values and laughter for our children and to maybe even have some left over for ourselves at the end of the day.