I don’t know how most men start out their story of fatherhood. I know that mine was not typical in the traditional sense and yet, I know that it was not that different from many. I wish that I could say that I was super excited in the way that you see in movies when a married couple hears that they are expecting, but the truth was that I was terrified.
I could have told you then that the relationship with my son’s mother was doomed. We weren’t right for each other. I wish my friends or somebody would have told me. Maybe somebody did and I didn’t listen. The point is we were in no position to start raising a child together as a couple. And so now, we are raising a child apart.
I don’t think most people envision parenting this way. I envisioned having Thanksgivings and Christmases with my children all of the time. I didn’t know that the option would only be some of the time. Not even half of the time. I was unfamiliar with how the state viewed fathers. A graduate student, and a never been in trouble before kind of guy, I didn’t know that I would have to prove that I was a good man to be a father. I just naively thought that our world treated people equally. This was America after all.
I knew when I held my son that he was mine. I knew that I wanted to be invested. I was scared and didn’t know the first thing about babies. I can say in the years that have passed that I have always tried. And, if I think that there is a secret ingredient to parenting then I would say that making a sincere effort is it.
Almost eight years since the birth of my first, I am now the proud father of five children. My wife and I both brought a couple of kids to our relationship. I had two and she had two and we have one together. We’re definitely a sight when you see us. Yet, if I had it all over to do again, I wouldn’t change a single thing. My road to fatherhood with two children from previous relationships was not a typical one but our kids are happy and well cared for. They’ve got bonus “moms” and “dads.” They’ve got a lot of extra grandparents and cousins.
If someone were to ask, has it been difficult for you or them? I would say, “yes.” It would not be the reason that most people would think though. The challenge has not been in “bouncing” from home to home. Children are like adults, they adapt just fine to different environments and caregivers (after a few years, not newborns). You ever see a child who couldn’t tell the difference between rules at school and rules at home? Nope. Me neither. The challenge has been with exes.
My situation with my son’s mother has been the most difficult. I had a long term relationship with her. It is because of the emotional fallout of that relationship that I believe things have been so difficult. My daughter was the product of my short stint in the theater and her mother and I get along better because we were never really emotionally involved. As the stepfather to two wonderful young girls, I also have a perspective from my wife of five years and how she has parented with her ex. It is because of these situations that I might be uniquely qualified to speak on the subject of parenting apart.
I want to be clear. I don’t think my children’s mothers are bad people. My speaking negatively about them would only reflect negatively on me and could potentially harm my children. I don’t believe that our differences in parenting or our genders create a hierarchy of who is better parent. My exes are just products of a system which automatically assumes that “mother knows best:” an idea not supported by any social research. Indeed, mother and father know best; both parents have something to give to their children.
Mothers do have a way about them. I appreciate my wife every time our youngest runs up to her with any sort of scrape or scratch. I think that there is something magical about the way that a woman loves their children. For my children’s sake, I would never take any of that away from them.
I just don’t understand why the role of dad is dismissed so easily. I think that our culture sometimes dismisses fathers simply because they care for their children differently. I’m not the one that my kids typically come to for a scraped knee (although, if I am the only one present, I am the mom). I am the one that shows my daughters how a man should treat his wife. I am the one that shows my son how to pick himself up. I am the one that shows my children how to laugh at themselves and how to also work hard. I know that a woman can do those things too. It’s just that we do those things better together. But, parenting together doesn’t require living together. It requires loving your children together.
Men (or non-custodial parents) shouldn’t be just a paycheck to our exes. Indeed, the only way to bring equality to the sexes is to make sure that we both hold each accountable in the areas of care and finances. There are lots of mothers (and some fathers) out there who don’t think that they need to work or they utilize a system not based on actual child costs but one based on who can take the most from the system. It’s a dis-empowering system that creates and perpetuates dependence.
People will say that feuding parents should not parent together because of the impact on the child. My question is this: why give all of the power to the person who doesn’t want to work together? I’ve witnessed this outcome countless times. Because a parent doesn’t fight, they are punished. The manipulative and wanting-to-punish parent gets the role of the primary caregiver. Shouldn’t the motives of one who does not want to share responsibility be questioned? Feuding can always be kept to a minimum by keeping the number of direct contact points between feuding parents to a minimum.
The parenting culture in South Dakota has been broken for some time. There is too much fighting and not enough time spent deciding how to split responsibilities. It’s a how much can I get out of this culture and not a how much can I give culture. Take away the power. Put both parents on equal footing. Our laws shouldn’t create a bat (child) to use as a weapon. It is for the best interests of the children to get them out of the middle of the fighting and let them have access to both parents.
I hope that I don’t let my children down. I hope that they know that their dad tried hard to the best that he could for them. I’ve always tried to show them that I am a fallible but strong man who makes mistakes and tries to learn from them. This wasn’t what I envisioned when I thought about the family that I would have. I couldn’t have imagined children so great and a wife and life so amazing. I could have spent years not doing anything to see more of my children. Fortunately I fought, and I fight with others, to make sure not only fathers but all parents have the right to be with their children. Our children deserve nothing less than getting the best (and most time) from two parents loving them apart.