Being a Parent After Growing Up Alone

Let’s interrupt the party to get mellow again. It’s been a while.

On November 17th, I welcomed my son Malcolm into the world. When my daughter Violet was born, I spent most of the first several months panicking. I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. I was sure I was going to mess it up. This time around, I felt more confident. From the first moment, I was just ecstatic to meet this little man. As time went on, however, I found myself facing some new concerns. I’ve done fine with my daughter so far, but she’s entering the age where she can interact with me a bit more. She can ask questions, she shows preferences daily, and I’ll have to worry about discipline more than I’ve needed to. In short, I need to teach her how to be a human. Furthermore, she has a little brother to look after now, and I have to teach her how to be responsible for those less capable than herself.

So today, I’m going to give you a peek into what it was like growing up in a lower-income, single parent home. With little supervision, I was left to fend for myself. With no male role model, I avoided a lot of stereotypical gender roles, but I also lost out on a lot of lessons my friends all know. And most importantly, I’d like to share some of the paralyzing terror of trying to be a father after being raised never seeing one in action.

I’ve given a bit of family history in the past, but here’s a brief refresher. My parents were divorced while I was in elementary, and my dad quickly moved in with a new family. He eventually moved half a country away, but even before then our connection was tenuous at best. He had travelled near constantly, and by the time he had left I was so young that I hadn’t had much chance to grow attached to him. He seemed to have trouble connecting with me, as I had less interest in sports or camping and he couldn’t understand my interests. I loved playing sports, and wasn’t awful at baseball, but the idea of watching others play had always set my young legs tapping and anxious to get moving for myself.

When he moved out, I made few attempts to keep up contact. I still saw him now and again, and spent chunks of each summer with him when he went out of state, but to me that was just time away from friends and from doing the things I loved. It was like losing control of my real life to go pretend that I was a part of someone else’s for a month.

My mom, at her height, worked seven jobs at once. She did her best to still get time with me. I’d go sit in the non-smoking section of her job at bingo some nights, drawing or reading and having her poke around whenever she could to say hi and drop off some nachos. She tried to hold at least one day of the weekend open for us. We’d go to lunch at a low-quality buffet or a fast food joint, then take care of all the housework that had built up over the week. She continued to seek better jobs to get more time at home.

And to her credit, she did pretty damn well. But the skills I picked up were distinctly skewed in two directions:

  1. Things that could keep me alive.
  2. Things that my mom liked.

This meant I learned to cook and clean, but never how to fix a car or repair a door. I loved watching musicals more than action flicks. I was a lot more Dragon Warrior than Grand Theft Auto (she’s always been crazy for a good RPG). Sure, I picked up some habits from friends.  Like half the boys in my grade in junior high, I watched pro wrestling. I went with my brother to movies I never should have seen at a young age. I puffed up just enough to let everyone around me know “here comes a teenage boy!” But I was always a bit of an outsider at school. I learned to flourish in smaller groups, and I seemed to entertain the stoner groups far more than I did the normal kids, despite my squeaky-clean record.

My relationship with my father never really changed until my brother died. We spoke enough to feel like we were making an effort, enough to calm our guilt until the next time we had to talk. He was never a man I’d go to for advice. This wasn’t even a malicious distance I kept, but rather the result of a lack of contact. If I was in trouble, if I was lost and didn’t know how to do something, the thought of calling my dad never even crossed my mind. This didn’t seem at all odd to me until about five years into being with my wife, seeing her call her parents whenever she ran into a part of adulthood she had never seen.

I always assumed I could figure things out on my own. As this regularly proved not to be the case, I’d convince myself that those things that I couldn’t figure out were not worth accomplishing. I spent years denying any ambition, assuming I wasn’t up to most tasks beyond keeping myself alive. It’s why my wife had to drag me to college kicking and screaming. It’s why my career started primarily out of luck. It was only after I had lucked myself into a serious relationship that I really had to start trying: trying to keep my wife happy, trying to build a better life, trying to start a family and keep them safe and cared for.

With the birth of my second child, I find myself at an odd crossroads. On the one hand, his birth was far easier to deal with than my daughter’s. Without the panic that accompanies becoming a first-time father, I was able to simply enjoy the new child I held. I knew I wouldn’t break him, I knew what I would do with him when I got home, I knew how to feed him and how to change him and how to lay him down when he was ready for a nap. However, I also saw a challenge that had always been there, but that I was blind to.

Having a daughter was different in a few ways. I have no sisters, so I was left with no preconceptions. Raising a little girl seemed different enough from my experience that I knew it was going to be unfamiliar ground. I knew she’d run into different roadblocks in society, regardless of the kind of person she is. I knew that this meant sometimes, he mother would be a better mentor than I could be. I dedicated myself to doing my best, to never let gender matter as I raised her and simply to love her as my child. That goal has not changed. My daughter is freaking awesome, and I never want her to stop being my partner in crime.

But with the birth of a son, and without the panic of a first child, I saw myself more clearly. As a young boy, the youngest of two children, his life could end up very similar to mine. That should give me hope! I turned out well enough, so long as I avoid some pitfalls I saw growing up, he should end up even better. The difference is, I don’t know what a father is supposed to do. I’ve never seen one in action.

Sure, I don’t know how to fix a car or how to maintain a house. But that’s not a big deal. My wife can do most of that, and whatever she can’t I’ll figure out as I go and pass it down to my kids. What really scares me is that I have no idea what a son is going to be looking for in a father. Where’s the right balance between friend and teacher? How much discipline is too much, and how much of the world can I give him before he becomes spoiled? When he’s growing up, when his body’s changing, will he ask me for help? Or will he just figure it out on his own, like I did?

Worse yet, I realized these questions already existed. I hadn’t seen them, but I have no idea what my daughter will need out of a father either. But without any preconceived notions, I had an easier time winging it. I do my best to love her, to keep her safe, and to keep her happy. And ultimately, I have to do the same for my son. I’ll mess things up. Maybe that’s just part of it. Hopefully, good intentions and love for my children can overcome any lack of experience or any mistakes along the way.

A few weeks ago, the wind took ahold of my screen door and ripped it from its hinges. The last owners of the house had installed it poorly anyways, and now the door was bent, the closer detached from the doorframe. It blew open with every breeze, making horrible sounds and scaring our dog. I didn’t know what to do with the thing. I’d never fixed or repaired a door! Out of sheer luck, my father had come into town for two days, arriving the night before. He’s been making attempts to get closer, to be the father he never was. So I did something I’d never done before. I asked my dad for help. He went out to the hardware store with us, bought us a new door, and spent the day showing me how to install it. We talked and laughed the whole time, he bought us a few new tools and showed us a few things that would make for a better setup at home. He helped me when I needed him, and it might be the best experience I’ve ever had with my father.

I found myself in a deep depression that night, because I had missed out on a lifetime of experiences like this. This is why my friends all held some reverence for their fathers. This is how they knew how to change a tire or to get something heavy into a house without scratching it. This is why my wife’s first reaction when she’s at a loss is to call her parents.

And while I mourned the wasted years with my own father, it invigorated me. I have the chance to experience those things with my children. I can be there for them until the day I die. I can be a mentor. I can encourage them to follow their dreams, I can be their reality check and still be their biggest cheerleader. If I had experienced this kind of thing every day growing up, my life might have been completely different. But rather than using that to blame my father for how his life shook out, it’s so much more satisfying to just look forward to what my life holds next.

I always knew I wanted to write, but I let it fall away because I saw the need for pragmatism too soon. I knew what it was like to struggle with money, I knew how much my mother had gone through to keep my brother and I afloat. I made the decision to take care of that first and foremost. With some encouragement, with some interest in my actions earlier, I might not have shelved writing until I was nearly thirty. I won’t let that stop me from doing what I love. More importantly, I can take that lesson and encourage my children to do what they love.

I’ve missed a lot of essential pieces of life. With my brother gone, there are experiences that I always thought would come that are now lost forever. But it’s important not to be paralyzed by this. Rather than focusing on those holes in my life, I’ll look forward to the paths that are left, paths I might never have seen if things had gone a bit differently.

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