THE FATHER I NEVER WANTED TO BE
My parents divorced when I was just two years old. Though I was too young to remember the next few years, I have a distinct memory of seeing my father when I was five or six years old and not recognizing him. To his credit, he’d spent his absence getting clean and sober, and he would never go more than a couple months without seeing me again. By the time I was a teenager, I spent several weeks at a time with him over summer breaks.
I am my father’s son. By all accounts, he’s not just a good man — he’s an incredible human being. I’ve wanted to emulate him since I was old enough to understand character. There was only one thing I didn’t admire, one small part of him that I never wanted to share: he was a part-time father. He didn’t choose that role. He didn’t want that role. And I watched it tear him down countless times.
When I was thirty years old, the same age my father was when I was born, I learned that I, too, would be a father. The ultrasound was two weeks after my sixth anniversary, and my fear of being a part-time father was far from my mind. But I have always been my father’s son.
The week after my daughters’ first birthday, my wife and I separated. The month before their second birthday, we finalized our divorce. For half my daughters’ lives, their mother and I have negotiated visitation schedules and custody rights.
What you need to understand is that I resisted kids. Hard. I found every reason in the book not to have children. And then, suddenly, I was standing over infant incubators in the NICU. I grew new hearts, one for each of them, the moment I saw them. I carved out a space in my chest for them. I was hooked.
Almost in an instant, their cribs were empty. Their room was quiet and clean. They were somewhere across town, calling some other place home.
When we first separated, their mother wanted to have our daughters full time and move to another state. She was actually baffled when I refused. Leading up to the divorce, her schedule varied and we arranged visitation from week to week. Consistency was the furthest thing from our lives. While drafting the decree, we researched and shared numerous visitation schedules.
Thankfully, the one thing we came to agree on was that we should split custody 50/50. I’m grateful that their mother and I value one another’s roles. Though we do not work well together, we both recognize the importance of our daughters having frequent access to us both.
I literally miss my own children at least twice a week. I would love to say that it’s not as bad as I had feared, but it is. In fact, it might be worse.
Now, one year later, we have settled into a routine as best we can. I have my daughters half the time. I’m a part-time father. And yes, it tears me down. I literally miss my own children at least twice a week. I would love to say that it’s not as bad as I had feared, but it is. In fact, it might be worse.
See, I’m a numbers guy, and there’s one number that leaves me feeling sick again and again: in the two years since their mother and I separated, I have missed exactly one full year of their lives. If you extend that to eighteen, when many kids leave for college, I’m due to miss another 7.5 years of their lives before they graduate high school. And I’m one of the lucky fathers who splits custody right down the middle.
To make things even more terrifying, my partner and I had a son just eleven months into our relationship. He was a surprise, to say the least, and his presence sparked many conversations. I had the hardest time communicating how devastated I was to have yet another child I didn’t live with. At the time, I would only see him on days that I didn’t have my daughters, meaning that I would be a part-time father three times over.
But life is not without joy. My father was open about his sadness, about how lonely he was between our visits. He also verbalized his love and appreciation for our time together nearly every day. Because of his willingness to be honest about his experiences as a father, I knew early on that I must cherish every moment with my kids. That understanding has shaped the way I interact with them, as well as how often I tell them how I’m feeling.
One of the hardest things for a child of divorce is feeling like one parent is more present, or that one parent loves them more than the other. If I succeed in nothing else, I make certain that my daughters will never have to wonder if I love them.
This is especially true during school breaks, when I’m able to pick them up from school. I cherish the way they catch sight of me from across the room, barrel toward me, and hold on for dear life.
I never wanted to be a part-time father, and it kills me to know that I’ll miss nearly half my daughters’ childhoods.
Summers are the best time for us. Being a teacher means that I have several months to make up time. To Mallerie’s credit, she’s a genius at finding inexpensive yet unforgettable activities for the family, We’ve also made a point of staying together as often as possible, meaning that I get more time with my son, and my daughters are getting to know their baby brother as he grows.
I never wanted to be a part-time father, and it kills me to know that I’ll miss nearly half my daughters’ childhoods. It sucks that I know what it is to miss my own children so early in their lives. But I also know the sheer excitement of seeing them after being gone for a few days.
More than that, having my daughters only half the time makes me a more attentive father. I devote my entire self to them when they’re around, collecting hugs and laughter like precious stones. I am the father I never wanted to be, but I refuse to dwell on what I miss. Instead, I pour my energy into every moment.
I am my father’s son. And I am better for it.
Originally published at goodmenproject.com on August 26, 2016.