Why Mom Can’t Be Dad (and why that’s okay)

dad_8tzp“Now ain’t nobody tell us it was fair. No love from my daddy ’cause the coward wasn’t there. He passed away and I didn’t cry, ’cause my anger wouldn’t let me feel for a stranger.” -2Pac, Dear Mama

Mothers are the singularly most amazing human beings on the planet. They give more of themselves than it seems possible to give,and then they give some more. So often a mother’s job is never done, because to her it is so much more than merely a job. It’s a calling. When her child screams out in the night, a mother’s ears are tuned to pick up on it and respond, even before she herself is awake. A mother seems like she’s in all places at the same time because she often has to be in order to take care of her myriad responsibilities.

A mother doesn’t complain, though, not even when she isn’t appreciated, because she knows complaining doesn’t get things done, and she has no time for excuses. But one thing a mother can never do is be a father, and that’s okay.

For the most part, I grew up in a single-parent home. My father was never around, but even when he was his mind was elsewhere. I had probably five, maybe six, solid, concrete moments with him when I was younger when he made a positive impression on me, but I have a plethora of those type of memories featuring my mother. I just saw her this weekend, and it’s amazing to me how fresh those memories still are, and how we continue to make those memories no matter how old I get. The bond between a mother and her children should be an enduring one, and it often is, but can it make up for the absence of a father?

I hear so many people extoll the virtues of single mothers by saying, “She was both a mother and a father to me.” But that can’t be true, can it? Expecting a mother to be a father is like asking an Irish man to be Chinese. That’s because we need different things from each parent, and while many of us make it through childhood just fine without a father, it doesn’t lessen the yearning for one, or fill the hole caused by his absence. Continue reading “Why Mom Can’t Be Dad (and why that’s okay)”

What Dad Really Wants

black-father-and-daughterAs Father’s Day approaches (in just one week) I am reminded once again of making things for my dad when I was little. Small things really, like a paper tie, a pocket protector made from construction paper, a church made out of popsicle sticks, numerous cards I created myself, and the list went on. Most of these items were easily made out of school supplies, and at school, but they were also made well ahead of time because school was always over by then. And he always seemed amazed by each and every gift, as if it was the best thing he had ever gotten in his entire life.

Then I got older and my dad wasn’t around, so I pretty much forgot all about Father’s Day. I mean, I still called him on the day to wish him a good holiday, but sometimes he wasn’t there, and I only left him a message on his machine. It seemed good enough at the time. Then I got older still and I didn’t even call him, but he never called me either so I felt like it was okay. Many years passed, and I became a father myself, then the holiday became magical again.

Now I get those same types of items from my children that I gave my dad when I was their age, and now I know why he smiled and was overcome. Not because the gifts were amazing in their own right, but because of the thought that goes into each and every one of them. I proudly wear my paper ties for several days after the holiday so I can proudly tell everyone I know that my kid made them for me. So, as a dad, I appreciate every one of those unique, special gifts, BUT what if dads could get what we really wanted on that one day in June every year?

Here’s what Dad Really Wants:

  1. Some peace and quiet. If you’re a father worth his salt, you know that you spend tons of time running around with and after your kids. It’s all great fun, but you’re not as young as you used to be, right? So it’s harder to keep up all the time. On Father’s Day you should just be allowed to snuggle up with your kids and take a nice nap right in the middle of the day. That would be perfect.
  2. No store-bought cards. There is nothing better than getting a card full of stickers and crayon-filled drawings of you (even if they look like the Loch Ness Monster instead). It means your kids spent actual time trying to make something perfect for you, and that’s so special it should inspire tears of joy.
  3. 11361-black-father-daughterThat personal touch. Maybe surprise Dad with a scavenger hunt where the end prize is something picked out or made by the kids.You can even give him a hand-made map and go around with him telling him when he’s hot and cold. Then make X mark the spot, and see his eyes light up when he finally locates it.
  4. Wants, not Needs. It is not the time to pick Dad up some socks because his have huge holes in them, or to give him a gift certificate to the barber shop because his hair is overdue for a trim. Remember that you love Dad just the way he is, and that all that stuff is not just his preference, but it fits into the “Need” category. Give him something he has been talking about for months like that new XBox game or belt clip for his cell phone.
  5. Something from Mom. Whether or not you’re together as a couple anymore, if Dad is doing his best as a father, give him credit for it, Mom, even if just in a card or a little acknowledgement the next time you drop the kids off at his place. While we might not all be great husband material, if we are rockin’ it as a father, it would be nice to have it acknowledged, even if just once a year. **This also works for mothers on Mother’s Day, Dads.

What Dad really wants is a day to remember, not a run-through of some scripted program you think he ought to have. Think about what makes Dad truly special, then treat him like it, and show him you know what his wants are too, that you’re thinking about him. I guarantee he’ll love that so much more than you just giving him something made of popsicle sticks because everyone in your class is doing the same thing. Give him that craft, but also personalize something else for him too!

The real key, though, is to think about Dad the other 364 days of the year, and make sure he knows it. Because if you’re giving him something on just one day, and spending time with him on just one day and you think that’s enough, then something wrong, and he’ll know it. Make sure Dad knows you appreciate him always, on every day, just as much as he shows you that you’re special to him. That’s the real glory of having a dad who cares about you and who shows it, that you can show him in return.

That’s what Dad really wants.

Sam

Looking For a Father

This trip was special because I was with my dad.

I know many others have had it a lot worse than I did growing up. Sure, I lived in a poor part of Southwest Philadelphia, in a row home where I could hear the neighbors whisper if I focused just a little bit. There were drive-bys only a few blocks over, and I realize now just how dangerous the area was back then. But at the time I didn’t think about any of that, and I also honestly didn’t think about the children starving in Ethiopia either, even though my mom always talked about shipping my leftover vegetables there. I didn’t even think about the crack house on the end of the block where Old Leroy would sell his wares, but more often than not just use them himself. We were always warned to stay away from Old Leroy. Instead, what I wondered about more often than anything else was where my father was.

At first it was just like any other family at that time, I guess. It was before the 50+% divorce rate, so if anyone in our school came from a “broken” home it was a huge topic of gossip, but single mother households were on a precipitous rise with more and more women having children out of wedlock. The church frowned on that, and I knew all about it because both of my parents were heavy into the church, my father being a preacher, and my mother a church leader. And at the start our little nuclear family seemed to be just that — containing a nucleus of both parents around which we kids hovered.

Things started to drift into fragments, though, because my dad didn’t have a “home” church. Instead, he was (and is) one of those itinerant preachers who was constantly traveling from church to church, often outside of the city of my birth, and often for long swaths of time. He was also heavily involved in prison ministry so he would be in the jails talking to inmates when he wasn’t doing extensive church tours. That of course left little to no time to continue being a part of the nucleus that helped to keep the family going, and it was obviously very difficult on my mother and on myself and my sister as well.

An old friend of mine from high school sent me a Facebook message a few months ago in which he told me that a man with the last name of McManus had preached an amazing sermon at his church on Saturday, and he asked me if I knew him. Instead of answering his question, I said, “That’s my dad.” Continue reading “Looking For a Father”

My Dad’s Shoelaces

What I remember most about my dad were his shoelaces, slapping against the asphalt as he came out to greet me at the bus stop every day. I guess it was about convenience for him at the time, but to a six-year old it just seemed sloppy. I can still clearly recall him standing at the end of the driveway, ten feet in front of our white clapboard house, hands in his pockets, that grim expression on his face that he always got when he was distracted from something important. And his shoelaces – they seemed impossibly long – trailing along behind us as he took my hand and led me into the house. The ritual was always the same.

 “Leave your shoes at the door,” he would always say as he slipped out of his own.

 “But don’t forget to untie them first,” I would finish for him while I sat down to get out of my ratty Reeboks.

He would always smile then, as if it were our private joke, this ritual of the quiet shoes. I would never smile, lost as I was in concentrating on untying my twice-tied laces. They were the thick ones too, so incredibly hard for my small hands to successfully maneuver. I probably got them untied by myself one time out of 50, but that one time was so special. Because it meant I wouldn’t have to rely on him, that I wouldn’t have to call him back into the room to help me.

My babysitter during those afternoons waiting for my mother to get home wasn’t him, though. It was Dora the Explorer, that sassy little bilingual girl with a monkey for a best friend. We had this video of Dora, going to the library and meeting her friend Map, that I would play over and over again. It was the only video we owned that wasn’t up on the high shelf that I couldn’t reach. While I fished out the well-worn tape, I could hear the sounds of my dad in the back room, fighting with the lock on the liquor cabinet. Well, I guess “liquor” is too strong a word for it. My dad was breaking in so he could drink Bicardi mixers, all we could afford with his unemployment checks. He knew better than to ask my mother for any money. If I was lucky I wouldn’t see him again until after she came home, which was approximately three hours of Dora later.

Sometimes I would make a snack and ask him if he wanted anything. He would never answer, or every once in a while he would say he wanted pretzels, forgetting that I can’t reach the pretzels, even on the stool. I learned fairly quickly, though, that he didn’t really want pretzels. He just wanted something to stretch out the effect of the alcohol. Eventually he would storm out of the back room, head straight for the kitchen, and bring back half a loaf of bread with him. Pretzels forgotten. Door slammed again in my face. I couldn’t blame him for it. Of course not. He was just doing what he had to do to survive. I would then re-tie the bread bag if there was anything left in it, or throw the empty bag out, whichever was the case, putting “bread” down on our grocery list pinned to the corkboard on the nearly-dead fridge.

I never heard the term “deadbeat” until I got older, but the six-year old me must have known there was something different about my dad even then. I often found myself wondering how my mom could stand it, how much she must have loved him to put up with his crap. Of course I never thought that my mother was also screwed up in other, less obvious, ways. She worked as a data processor for a big company so you would think she made a lot of money, but it was what I realize now was just a glorified secretary position that paid almost nothing. In comparison, I thought she was quite dynamic. I mean, she had more than one emotion, even though the primary one was anger, and she actually spent some time with me.

The worst time of each weekday was when my mother arrived home, because it was the time of the shouting. I knew better than to meet her at the door because just the sight of my dad’s shoes lined up so neatly at the door would get her agitated. He would still be in the back room either passed out or still drinking. I kept my distance from them both, pretending to watch Dora singing in Spanish while the time bomb neared its destination. My mother would keep on her shoes, a silent form of defiance that would always increase in volume as she stomped her way into the back room.

 “You no good, son of a…” she would always begin, and that’s when I would cover my ears, knowing what was coming next, powerless to stop it, but wishing it all away.

And for the next half an hour it would be Armageddon in there. She would throw things. They would hit him. He would yell at her. That would just make her louder. Back and forth they would go, forgetting they had a six-year old who was within earshot, a six-year old who was forming way too many associations between them and violence. They would go 12 rounds in the ring, and then it would be done. For that night. Then my mother would walk calmly out of the room, close the door behind her, walk into the living room and embrace me.

That was her version of love. I’m still not sure what his was. All I knew was that every day when I would see those shoelaces flapping against the asphalt, I knew I would have to re-live the chaos all over again. And I wished that I could live anywhere else. Even if I didn’t get to eat government cheese anymore. Some place where I could keep on my shoes, but I would never want to run away.

Sam

My Dad’s Shoelaces: A Short Story

What I remember most about my dad were his shoelaces, slapping against the asphalt as he came out to greet me at the bus stop every day. I guess it was about convenience for him at the time, but to a six-year old it just seemed sloppy. I can still clearly recall him standing at the end of the driveway, ten feet in front of our white clapboard house, hands in his pockets, that grim expression on his face that he always got when he was distracted from something important. And his shoelaces – they seemed impossibly long – trailing along behind us as he took my hand and led me into the house. The ritual was always the same.

“Leave your shoes at the door,” he would always say as he slipped out of his own.

“But don’t forget to untie them first,” I would finish for him while I sat down to get out of my ratty Reeboks.

He would always smile then, as if it were our private joke, this ritual of the quiet shoes. I would never smile, lost as I was in concentrating on untying my twice-tied laces. They were the thick ones too, so incredibly hard for my small hands to successfully maneuver. I probably got them untied by myself one time out of 50, but that one time was so special. Because it meant I wouldn’t have to rely on him, that I wouldn’t have to call him back into the room to help me.

My babysitter during those afternoons waiting for my mother to get home wasn’t him, though. It was Dora the Explorer, that sassy little bilingual girl with a monkey for a best friend. We had this video of Dora, going to the library and meeting her friend Map, that I would play over and over again. It was the only video we owned that wasn’t up on the high shelf that I couldn’t reach. While I fished out the well-worn tape, I could hear the sounds of my dad in the back room, fighting with the lock on the liquor cabinet. Well, I guess “liquor” is too strong a word for it. My dad was breaking in so he could drink Bicardi mixers, all we could afford with his unemployment checks. He knew better than to ask my mother for any money. If I was lucky I wouldn’t see him again until after she came home, which was approximately three hours of Dora later.

Sometimes I would make a snack and ask him if he wanted anything. He would never answer, or every once in a while he would say he wanted pretzels, forgetting that I can’t reach the pretzels, even on the stool. I learned fairly quickly, though, that he didn’t really want pretzels. He just wanted something to stretch out the effect of the alcohol. Eventually he would storm out of the back room, head straight for the kitchen, and bring back half a loaf of bread with him. Pretzels forgotten. Door slammed again in my face. I couldn’t blame him for it. Of course not. He was just doing what he had to do to survive. I would then re-tie the bread bag if there was anything left in it, or throw the empty bag out, whichever was the case, putting “bread” down on our grocery list pinned to the corkboard on the nearly-dead fridge.

I never heard the term “deadbeat” until I got older, but the six-year old me must have known there was something different about my dad even then. I often found myself wondering how my mom could stand it, how much she must have loved him to put up with his crap. Of course I never thought that my mother was also screwed up in other, less obvious, ways. She worked as a data processor for a big company so you would think she made a lot of money, but it was what I realize now was just a glorified secretary position that paid almost nothing. In comparison, I thought she was quite dynamic. I mean, she had more than one emotion, even though the primary one was anger, and she actually spent some time with me.

The worst time of each weekday was when my mother arrived home, because it was the time of the shouting. I knew better than to meet her at the door because just the sight of my dad’s shoes lined up so neatly at the door would get her agitated. He would still be in the back room either passed out or still drinking. I kept my distance from them both, pretending to watch Dora singing in Spanish while the time bomb neared its destination. My mother would keep on her shoes, a silent form of defiance that would always increase in volume as she stomped her way into the back room.

“You no good, son of a…” she would always begin, and that’s when I would cover my ears, knowing what was coming next, powerless to stop it, but wishing it all away.

And for the next half an hour it would be Armageddon in there. She would throw things. They would hit him. He would yell at her. That would just make her louder. Back and forth they would go, forgetting they had a six-year old who was within earshot, a six-year old who was forming way too many associations between them and violence. They would go 12 rounds in the ring, and then it would be done. For that night. Then my mother would walk calmly out of the room, close the door behind her, walk into the living room and embrace me.

That was her version of love. I’m still not sure what his was. All I knew was that every day when I would see those shoelaces flapping against the asphalt, I knew I would have to re-live the chaos all over again. And I wished that I could live anywhere else. Even if I didn’t get to eat government cheese anymore. Some place where I could keep on my shoes, but I would never want to run away.

Sam

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