Like a lot of newly divorced parents it was tough on me when the kids went off with their dad for that first long spell of vacation time. Dan was nine and T.D. was five when they packed up their gear to go camping with their Dad and I went East to visit friends. Up until that point not a day in their lives had gone by that I hadn’t at least talked to them on the phone and never more than three that I hadn’t held them close. Two weeks loomed very long for all of us.
I was, for the most part, distracted by friends and going to watch championship tennis in New Haven but every morning around ten I waited for their call. John had grudgingly agreed to help them call daily and these were the days that predated cell phones. On the third day there was no call and no call on the fourth or fifth, either. Every time the phone rang at my friend’s house I jumped up, hoping it might be them. I was very nearly frantic with worst case scenarios: he had kidnapped them and left for South America, they’d been trapped in a forest fire, drowned, murdered. My mind can run to extremes left to it’s own devices and a bit of the unknown.
It was the fourth morning that I hadn’t spoken to them and I was considering staying back from the tennis matches that day- a big sacrifice as Agassi and Sampras were young and on the rise- when the phone rang and Melissa called, “Vicki, it’s for you! It’s T.D.!” I was thrilled and relieved to hear from them and I was all over TD with questions: “How ARE you? WHERE are you? Why didn’t you CALL Mommy? Are you okay?”
Even at five T.D. was forthright and insightful beyond her years. “I’m fine, mommy. Daddy lost us in the woods so he wanted us to forget about it before we called again.”
In the background I heard John hissing,“T.D., dammit! Just shut up about it and give the phone to your brother!” He was the child who wouldn’t rat out anybody, ever.
As it happened he had lost them in the woods; while he was busy doing camp dishes he let them wander off and without noticing, soon it was dark and no children to be found. They were backpacking in a remote and isolated corner of the Bruce Peninsula and the kids got themselves over to the far side of a lake and totally disoriented, out of sight or sound of their dad or anyone. T.D. suggested they get out of the woods and at least to the shore where “there weren’t so many bears” and Dan managed to flag down a small fishing boat just before pitch dark. Eventually they were reunited with their Dad.
Every aspect of this story typifies my experience with the father of my children. When I have found myself completely enraged at him over the years it has been around issues that feel to me like carelessness or inattentiveness to the children’s needs. But by and large I am far from angry with him and this is why:
This is the father who stayed living two blocks away (when I though China might be too close) so the children could truly know and have two parents. This is the father who never missed a child support payment and, although he would never do it in a way that was cooperative with me, he has always found ways to help his children financially and continues to do that now as they struggle towards financial independence. This is the father who did NOT hound them to pick up their rooms constantly, who did NOT check to see that their teeth were brushed every single night, who did NOT stop them from drinking pop and eating pop tarts and who took their side against middle school teachers who called fussing about minor details.
This is the father who gave them a spirit of adventure and a love of the outdoors. When T.D. was but five he had her carrying a pack over half her weight and sleeping in hammocks under the night stars along the shores of Lake Superior. Both children continue to be ardent campers and hikers and children of nature and their favorite stories of childhood are the ones they tell about camping trips together with their father.
What I have come to realize is that this is the father who is not me. We don’t parent in the same fashion. We don’t live the same lifestyle. We often don’t even agree on what’s important. That’s probably why, ultimately, we’re divorced. But this is the father who provides the balance in their experience of family and beyond that, the world.
If we were together, all of the things that he neglects and I attend to (and vice versa) would make perfect sense in our roles of mother and father. If we were together, it would be no surprise that they come to me with illness and sorrow and turn to him for help when they’ve gotten up to no good. In a healthy family mothers and fathers parent differently and fill different shoes and together they provide a child with different perspectives, more ways of viewing the world and more inner resources for dealing with the wide range of responses they will get from people once they leave home. When you’re not all under the same roof these different styles can feel as though you are working against each other and, I think, you wouldn’t be human if you weren’t, at least some of the time. Divorce is not conducive to bringing out the best in everyone.
I called T.D. last night and, lightly, in passing, I said, “You know tomorrow is Father’s Day.” She laughed and said, “I know mom but thanks for telling me.”
The childrens’ dad could care less what I think about him so I’m just writing it down here instead. I am forever grateful to him and for him. He has provided them with so much that I wasn’t equipped or prepared to give them. He’s a wonderful father for our children.