For the first 8 years of my son’s life, I was the breadwinner. The provider. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been a dedicated and loving father, but we’d always split the duties of Devin’s parenthood right down the middle with virtually no overlap. My wife was a full-time mother, maintained the home base, and took care of our household and family matters, I hunted and gathered to fill the coffers, pay the bills, and put a roof over our head and food on the tables. For quite a while we were both happy with this split of duties and responsibilities. It’s what we’d thought we both wanted. But it wasn’t- and took a heavy toll on our relationship over time. Forcibly becoming a single dad made me realize how unbalanced our relationship had become.
I recall the first day it truly struck me that I was a single dad. It was my first night alone. Devin and I came home to our condo from a Cub Scout camping trip two Novembers ago and it seemed like part of our – I guess now my – condo had disappeared. Carpet dimples standing out where furniture used to be, ajar, barren dresser drawers askew, an entire closet emptied but for a few bent wire hangers. My only warning, a single text message appearing on my phone’s lock screen as we re-entered cell range: “I’ll be back Tuesday for the rest of it.” She stopped by that afternoon to pick up Devin, nods and sideways glances exchanged, a few tears, and that was it. I was completely alone in a hurriedly strip-mined home for my first time, trying to figure out how I’d got there. What had broken it all down.
Our partnership imbalance had pushed us apart at the start, self-imposed entrenchments at opposite ends of the parental spectrum. We always balanced personally, but grew so far apart from each other in roles, duties, concerns. When a liberal helping of anxiety from my near-death experience was added to an already tenuously-balanced plate, our marriage quickly became terminal.
So here I found myself, in an echoey, dark condo that was uniquely silent for the first time in years. Realizing I had to balance the entire parental experience by myself now, no help, no partner, not even much training. I was literally waking up to find myself treading water in the deep end of the parent pool, with a huge weight on my shoulders and a devastatingly-crippled supply of self esteem.
That night was incredibly hard. I had no idea what life for my son was going to be like now. If he’d also lose faith in the family experience, miss the stability of the intact household he’d once had. If I could pick up all the slack on my own while juggling a full-time job and a booming off-hours music career. What kind of man he’d become now, without the example of two loving parents, a well-oiled relationship safe from harm. I cried, I paced the hallways, I howled at the moon. I didn’t sleep much at all. But I vowed to watch the sun rise in the morning with a plan in place.
And I did.
It was the schedule coordination that threw me off at first. For years I’d just woken up, showered, dressed, came downstairs to breakfast and family conversation before kisses and I was out the door to earn that scratch. I’d never dealt with making lunches and the stream of drop-offs and pick-ups let alone meeting the mommy network at school and around town. I blocked out important times in my work calendar and started preparing my days around the custody schedule – it worked well at first. But quickly I found myself wishing I had an assistant. Must-attend meetings started poking into my calendar at critical Dad duty times. Unexpected time-sensitive calls coming in as I’m trying to manage a pick-up line at school and getting honked at by frustrated mothers. A slew of Slack messages barraging my phone once I started working from home more often.
It took about three months to find a rhythm, and set expectations at the office around my new daily responsibilities. In most cases it worked out well, as LinkedIn/Lynda is incredibly understanding of our outside-of-work concerns. In some cases there was a lot of friction – particularly time-sensitive production firedrills – but I established trust in my colleagues that I could still stay on top of things even if I couldn’t get directly involved just yet. I started being more understanding of a Slack message barrage while I was focusing on being a Dad, and they understood that I’d always stay on top of things, but may need to respond either when I got the opportunity, or in an incredibly brief fashion.
That said, laundry and cleaning are still a struggle. Oh. My. God.
If there’s anything I probably still need to apologize to my ex-wife for, it’s my (former) gross underestimation of the amount of laundry and cleaning that’s required to maintain a household with two active boys. I’m a bit of a clean freak (and always helped out there a bit beforehand, too), so cleaning efforts were most easily escalated and managed. My two bathrooms are still the hardest though, I honestly hadn’t realized how much my ex did there until she just plain didn’t anymore. Sweet boneless Jesus, two boys can sure fuck up a rest room, and result in some seriously unglamorous maintenance work. Ugh. I’ll never underestimate that level of effort again, but am keeping on top of it pretty well. Yay!
Laundry, though… holy shit. I swear it’s like I’m managing a 24-7 stream of separated loads now, around the clock. My son plays hard too, which means I gotta deal with entire loads of muddy clothing and do a hefty amount of pre-treating to get out some pretty incredible and obscure stains. Gotta keep our whites crisply separated (learned that with all my former dress shirts the hard way, thanks to a misplaced red sock). Towels and sheets get an extra-special wash treatment to make sure they’re super clean – both D and I are allergic to dust and Devin has the extra plus of his skin reacting poorly to perfumey detergents. Delicates and no-shrinkies go in cold water wash/rinse only, natch. I can safely say I’ve fucked up at least one entire wardrobe for both myself and my son (not to mention many sheets and towels) in learning how to efficiently manage a never-ending stream of laundry for a household. Mothers and laundry-pros alike- my sincerest respect in your expertise and diligence. I hope to achieve it at some point.
(Holy crap, gotta go switch towel loads right now – back in a sec…)
The co-parenting aspects of schedule negotiation were the hardest to adjust to. However, this was mostly not due to things I could control. My job had actually become more flexible to accomodate my new Dad responsibilities, but my ex had to give her career full attention as we’d allowed it stagnate over the prior eight years. So when I say it was the hardest, it was mostly for me, and in learning to deal with an insanely frustrating amount of last-minute schedule changes as her day evolved. This taught me quickly the benefit of a parents’ network, a list of trusted friends and colleagues I could rely on when things seemed unworkable. Having someone get my son from school and watch him do homework for 30 minutes so I could finish that meeting. Letting Devin go to karate with his buddy’s family and hang out thru dinner so I could make that 5pm recording session, or rehearsal. It was a great resource for me, but the quid-pro-quo nature of the parents’ community also let me experience the fun of carpooling 4 8-year olds to the beach, take on a few homework buddies until their parents freed up from work, bring along a few friends on our shopping excursion so their parents could have a lunch date, it was so fun to now have a bunch of kids around me too. I’d never had to think of this when I was just cranking out the lawyers’ hours at my software gig.
And it made me feel more balanced, too. I wasn’t just being that part-time Fun Dad, but putting in serious quality time with my son at the not-so-glamorous parts of parenthood. It wasn’t all giggles and the fun stuff, but frustration, boredom, routine… and a lot of connection. And that’s where our already strong bond became unbreakable. I felt like I was finally breaking free of my former punch-in, punch-out mentality while being a sole breadwinner and weekend dad, and turning into a real father.
The emotional stuff was difficult. When you really spend just late evenings and weekends with your family (and that doesn’t even account for the time I travelled or toured, which was significant as well), you get used to breaks. 5 days a week in which you really don’t deal with the mentoring and counseling aspects of being a parent. Now I really got to see my son’s emotional swings, his patterns and rhythms, his ups and downs. He was now coming to me much more often for guidance or direction. I had to find a way to put my own personal shit aside and really help him focus on fixing his problems or solving his issues. I had to find a new language for getting him to express what he was really feeling and needing from me.
This also helped me not just feel more balanced, but to rebuild some of the self-esteem issues I’d suffered after the split, that I could actually get good at this full-time Dad thing. As hard as parts of it were, it’s the areas of my Dadness I’m probably the most proud of now.
It started getting easier after that. Patterns became established, fallback plans in place, things fell into a nice comfortable groove. Learning how to be a parent wasn’t nearly as impossible as it seemed at first, and now was second nature.
My ex-wife has always been a fantastic mother, but watching her suffer similar struggles and trainwrecks trying to re-establish herself as an earner, a planner, a strategist in her life, was balancing as well. The mother stuff continued to be second nature to her, but watching her also fight to learn the business side of things reminded me that it wasn’t just me alone fighting those years of imbalance. We did this to each other, and both had our own battles to fight. It’s also helped us remain close friends despite the death of our intimate relationship. We now can truly appreciate what we’d both taken for granted, for years. And if anything positive should have come from the trauma we caused each other – that’s it, right there. We get it now. I get it now.
As I stare forward into 2018 I’m moving into my third year of being a single parent. It’s hard to look back on how far I’ve come and not be overwhelmed by the gravity of it all. But after all the angst, anxiety, struggles and heartbreak, I can’t imagine ever going back to the way things were. Being a full-time dad is the best thing that ever happened to me.