I started having kids of my own at age 16. I never went to college, and by the time I was 24, I was a father of three by two different women, neither of whom I married. If that doesn't sound like the opening lines of a Maury Povich episode, I'm not sure what does.
Fortunately, I kept my head from launching itself up my own butthole (mostly), and worked that same ass right the fuck off to get a decent job and provide for my family. Which is good, because -- surprise! -- I ended up separating from my youngest kids' mom about a year after my last child was born. What started as jointly shared custody gradually turned into me having primary custody, which is where my experience of single parenthood began.
Now, I'm not writing this to tell you how I struggled with schedules or housework or money or picking out professional wrestling outfits. Everybody knows that being a single parent has a difficulty level that goes beyond Expert and into Juggling Feral Cats territory. But what I didn't know, at least until I lived it, is ...
Despite the fact that my children were doomed to that whole broken home thing, I was determined to make their lives as normal as possible. So I did my best to ensure we participated in all those typical parent/kid activities. We went to the park or the Devil's Nightmare (Chuck E. Cheese), built snowmen, had squirt gun fights, played Five Finger Fillet. You know, normal kid stuff.
Anywhere we went, though, it was not an infrequent occurrence for me to get strange looks from the other parents. On many occasions, when one of my kids made a new friend, their parents would hastily decide that it was time to go home or suddenly offer to push them on the swing. Basically anything to put a hurdle between them and us. And trust me, there is no weirder feeling than realizing another human has taken one look at you and thought, "Yep. That guy's definitely a child molester."
Having friends over was sometimes worse -- particularly for my daughter and especially when she was younger. Some of her classmates from school weren't allowed to come over at all, others could visit but not stay the night, and one mom let her daughter come over for a birthday party, but she insisted on staying for it when she found out I was the only one supervising.
As my kids got older and my pedo-stink started to waft away, I thought that maybe the other parents might finally come around. "You know, my kids haven't been sexed or predatored. Maybe he's not a sexual predator after all." But nope. Not really. I've never truly felt welcome, so I've mostly surrendered myself to being more of a lone parent instead of part of that larger group. I usually sit alone at sporting events, have never been invited to socialize outside of school-related activities, and I've been outright ignored when I've offered to carpool.
A large part of that is because ...
"Why do you live with your dad and not your mom?"
If you think that sounds like a weird-ass question to ask a child, you're not alone. My kids feel the same way. But that doesn't stop people from asking them on a regular basis. It ranks right up there with "How'd you get that scar?" and "Do you have some sort of face disease? Because dude."
It's kind of fucked up when you think about it. Why would my kids live with their dad? Probably because I'm their dad? I get that the overwhelming majority of single parents are moms (though the single dad population is on the rise), but that doesn't automagically disqualify fathers as being capable parents. I'm a goddamn champion at bottle-feeding, ass-wiping, and vomit cleanup. I will cook the fuck out of some macaroni and cheese.
The boring truth is that it just worked out better that they stay with me, for reasons too long and complicated to get into. Even if I had the time to share that story with them, I wouldn't, because it's none of their fucking business. And I sure as hell don't want them asking my kids for what they're assuming is a tragic backstory filled with revenge and a fatal encounter with a former kung fu student.
But that's what that question boils down to. "Your dad has custody? Hmm. The mom must be a crime lord." Unfortunately, all of this discomfort and bafflement with fathers being custodial parents sort of perpetuates the problem. That may sound like a mindset that's best to just blow off and forget. But what it leads to is ...
Let me be clear: Support for single dads exists. Here, let me Google it for you. But if you're anything like me, with a giant ego and an unwillingness to ask people for assistance, you're probably not going to seek it out. "Hi, I need help," is not a phrase that has ever left my mouth. Which is dumb and inherently illogical, because of fucking course I've needed help. Parenthood is a match best wrestled as a tag team. There is simply more to do than one person is capable of, which is why God gave us genitals that we like slapping together -- so that we'd agree to hang out long enough to raise some little humans. Well, maybe that analogy isn't a hundred percent on the money, but I'm not changing it. You get what I mean, and now you're picturing fucksex. For me, that's a win.
If you're fortunate like me, maybe you have a motherly type in your life -- like ... well, my mom -- who steps up and takes your son to practice so you can go watch your daughter's game. Perhaps you have a close family friend or a sister or a cousin, someone to offer a helping hand or a word of advice when the world throws a hand grenade into your calendar. That advice is pretty fucking crucial, because while single dads do exist in this world, they're not super common, and it's unlikely that you're going to find one within your kids' peer group. I've never had any single dad "buddies" who I could bounce ideas off of. Nobody to call and ask, "So my daughter needs cupcakes or some shit for school tomorrow, but do you think they'd notice if I just bought some from the store? Barring that, I have some old cans of tuna in the pantry. Maybe I could work those into the crude shape of cupcakes?"
Yes, I could absolutely ask my female friends and family, but the point is that sometimes I want to know how another guy does it. Someone I can instantly relate to, knowing he has the same issues as me and- goddammit, how do cupcakes work?!
This probably isn't Ripley's Believe It Or Not! material, but taking on the role of both parents is a struggle. Seriously, do you know what it's like to be both a shoulder to cry on and an authoritative disciplinarian within the same five minutes? I sometimes feel like I'm running a marathon where the finish line is made of exhaustion and the trophy is bipolar disorder.
Good or bad, I tended toward that disciplinarian mindframe. It's what I was used to. That was my thing. But when my kiddos didn't make varsity, they didn't need a drill sergeant. Parenting is a delicate rock/paper/scissors balancing act in which hugs counter disappointment, disappointment counters lashing out, and lashing out counters hugs. Look, I haven't perfected the game. I'm still trying to iron out the details.
The spirit of the game is there; I just go through losing streaks from time to time. For instance, I've often met my kids' disappointment with advice instead of consolation. Which is fine -- they do need advice. That's how they grow up to not be criminals -- or worse, assholes. But fuck me if they don't need that other part, the part that I never seemed to have the knack for. The part that showed feelings, the part that showed them that I fucking cared about them. I know I'm promoting a stereotype by saying that, but sheer observation has taught me that women just seem to do that better than men. And I'll flex and scream at anyone who says otherwise.
Because I lacked that ability (not actual feelings -- I will literally burn down the Earth around all of you fuckers to protect my kids), I found myself seeking out alternative sources of motherdom for their benefit. Is that a word? Motherdom? Probably.
The unfortunate side effect, however, is ...
Look, nobody wants to bring their kids up with split parents, but we don't exactly go into boning with that idea in mind. I think most of us want that happily ever after shit -- unless you're an asshole, I guess. The reality, though, is that sometimes people cheat, or drain your bank account, or both, and man, fuck her! Sorry, I got a little too into myself there. But what's cool is the fact that I get to spend every day with my children. I honestly can't think of a better way to live my day-to-day. My kids are the best, and they'll tell you so, because I taught them that narcissism wins reality shows and they have a future to plan for.
An unfortunate thing about living that life, however, is knowing all the ways you're falling down. There's no way you can fill both roles, so inevitably you find yourself seeking out that missing piece. That part that will truly make your family "whole" again. You don't just look for a girlfriend; you look for a potential mom. Not consciously, but it's there in the back of your brain like mental poison ivy.
So when you first start dating after becoming a single dad, you find yourself rushing. You want that family puzzle put back together right goddamn now. You don't slow down to really evaluate not just the other person, but both of you as a combined unit. You get so focused on the family, you forget that if you don't work as a couple, you're doing more damage than good. But just as bad, after a couple of failed attempts, you go the opposite direction and start ultra-judging everyone. Like with lasers and shit.
You find yourself turning down wonderful women, because you think they may still have a bit of a wild side. Maybe that's not good for the kids. Or you consider someone who's not a great fit for you, but would be awesome for the kids. You're no longer in a two-person relationship ... you're dating for your entire household. Again, it's not conscious, but it's there. A glimpse of a shadow in the mirror as you brush your teeth. You tell yourself it's not there, but it is. You know it is. And it's coming for you. It's coming ...
Shit, now I scared myself. I want my mom.
Dwayne wants to thank his mom for helping him raise such awesome children, and his three kids for being the most kickass imaginable. Just don't tell any of those four people about his seldom-updated Facebook or Twitter accounts.
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