To a certain extent, every parent (and parenting team) has to wrestle with being the “cool” parent or the “strict” parent. I’ve seen plenty of parents who take pride in being the disciplinarian, the rule maker and enforcer, all the while knowing that their partner is relieved (in a sense) of that side of the child-rearing equation. Some moms like the “Tiger Mom” approach, and take pride in their ability to quell a rebellion with just a look. Plenty of dads I know are the ones who lay down the law in their family.
I’ve always seen myself pretty clearly in the “rule follower” and discipline camp. I’ve been self-directed my whole life, and I’ve tended towards being organized and having a structured approach to things. Let’s just say parenting doesn’t always lend itself to being organized. Or structured. Or even remotely disciplined. It took a while for me to relax about not having things go according to a schedule all the time. I think in part it was due to my (then) partner’s approach to things, which was a lot less structured than mine, for the most part. She was a lot more willing to let things slide, as long as the kids were healthy and happy, and I definitely had to adjust to that.
Having now been in single parent mode for a few years, the equation has changed in ways that I really could never have imagined. Not only has there been the stress of adjusting to the “new normal” of a different family configuration, there’s also the added challenge of trying to play all the parenting roles on my own. I don’t necessarily think that a parent always plays a certain role, but it’s a natural thing for each parent in a couple to assume certain roles and become comfortable in those roles over the years. When a family splits up, that all changes — sometimes in ways that can have lasting effects.
When we first split up, I expected that we’d try to adhere to the custody schedule as we’d negotiated it. When that started to slide around, I struggled to not get upset, and I let my frustration come through on more than one occasion, which probably didn’t help things. I wanted things to be more structured, partially because I thought it would help the kids adjust, and probably as much for my own peace of mind, as I was faced with living in a new place without the benefit of a support system.
(Side note: Reno Dads makes a great support system. Thanks, boys!)
What I had hoped would happen is that we’d settle into a routine of switching every other week, which is something that I didn’t have growing up in a divorced family. I saw my dad sparingly over the years, and by the time I’d had the opportunity to live with him during high school, it was almost too late to recover from the years of separation and distance that developed. I’m glad I had those years with him although it’s taken me years to realize just how precious that time was, and now I look back on it thinking that we didn’t make the most of it.
One option is to be the “Disneyland Parent” — someone who does the fun stuff on the weekends and holidays. This route has the potential to lead to a pretty shallow place, in my opinion. Children are taught to see the role of the parent as entertainer, or, worse, someone who is only there to bring them stuff. These connections aren’t strong enough to get beyond the surface to meaningful conversations that parents want to have and that children need in order to feel that they have someone to rely upon for advice as they navigate through middle school, high school, and beyond.
For me, parenting of any real substance starts with the day-to-day interactions that lead to stronger, more comfortable, and longer lasting relationships. I know there are parents who are capable of parenting from a distance, who probably benefit from having some space between them and their kids, and who might disagree with this perspective. It’s just hard for me to imagine that the occasional visit or intermittent contact could really lead to anything meaningful and enduring. Consider this essay, where the author describes “one long conversation that spanned thirty-four years.” The author provides a beautiful description of her memories of her father and the never-ending discussions they had over her lifetime. For me, fatherhood means being present in the lives of my kids, being available to listen and give advice (sometimes even solicited), and just being there.