December 10, 2019

Dad steps into unexpected role after tragedy strikes

Nothing can prepare you for fatherhood. Sure, Amazon has an endless supply of books, and there are a million websites dedicated to the topic. Beyond all that, there is no shortage of friends and neighbors willing to lend an opinion.

And yet, despite all that, little could prepare me for the three versions of fatherhood I experienced before my first child became a teenager.

I went from your typical dad with two kids, to a single dad with three, to a stepdad with a blended family of five in a dizzying period of my life that challenged me in ways I never could have imagined, but ultimately shaped me to become a better, more patient man, and hopefully, a better, more patient dad.

But, as we dads know, when you first hold that baby, or when you first wake up to a plaintive wail, or when you play your first game of catch, there is no preparing for that.

Dads are, by and large, the butt of the joke, the bumbling father who can barely make it out the door with his briefcase and coffee, struggling to get to the recital without embarrassing his daughter or angering his wife. We try and we fail.  I was — and am — no different. 

During my first six years of parenthood, I had an amazing wife who booked the doctors’ appointments, enrolled in all the right classes, made sure our kids had sufficient “tummy time” and knew just when to start potty training.  It was as if she had memorized the entire “What to Expect” canon. Sure, she had her moments of insecurity and failure, but those paled compared with my daily entreaty: “Please don’t let me screw up.”

In hindsight, those were the easy years. I was the classic suburban dad — more useful on weekends, trying to be present during the week. I was never where I was supposed to be, whether at the office or at home, but I was muddling through, and my wife loved me enough to want a third child. So we decided to forgo the man-to-man defense; we were prepared to play zone with three kids.

But then, one day I woke up and found myself a single father of three. The painful details are not important, but 21 hours after our third child was born, my wife died. In an instant, it became a three-on-one fastbreak. This, I hadn’t signed up for.

I learned early on that life isn’t fair. But in my sadness, I was not afforded the opportunity to lament this injustice, or wallow in self-pity. I had a 6-year-old, a 2-year-old and a newborn. They needed their dad — not some shell of a man but someone who was present, available and accountable.

I was lucky. I had two sisters who were there at the drop of a hat; friends who could be counted on for any need; a temple community that rallied to the cause; a mother-in-law reeling in grief but up to the task; a father who lent a shoulder more times than can be counted; colleagues who acted like family; and a nanny who took on extra responsibility without gripe or groan. It was never “Why me?”; it was always “Why not me?” Add to that my preternatural son who internalized the loss of his mother and quickly moved into “this is my new reality” mode. My girls were too young to understand. In my darkest moments, I thought how much worse this would have been had it happened 10 years later.

The gravity of it all hit home a few weeks on when my son was home sick. I saw him on the couch, and I knew what he needed more than anything in the world — his mom’s cuddle. No matter what I did, I wasn’t her. But I adjusted; I adapted; and most important, I grew — as a father and as a man. I took on the dual role of father and mother and did what I could to provide my kids with what they needed. I failed. A lot. But I tried. And I was present.

My wife had instilled in me the importance of “being there,” and I made sure that I was. Some things, such as work and friendships, suffered — but people gave latitude, and I took full advantage.

Fast forward a few years, and I became a stepdad. Now I was really in the fire. I had met a wonderful woman with two kids; it was a package deal, and I was up for the challenge, or so I thought. To be candid, being a single dad of three was considerably easier than being a stepdad to two. The learning curve was — and remains — steep.

Stepdads are a dime a dozen; being one doesn’t make me special. What makes our situation unusual is that even though all five kids live with us, my stepkids still have two biological parents, and my kids have one. As stepparents, we try to fill the void, but you are, at best, a reasonable facsimile. That’s OK, but it means I retain the vestiges of being a single dad.

When my kids wake in the middle of the night, they come to my side of the bed. When it’s time for their annual physicals, I make the appointments and take them. When they give their biography presentation at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, they want me there. None of this is an indictment or even a judgment on my new wife — she is a terrific stepmom. It is just our reality. As a parent — as a father — you give your kids what they need, and my kids need me. And that couldn’t make me happier.

All of my three phases of fatherhood have been different, and yet all quite similar. The journey has been fraught, and it certainly hasn’t been what I envisioned when my first wife looked at me at the top of the Target escalator and said: “Let’s have a baby.”

Every dad celebrating Father’s Day has his own story, some more harrowing than others. But whether we are single dads, stepdads or just plain, ol’ garden-variety dads, we all have the same goals: provide for our kids, be there when they need us, guide them on their way and hope like hell they take care of us in old age.

Happy Father’s Day to all.

Dan Freedman runs business affairs for the independent film company Good Universe. In his free time, he writes a blog about his first love, baseball. When not trying to keep up with his five kids and their activities, he enjoys spending time with his wife, Karen.