I was hardly of legal age to drink in Illinois the afternoon that I became a dad. Legal or not, I would have been far more skilled at drinking than what was headed my way.
When my daughter was born, her face looked smooshed up and she was so red, I was sure something was wrong with her. The previous 12 hours had been hell on earth for me. For the next 18 months, I awkwardly passed her off at every chance I got…. I was clumsy and scared and totally disconnected.
I tried to feel the bond people talk of but I just felt like I couldn’t find it. I was sure something was wrong with me, that this part of me was broken. She breast-fed and was so bonded to her mom; I was this odd man out with nothing to offer. I searched for an inroad but found none.
My dad raised me on his own from when I was 5 till I was 11. He was heroic when I think back on it—I can’t imagine how he did it, although I clearly remember the day my mom left he took me to buy a motorcycle helmet and that helmet symbolized what would be in store for us.
His effort felt effortless to me, that’s what parents do I guess.
It all felt normal, I didn’t really realize our family was so different. Being a dad now myself, I am far more aware of what he did and it really inspires me to do hard and push thru because I know that considering what he endured, I got it easy.
I got a second dad when I was 11 and being shaped by 2 dads, I’ve come to realize I had a more complete circle than most. They couldn’t have been more different and each formed a unique connection with me that was and is very real and significant, both showing me opposite ends of the inner and outer universe.
Because I had 2, I couldn’t believe I was failing so bad—I’d had these 2 awesome models to work from and yet I just couldn’t find my way.
Her first birthday was my low point… I had no connection to her, I didn’t understand anything about anything and I felt so lost. Her mom had planned this enormous party and obsessed about every detail and loved this kid of mine so much that I couldn’t find room within their incredible connection to create my own.
I remember so clearly feeling like I was standing outside looking in a window wondering where I fit in. I almost gave up and figured her mom was awesome enough for both of us so she’d probably turn out all right.
The moment she took her first step, I was with her. She was as shocked as we were and in that moment her and I began to find our way. Since then, when she needs to be cared for, she turns to her mom and when she grows, explores, expands and takes her next steps, I’m her guide.
After that first step, my natural ability to lean in at just the right time kicked in… we grew together, her learning to walk and explore and be independent and me finally recognizing our special thing and cultivating it with every ounce of me.
As she grew, so did our bond. The more independent she became, the more I related to her. In many ways I was forced to grow up and navigate on my own and so as she did those things, I related to her better because I understood it in a deep and personal way.
I taught her how to be free and break rules and stand on her own two feet. She reminded me to slow down and honor the moments more. I pushed her harder than anyone. Her mom made sure she had on kneepads and I’d force her to take the biggest hills, the harder course and to always choose danger over safety, joy and adventure over common sense.
Our roles have been clarified for a long time now— I help (and force) her to expand and grow, her mom makes sure the lunch is packed for whatever adventuresome trouble we find ourselves in.
The days of me not knowing what to do, how to connect, feeling so awkward and lost are long gone…. I’ve owned my role as a dad in a big way and I can’t measure anything next to this accomplishment.. I know for sure I’ve done the best I could and when I see this alive, radiant, smart, seriously passionate, adventurous and kind woman, I see my role and how I showed up. I also see it when she comes out of her room for the 4th time after I’ve made her change clothes and explained that the previous three shirts I would be burning in a fire.
I found a way to be in trouble with her but keep her from some as well. Her mom calls us the twins.. in many ways this fits because we had to grow up together. I’ve always been much more interested in her and I creating trouble than almost anything else….We’ve created a lot of trouble, followed more adventures than I could re-count and lived to tell about most. (Some will remain between us due to various state statutes of limitation.)
We see the world almost identically and we have a street-smart sensibility about us that makes us equally desirable candidates if anyone ever needs a team for the end of days. We figure things out, navigate the unknown naturally and force change wherever we go. We love the same books and the same words, we hate tomatoes and we can have a conversation without ever saying a word.
I occasionally look at her and feel like I’m looking at my fingerprint.
I became a dad at almost the same age she is now…. In fact, she’s leaving home this fall and I’ve yet to turn 40. What could have been a nightmare has proven to be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced. My youthful ignorance and her unconditional acceptance proved to be a perfect match and together we’ve forged an inseparable connection, just like I’d longed for.
She still holds my hand when we walk down the street even though she’s slightly taller than me now. When I hold it, I think of those early days and how I wondered if we’d ever connect. I realize what being her dad’s taught me… to trust myself, to believe that things work out, to forgive quickly, to forge ahead no matter what, to clean up what I can but just keep adding love. She helped me realize that no matter what I try to do, some things will just be what they will be.
Mostly, I taught her how to really be free and she taught me what the point was in the first place.
I realize now when I look at her, my heart is running around in someone else’s body.