With Purpose

The transition into single fatherhood was terrifying for me. I had lots of stereotypes in my head and very few experiences to provide more realistic expectations. In the last few years of our marriage I had focused on improving both my relationship with wife and improving my relationship with the kids. So when the marriage didn’t work out I was determined not to fail at my role as dad.

Fighting the image of the neglectful and distant father, an image I feared would grow in the boys. A sense of abandonment of both them and their mother due to the divorce as I was now living outside of the family home. I feared my role of father would be snagged up by some other guy as my ex moved on with her life. I feared I would slowly be lost from their lives … and that fear drove me to remain relevant. I kept being told that my role as dad could be taken away, only given away … but I was sure I could be forgotten too. So I decided to focus, almost entirely, on ensuring the time the boys and I would spend together would be maximized.

I vowed to be the best dad in the world.

I made sure that every weekend we were going out and doing something as a family, from just a simple walk exploring a new area or playing catch in the park. We would play endless boardgames, and snuggle while watching movies or reading a book. Any household tasks would either include them or they would wait until a day when they were with their mom. My goal was simple, to 10x those perfect fathers of the sitcom world. I was determined to build that perfect family even if it didn’t quite match the nuclear-family image any more.

Now, nothing in my actions or our activities was particularly wrong. In fact, I would argue that much of it is exactly what I should have been doing. Our time together did exactly what it was suppose to do: it maintained and strengthened my bond with the boys. We tackled new challenges and we conquered one of the scariest activities for a single parent … an international plane flight. I have always said that it was the boys that kept me going through this period, and it is undoubtedly true … but, over time I started to sense that something was not quite right.

I started to wonder if what I was doing was really what was best for them.

During this time I was obviously going through some depression and I had retreated from much of my previous world. Most of my active friendships were new as I hid from or reduced interactions with many of my long-term friends. And while I was dating, I had a very simple rule of not involving the kids … and so my world was split into two. I would save my work obligations, social activities, and majority of the household work for the days the boys were with their mother … leaving 100% dedicated father-son(s) time for the days they were with me. It left me very stressed out, I was left overloading half my week while stressing about not getting things done while I was with the kids – or at all. And I started to wonder if what I was doing was really what was best for them. On the surface it seemed like it, I was totally engaged in their lives … but what about them defining their own lives? As we were not spending time with their friends. Looking at things from their perspective, I also wondered how they thought I was doing? They were not seeing me with friends, they were not seeing me active, and they were not seeing me live much of the life they use to know. They were being sheltered, hidden from the struggles and the joys of daily life … of real life. As I became more relaxed and comfortable with my role as a single dad I sought to address some of these concerns with a more purposeful approach.

A more purposeful approach

Today, I schedule specific blocks of time each week where I dedicated dad-time to the boys. It is not the length of time that matters, but my dedicated attention on the boys. Some blocks are consistent from week to week and others are more flexible to events of life – but I work to ensure I fulfill these commitments. For us this includes the 5 minutes (or so) that I dedicate at bedtime to give them each a hug and kiss good night, but also includes a block of several hours on each day of the weekend as well as specific smaller blocks of time during the weekdays.

I also have started being more social around them. It became important to me that they see that I am out being active, that I am happy, and that I have many different friendships. Equally important is their ability to be social and have their own friend groups. So I no longer shy away from work or household chores while they are around, instead I send them outside to play or encourage them to find something to do together (or alone). They are growing their freedom and independence, and it is fun to see. And knowing other parents are not shying away from allowing their kids to come over and visit has been very reassuring.

Lastly, the necessary work of life is no longer hidden from the boys. They have their responsibilities and they see me tackling mine. They come along when we have parent-club meetings and there are times each week that I have dedicated to work or my personal growth. It is important they see that. I involve them in the household chores, especially ones that revolve around them. While I don’t always like saying “No” to the fun, it remains an important lesson.

None of this is to say I have this all figured out. There are days that I am tired or stressed out, days where I facilitate more than engage, and days the kids have worked their way onto my last nerve. Sometimes I just lose that harmony between life and fatherhood that I seek. The other day my youngest called me out on it and told me that he missed me playing with them, that I never played road hockey with them anymore. Initially I was defensive and started pointing out the recent times I was engaging with him but stopped … because he was right. Over the last couple weeks I had started facilitating more than engaging, instead of washing the car with them I played a more teacher role and instead of going swimming with them I had just taken them to the pool. But that in itself is encouraging, it means that the time we spend together is as important and meaningful to them as it is to me … it means I am doing my job.

Dedicated time together, being social with friends, and sharing the responsibilities of life. Just writing that out here helps me re-focus for this coming week.

Stuck

There it was, heaven falling from the sky. I sat staring out the window over the breakfast table at the accumulation of snow that had fallen the night before, with it still falling. As with many children on the first snow day of the year, I was excited. Another winter season had befallen our area and this year would be epic. I had plans. Winter was always one of my favorite times in the year, yes it was cold … and yes it got dark early, but winter was when things happened! Sledding, skiing, hockey, snow ball fights, and snow forts. Summer sports were not to be left out during this time of year … fishing, camping, hiking were all things we continued even as the temperatures dropped. Taking the BMX bikes out for a spin in the snow and ice was quite the rush and later in my teens we even attempted to play a round of snow golf by painting our golf balls in florescent colors so we could see them.

So at the breakfast table that morning my pre-teen mind was envisioning the wonders the season was to bring … I could not wait to get outside.

This evening I was working with my oldest on some writing practice and he had hit a road block. A problem he had been running into recently. Often I feel he has so many thoughts running through his head that he can’t get them out onto the paper. I tried to offer a couple different tactics but he was only getting more frustrated and my “help” was not helping, but only driving him into a greater state of frustration. So I changed my tactics and took him for a walk, away from the pressure cooker of the assignment. After a short while he was able to describe the situation a little better, middle school is a big transition and there is a lot going on in that quickly developing brain. After digging through some of the weeds (pressures, time limits, self-expectations) we returned back to focusing on the writing and he shared that he just didn’t know how to get his ideas out. He had his writing plan. He knew what he needed to write. He was just stuck.

Back in the cold Caribou, a central region of British Columbia, I shoveled down my breakfast, pulled on my snowsuit pants, climbed into my boots, and tossed on my jacket as I headed out the door. I knew what I had to do, I was on a mission. Now you might find this part a bit strange, but I was racing out the door to shovel the driveway. No, I was not the worlds’ perfect child, while shoveling the driveway or mowing the lawn was a thrill early on, as it meant you were growing up and becoming a man, my focus that morning was on my own mission. A huge pile of snow. Honestly, think I shoveled some of the lawn before I was done.

Since the year before I had been dreaming about a huge snow fort, for that I needed a huge pile of snow. With it we would cut tunnels with our feet, digging like a boring machine through rock, and create our own cave system. I remember my mother several times having a heart attack as she saw what we were doing, collapses were dangerous but a part of the process – I was only focused on how cool it would be. Each year I wanted to make the snow bank bigger, grander … and clearing the driveway had the added benefit of also clearing a place to play hockey.

My vision was etched in my mind as I grabbed the largest shovel from the shed and walked to the far side of the driveway. I made it about half way across before I stopped, it had gotten heavy. I buckled down and pushed harder squeaking out another few inches. Wasn’t long before my Dad was telling me to hurry up before too many people drove on the snow, packing it down and making it harder to shovel. Didn’t help, the snow was damp and heavy … I wasn’t going anywhere.

Of course it is easy to see the solution when you are staring right at the problem; a piled white mass laying right there in the middle of the driveway. I needed to push less snow. My Dad seeing my struggle brought me a smaller and lighter shovel. But more importantly, I had to take smaller, often shorter paths. If I could not push the entire width of the driveway in one go, I would do half at a time. Eventually, time caught up to me as I realized I could not push ALL the snow from the driveway to that single snowbank. Yet, after only a few snowfalls I was out there cutting my way into the snowy mound with a smile on my face.

Not sure why it came into my head this evening, possibly it is all the snow scenes from friends and family, perhaps it is that my son is about the same age I was. Yet, it seemed strangely relevant to what my son was experiencing … and where I think many of us find ourselves from time to time. He had his plan for the assignment, he knew he needed 5 paragraphs and what each paragraph was for. With his plan he started in on the opening paragraph, and I must say it was well done. But then he was stuck and could not push it forward any further. He had the vision, set the expectations, knew what needed to happen … and now he was frustrated at himself.

I think many of us have those visions and dreams; a household renovation, a new business, a personal hobby project. When I have these I often find I do exactly what my son did today, I put a detailed vision in my head setting the expectations of what I want. Even map out what needs to happen to get there before dropping into the work. Inevitably at some point along the way I too find myself stuck, unsure how to move forward. When this happens I usually find that my plan was less a plan and more of an overview of the high-level tasks. Segmenting of the remaining tasks and getting better definitions, in other words getting a smaller and lighter shovel usually gets the project back moving again.

When you get stuck on the path towards your dream, take a step back and make sure your shovel isn’t just full of wet snow.

Adventure Bound

Photo by Kai Oberhäuser
Photo by Kai Oberhäuser

Received a text this morning from the boys mom informing me that they will be heading out-of-state to visit a friend for quick weekend vacation. Not sure if it was the way it was presented, how I read it, or just the unexpected nature of it but the note tore into me. I wasn’t left mad or angry, but knots filled my stomach and questions swirled in my mind. And I had no immediate answer to why … ?

Could be jealousy. Even after two years of separation and multiple relationships of my own I still find I am jealous of her with someone else. Of course, I expected it. Have known about it. And felt I had dealt with it. I am happy she has someone, though have to admit I still hold grudges towards aspects (but that is another story). However, the name she included as who she would be visiting was new, and no one I had ever heard of before. This left me wondering, is this someone new? Or is she just hiding a trip with her ‘other’ from me? Honestly, it smelled of that latter, but I was only left with my conjectures at the time – and that, I know from experience, is not a healthy place to leave one’s mind for long. It would be futile to chase answers to most of my questions, yet I was left unnerved by the few details and late notice provided.

Whisking the boys away on a last minute adventure sounds fun, but for the parent left behind it can be gut wrenching. Not knowing who would be accompanying them, who they would be meeting there, or what they will be doing … it leaves only worry and concern as the mind swirls trying to fill the gaps. Is this going to be a safe trip for the boys? Is it going to be safe for her?

This is where I stopped myself and took a break for lunch. I stepped out for some air walking along the path leading around a small lake just outside the office building. There, underneath a tree just out of reach from the beating sun, I sat. I slowed my mind down. I remembered why I thought she was the perfect one to raise a family with. She is smart. She is loving. And she will do anything to protect the boys. So I sat, meditated on that, and searched for what else could be bothering me.

Is it that I could be missing out? The fear of “missing out” or “being left behind” has been the largest mental obstacle I have faced since separation. And this trip fits right into my horror story of the kids, their ‘new family’, and being replaced as dad. However, this last year has proven to me that my kids are not looking to replace me, and that there is no way I am stepping back from being their Dad. And … while I may be missing out on this adventure, we have been on a few adventures ourselves. In fact we just returned from a weekend outing a couple weeks ago. Even if this does happen to be a trip that I have been wanting to take with the boys … it doesn’t mean we won’t take a similar one in the months ahead, and we will find a way to make the trip very unique to us. So I am not really missing out, I have my own plans.

At the core of this is our communication, or lack there of. From that I think the biggest thing is a lack of respect between us as partners in this parenting space. We are constantly complaining about how the other is responding, reacting, or demanding. It is the arms race, a cold war of sorts … and we heading down a path of destruction. I could fight back, rage on the technicalities. Yet, at the end of the day what is that going to do but put more landmines in the path of my own future and create more drama in the lives of my kids.

So I reside myself to the concerned parent, so just want to know the kids will be in a safe place and request that they bookend their travels with a call or text to me so I don’t worry. I smile at the thought of my kids getting a chance to see new sites and try their hand at new skills.

Yet, I hold fast to the condition that I be treated as an equal in this partnership. And if we cannot find a way to work together, I do know we are working to a similar goal … so I will continue to make choices that I feel are right for the boys, for me, and for our lives.