One of the hardest things for me to adjust to has been blurring those lines between where Mom and Dad relationships meet. A year ago, I’d have been the typical father, angry, grumpy, almost Cosby-like in my determination to at least act like I’d been appalled by the fact that any boy wants to pay attention to my daughter. “I have an unfinished guitar neck under my bed, I have used it before,” was my line, and I have told them the story from decades ago when I used one to protect my sister-in-law and my wife. (Nothing felonious, just sort of threatening. It’s like a baseball bat but with pieces of metal on it!)
But I had to face changing all that immediately after Andrea passed away. I have to try and at least address the needs Abbi has, even though I’m not, shall we say, “equipped” to handle all these things. I was a gangly, geeky kid with a lack of self-confidence and an abundance of self-loathing so meting out advice on what to do about boys, dances, prom, none of that was something that I was prepared to face, nor should I have had to face them. Andrea was the person who gave me confidence, helped me mature to the point where I could face myself and know the person I always saw in my mind really was there in the mirror. She was the yin to my yang; I hadn’t thought about having to merge them.
A few months after Andrea passed I had to face some of those very same teenage concerns. My oldest had a boyfriend who I didn’t disapprove of, but I wasn’t particularly bowled over by him either. We went through a lot. We moved into a rental home, unpacked, got settled, and then the kids spent the summer with their grandparents as I had nobody to watch them while I worked. Just a few short weeks into their summer stay, the boyfriend broke up with my oldest . . via text.
Understand, as a Dad, your first instinct is to grab that baseball bat-like guitar neck and drive to the kid’s house. I started telling my daughter she was too good for him anyway, he was a jerk. That was the exact opposite of what I should do. I was talking, I wasn’t listening!
“I know, Dad, but . . . can you just make me feel better for a minute?”
That was my daughter’s response. You see, she knew the breakup was wrong, that doing this, possibly lying to her, none of that was anything someone like her deserved. She just needed someone to tell her she was OK, it wasn’t her fault, and help her. Not belittle her choice of boyfriends, because at this stage, she still felt like it was her fault for choosing someone who would do this.
Now, I reign in the marauding Cosby inside my head. The best thing for my daughters and sons to see now is the examples they have in front of them. They saw their parents argue. In fact, Andrea had a peculiar way of trying to get me to not argue in front of the children and then pushing the perfect buttons to watch me get brutally angry right as they would enter the room.
But years into our relationship we realized that arguments didn’t matters, they were communication. The important thing was that our children saw that they really were just discussions, some louder than others, but never more than that. Never pushing anyone away, never sending anyone running, and we always ended the day in the bed, together, finding a way to finish it. That time may have been 5am sometimes, but they saw us wake up together, say “I love you” and get on with our day. They see my parents still laugh, talk, grumpily argue here and there, and still tell them how neither thought anyone else thought the way they did until they met each other. Even to the detriment of the relationship with their parents.
So when my daughter had to find a date to the Sadie Hawkins dance, I bit my tongue. I was giving her ways to figure out how to ask this young man. I helped her turn on the new mixer to make his favorite chocolate chip cookies for a hidden message under a plate. I told her how we’re guys. Sometimes cute and romantic isn’t what we need, sometimes you have to hit us over the head with a 2×4.
Now I see it moving forward with the other three kids. My middle daughter just had her first period. She didn’t want to talk with me about it; I’m a guy. Luckily she has her sister, but just so she understands, just so she knows I get it, I came into her room that night (after stealthily helping her older sister buy the necessary feminine products) and placed a bottle of Naproxen on the nightstand and told her that it always helped her mom with her cramps. She smiled. She also understood that I knew, and while I wasn’t going through what she was, I could still help when she needed me.
The two boys are next. They will hit puberty head-on with the force or hormones and determination of every teenaged boy, but they also have the force of will that their sisters bring. That like their mom, their grandma and their sisters, a smart, funny, clever woman is far more interesting than someone who’s none of those things.
They also need to understand, I’ve learned a lot more than they know, from their mom, from my mom and regardless of today’s societal standards, there are some things you do, and some you don’t when it comes to dealing with girls. You do open the car door, the door to the school. You do let them go in front of you in line at the store or at church. You do treat them with the same respect you expect you have for yourself.
And you listen. Because if you don’t, how can you possibly understand? How can you hear?
What about you guys, particularly you dads? How do you “unplug” and get out of the “dad” role with your kids? What did you learn in the process?
More from Dave:
Dave Manoucheri is a writer and journalist based in Sacramento, California. A father of four, two daughters and twin sons, his blog, Our Story Begins is a chronicle of their daily life after the loss of his wife, Andrea, in March of 2011. Follow him on Twitter @InvProducerMan.