Joel Schwartzberg realizes that sometimes, it takes a divorce to discover what it really means to be a dad
Father’s Day – at least as Hallmark and Wikipedia define it – doesn’t mean all that much to me, even though being a dad is one of the most important jobs I have.
For one thing, consider Father’s Day’s most obvious icons: golf-themed ice cream cakes, unmatchable gift ties and greeting cards that emphasize our laziness, our inattentiveness or our proximity to senility. June’s third Sunday is not so much a celebration of dads as it is a snarky toast to the lesser parent.
I personally celebrate Father’s Day every Saturday. My kids – a son, 11, and twin 8-year-old girls – and I call it “Lazy Dadurday”; the courts call it “shared custody.” But in many ways my fatherhood was born years after my three children were. My divorce forced me to be the dad I am, a separate entity from the dad everyone from my ex-wife to Dr. Phil expected me to be.
Last Father’s Day, about a year into my separation, I felt like the parental version of the former planet Pluto, suddenly demoted and now orbiting at the farthest, coldest point. I couldn’t tell if I was fathering my children well. I couldn’t even tell if they were loving me back.
But one night in my apartment, while one of my daughters was snuggling to sleep with her “sniff shirt” (a worn blouse my ex-wife routinely packed for her), her twin sister looked up at me with her big, almost completely round eyes and asked for a “daddy sniff shirt.”
I was about to grab one off a hanger, then opted for the hamper.
She brought the t-shirt to her nose, took in a deep smell and crinkled her nose.
“Too stinky?” I asked.
“No. I like it.”
Seeing her asleep with her daddy sniff shirt pressed to her face was the beginning of my reeducation and re-empowerment as a father. It helped me realize that my children have one and only one dad, no matter what happens. That they have two homes: one with their mom and one with their dad. That they don’t just visit me; they live with me.
That day, even in its waning hours, became my first true Father’s Day.
I’ve since developed a fully grown inner dad, one who tells me when it’s OK to let my son stay up late, and when it’s not; when it’s appropriate to be interrupted on the phone by a whining daughter, and when it’s not; when a tense situation calls for stern rules, or just an all-out, no-shoes family wrestling match.
My inner dad tells me I don’t have to entertain my children with amazing spectacles every weekend. We sleep late on Saturday mornings and chomp homemade pancakes while watching kid movies on the DVR. We have scavenger hunts at Kmart, vote on car radio stations and play UNO until we’re all bleary eyed and their small fingers are tired from holding massive fans of cards.
Every so often I dump a soft hill of brown and black dress socks over their heads like leaves, and they delight in matching and folding them. My girls in particular love organizing my vitamins into their little plastic rooms in my pillbox. They approach the task with the focus of FDA scientists.
Under my watch, my kids learned how to pet an old cat, how to toss a Frisbee and how charcoal needs to form a tight pyramid to keep its heat. Sure, we go to the movies from time to time and do other extravagant things, but we do them at our own pace, at our own discretion and for no other reason than that we all enjoy doing them together.
Once, on the drive back to their mother’s house, my girls played with two animal dolls in the back of the car.
“This one will be the mommy, and this one will be the baby,” one said.
“But where is the daddy?” the other asked innocently, as she does all things.
“It’s OK. They can be divorced.”
At a red light, I glanced in the mirror over at my son. With his sixth sense, he instinctively looked up from his Goosebumps novel.
I said impulsively and assuredly, “Nothing makes me happier than being your dad.”
As the light turned green, my son smiled and gave the most deeply satisfying and affirming reply I could hope for.
Joel Schwartzberg is an award-winning essayist and author of The 40-Year-Old Version: Humoirs of a Divorced Dad