Sometimes I wonder if my dad knew what he was getting into when he fought for split custody. I was just nine years old at the time, the youngest by far of his four kids. For the first time in his life, my dad, a dude in his 50s, had to take responsibility for every aspect of childcare. During our half of every week together he did his best to make sure I bathed regularly, and was ready for the next day. There we were – two dyslexics doing drills to prepare for the spelling quiz.
The years before my dad remarried were filled with classic ‘Mr. Mom’ material, including unprecedented amounts of junk food, creative school outfits that may have included his bow ties on several occasions, and previously forbidden pets and toys, including an adopted stray cat and a My Little Pony. Nothing topped the moment when we ran out of shampoo. He handed me a bottle of liquid Tide from the top of the washing machine, explaining, “Soap is soap!” I believed him.
One night as we were walking out of the movies, I was reveling in the joy of our new dad-and-daughter outings, probably high off the unprecedented levels of high fructose corn syrup coursing through my veins,“Isn’t it great to have time just the two of us?” I asked. “It is like working two full time jobs,” he flatly replied. That wasn’t the answer I was expecting.
In the years that followed, my dad and I spent more time together than the typical middle schooler and her dad. Our adventures together included hiking, one ski trip, and one too many sailing trips. During this time, I watched my dad operate in the world without much concern or fear of what other people thought of him. He wore his belt too high, didn’t remember anyone’s name, swore when he got mad, sang too loud, and didn’t care if any of that bothered anyone.
While I know this behavior brought on a couple of typical adolescent eye rolls, I don’t truly remember feeling mortified. I think I became numb to embarrassment.
“After all,” my dad would explain, “if people have a problem with me, that’s their problem, not mine.”
When you live with that mindset for years, you actually start to believe it.
A year and a half ago, my dad turned 80. That birthday seemed to accelerate the aging process. Within one year he was diagnosed with early dementia, gave up his drivers license, and stopped tinkering with his computer and his camera.
When my siblings and I gathered to celebrate the decade, questions swam in my mind: what did he want to do if he needed more help? How was he making financial decisions? Did he have the resources he needed for the remainder of his retirement? I finally stole a moment for the now all too rare dad-and-daughter conversation.
As we slowly and honestly talked through my questions we both fought back tears. Once again, he wasn’t afraid. He knew things were changing fast. He put my step-mother in charge of everything from breakfast to investments. Our aloneness in the room reminded me of the several years that it had been just the two of us. That second job he worked for those years gave us an understanding of each other that few daughters have with their fathers.
My dad’s disregard for rules was a great gift to me at age ten, an age when so many girls are internalizing the countless rules of being female. It was liberating. He taught me that I have a choice of how deeply to invest in everyone’s opinion of me. I am grateful for the freedom to listen to my own needs and not get wrapped up in the fear of judgment.
The other morning as I was headed out the door for Saturday breakfast at the local bakery with my young boys, my husband asked,“Are you wearing that?”
“Yep,” I enjoyed replying, feeling very much my father’s daughter. Just wait until they hear me sing.