“Daddy, lock your doo-wer.” one of my daughters says as we pull out of my ex-wife’s driveway.
My five-year-old twins, already in pajamas, are buckled into second-hand car seats, their arms just long enough to flip the locks. My eight-year-old son is locked and loaded into the back seat between his sisters.
I get them from Friday night to Saturday night every week. We call it “Lazy Dadurday.” And lazy it is. We wake up late, enjoy our frozen waffle or Cheerios breakfasts, trek to the bookstore, the pet store or the pool, and just let it all hang out. My joy is simply being with them. Often joining us is my girlfriend, who shows them the kind of non-condescending respect I’d wish on any child, and they return her affection in spades. It doesn’t hurt that she has cats and makes her own French fries.
I flip my car door lock per my daughter’s plea, and thank her for looking out for me. Beginning to feel the delightfully familiar weight of responsibility, I proceed down the long road that will eventually take us from their mother’s home to mine.
“Everything okay, guys?” I ask, glancing at them in the rearview mirror.
“Sure,” offers my son.
“I mean with the divorce and all . . . do you have any questions or worries or anything?”
“Nope,” he replies for all of them.
But the older twin has a question: “Why can’t Mommy sleep at your house with us?”
I imagine the scene – my girlfriend, my ex-wife, me, four cats, three kids, one bedroom.
“Remember, you have two homes: one with Mommy, and one with me,” I say, not answering the question. “You don’t just visit me; you live with me, too.”
I remind the kids that, while other things in life may change, even crumble, a parent’s love never does. The words sound pathetically trite in my head, but it’s the most important thing to convey: not what changes, but what doesn’t. Two homes. Eternal love. Endless Cheerios.
As the words come out, they sound shockingly true. I realize that, for the first time, I’m confident in my fatherhood. I’ve weaned myself from my parents’, my ex-wife’s and even Dr. Phil’s parental expectations. I’ve finally located my inner parent, the one who tells me when it’s okay 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 and consistent rules, or just an all-out, no-shoes family wrestling match.
It took divorce to make me a better father, which is not how anyone told me it would turn out. In the first few weeks of the separation, feeling I had lost all sense of direction in my own life, I turned not to therapy, but to Google:
“Fathers and divorce”
“Children of divorce”
What came back was a chorus of single-minded, righteous advice: DON’T DO IT. Think it’ll be better for the kids? WRONG. Think you’ll now find the true girl of your dreams? KEEP DREAMING. Think it’ll make you a better parent? NOT ON YOUR LIFE. According to almost every web resource on the subject, divorce drives kids bonkers and parents to the poorhouse.
Yet, over a year later, I don’t feel emotionally, financially or parentally bereft. My children are thrilled to see me when I pick them up, and just as excited to return home and share their adventures. There’s no dark cloud between me and my ex, even when the kids are out of earshot. And my young daughter’s innocent questions have quickly evolved from sad whine to curious query. Talking with them may be awkward, but so far there’s been no need for a swooping psychiatric cavalry. According to almost every web resource on the subject, divorce drives kids bonkers and parents to the poorhouse.
“Dad, let’s play pod-racer,” says my son a few miles from my garden apartment.
“Okay,” I say, and select the Star Wars theme on my MP3 player. I maneuver around the other cars like a spaceship pilot, dramatically barking navigational orders all the way.
Once home, I hustle the kids out of the car, holding their red overnight duffel on my shoulder and their hands in mine. As usual, the bag is overstuffed with art projects, stuffed animals and board games they’ll never play with while in my twenty-four hours of care, but I’m happy for all the pieces of themselves they care to bring along.
Once inside the apartment, the girls brush their teeth, then burrow their tiny bodies into small Dora- and Pooh-inspired inflatable beds. I get their bedtime “sniff shirts.” One is their mother’s worn blouse from home; the other is my own T-shirt from the laundry basket. When they first started staying with me overnight, one asked for a “Mommy sniff shirt” to help her sleep. When her sister requested a Daddy version a week later, I couldn’t run fast enough to grab it.
“Eeeeewwwwww,” she says, giving it a strong smell.
“No. I like it,” she replies matter-of-factly, putting the T-shirt to her nose and closing her eyes.
I make some popcorn, which my son eats ravenously while playing on the computer. Eventually, he traipses into the queen-sized bed in my room, and allows himself to be swallowed by the warm comforter. Before my girlfriend and I take our positions on the convertible couch, I peek in the room.
Watching them all silently sleeping, their bodies frozen in soft contortion, I know I should go to bed, too. But I treasure the moment, just like I did after each of them was born. At the time, seeing them finally asleep came as a relief.
Now, it’s a gift.