Growing up, I was fortunate to have both my parents in the home. My dad is a real estate appraiser, and though he worked a lot, we were often able to accompany him on local road trips when he went to look at houses. Sometimes we’d ride along with him, fascinated by the beauty of some areas that we never would have seen otherwise. Other times he would drop my mom and us three girls off at the park so we could have a picnic. He’d join us when his appointment was done.
Dad was the one who had the ideas for fun places to go and things to see. Who knew that sitting in the lobby of a fancy hotel, as if we were guests, enjoying hot chocolate by the fire could be so much fun. But with Dad, it was his way of instilling make-believe in us. It wasn’t because we were poor, mind you. But because my dad was so busy all the time, he was sharing with us his way of coping – a one hour vacation from reality. Our favorite place to go was to the Sonoma Mission Inn (now the Fairmont) in Sonoma. The waitresses knew him by name, he visited so often. “Go wash your hands in the bathroom,” he’d whisper to us. “The soap is amazing!” And we would. (note: he’d offer us vacations in a bottle every year for Christmas by presenting us with our very own Sonoma Mission Inn Soap to use in our bathroom. It was one of our favorite gifts) Without fail, we’d all order hot chocolate and Crème Brule, taking the smallest bites possible after breaking through the caramelized crust of the pudding, mulling it over our tongues as we tried to make it last as long as possible.
In the winter we’d take weekend trips up to the Sierras. The 4 hour drive was broken up in two parts, always a stop in Lodi. We were creatures of habit. We had our favorite Carl’s Jr. that we stopped at in the evening. And whenever we hit the town in the morning, we had our favorite little diner, ordering our breakfasts by the number. And thanks to my dad, I can’t even think of the town of Lodi without humming a few bars from “Stuck in Lodi Again”. The drive was also peppered with us girls taking turns singing our favorite songs in the backseat as if no one were listening, then making each other giggle uncontrollably, and my dad yelling to keep it down – every 5 minutes. We’d argue with him, thinking that he was being ridiculous since we were having a good time and not fighting. Now with my own kids giggling in the backseat of a small vehicle, I think I understand. Once up on the mountain, it was dad who went skiing with us, putting us in a ski class while he ventured out to the more experienced slopes, and then joining us later to take a few easy runs with us. When we graduated to snowboarding, he stayed with his skis. But he took pictures with us and our snowboards just to be a part of the fad.
But there was more to Dad than just offering us a fun time. He was also the heavy hand in the family. If we got in trouble, sooner or later we were going to have to face Dad. And there is nothing worse than being the brunt of Dad’s anger. And let me tell you, as the oldest, I was there quite often. If I stepped out of line, my Dad was right there to pull me back in. “We didn’t raise you this way,” he’d glower, as I suffered the repercussions of sneaking out at night, or being caught with a cigarette, or when I’d “borrow” the car and not return until the wee hours of the morning. Wash my mouth out with soap? Time outs in the corner? Bah! Dad wouldn’t bother with that. In my younger years, every infraction was met with a couple hard swats on the bottom. And it was worse to be spanked by my dad than by my mom because Dad made sure we remembered it. “Wait till your father gets home,” is all my mom would have to say for us girls to stop in our tracks. And even though our infractions were committed hours earlier, Dad would stop by our rooms and let us know that our misbehavior was not going to be ignored. As I got older, there were times when he’d be so angry that he’d offer up the silent treatment. There was nothing worse than knowing I had stepped out of my dad’s graces, that he was so disappointed in me that he couldn’t even speak to me. Every morning we had a ritual of waking up early and reading the paper over coffee while everyone else still slept. During the silent treatment, he’d be in his office, avoiding me at all costs. But inevitably, one morning he’d just be there. We’d sit for an eternity of minutes in silence, both mulling over what we want to say in our minds, but afraid to speak first. At least I was. But the silence would eventually be too much to bear, and I was most likely the one who would offer up my apology first for being such an ass. And he’d accept my apology graciously, and would then talk about why it was so upsetting when I acted a certain way. There would be tears and frustration on my part and a level emotion on his as we worked it out. And then he’d invite me over for a big hug that he knew I needed more than anything. Once again I was Dad’s girl.
I had a different relationship with my mom than I had with my dad. With Dad, I was able to share things at face value – favorite songs on the radio, places I’d like to go one day, how much fun we had doing something or other, how I was doing with my studies, needing $20 for the movies with my friends… With my mom, I was able to confess the contents of my heart. A boy at school likes me, and I’m nervous about going to the school dance with him. A different boy, who I had liked for 3 years, kissed another girl in front of me and I am heartbroken. My friend just had to go through something really traumatic, and I don’t know how to be there for her. All the kids are wearing this certain kind of style, and I don’t think I’ll look good in it. There’s something wrong with my body and I don’t know what’s going on. It was mom who talked to us about the birds and the bees, and who told us that we could come to her if we became sexually active so that she could get us on some birth control. And when we did, she kept our confidences, much to my father’s disappointment in later years, never telling him what was going on. With her, the things that we couldn’t speak out loud to many people could be told to her. And she made it safe to do so, even bringing up certain things that might be too embarrassing for us to talk about first. If we just couldn’t talk about it, Mom always knew the right book we could look through to answer our questions, and maybe spur some dialogue once we became more comfortable. When I experienced the first dealings of mortality after a childhood friend died of brain cancer in 7th grade, it was Mom who held me when I could finally cry three days later. And she was the one who went with me to the wake so I could say my goodbyes. When my own infant son died of a stillbirth, my mom held my other hand as I gave birth, not leaving my side once even as scary as the situation was. And it was my mom who taught me how to attack the ground and make 6 inch holes in rock hard dirt so I could plant a daffodil garden in his honor. She knew I needed to get the aggression out on a life that is so full of things that aren’t fair. She knew I needed to do something for him since to everyone else he never even existed. And she knew that I needed to get some sunshine and fresh air instead of laying on the couch day in and day out, as I would have rather done. She got me to open up to grieving, and to eventually be able to see the day as something new, rather than just life after my baby died.
Growing up, it was a lot easier to get into fights with my mom. My mom was a yeller. That was her main punishment. And we’d yell back. It would be World War 3 in our house as we fought back and forth at the top of our lungs. To this day, I wonder what the neighbors were thinking. Getting our mouth washed out with soap was her favorite way to discipline. And secretly, it was ours too. It tasted awful, but it was over in a moment. And it was nothing that a little toothpaste couldn’t fix. But sometimes she’d get so angry that she’d bring out the wooden spoon and paddle our behinds. We learned not to put our hands in the way to cushion the blow. A wooden spoon coming down hard hurts a lot more on the knuckles than it does on the soft cushion of our derrieres. But the thing with Mom, if she had to resort to a spanking she would feel awful about it later. A screaming and yelling match happened because Mom was so angry she could think of nothing else to do. If she got so angry that she had to take out the wooden spoon, the incident would be followed up an hour later with an apology.
Dads and moms are very different when it comes to raising kids. In general terms, dads are the ones who initiate all the fun things. They are the ones who come down hard, and teach us to mind our steps if we don’t want to suffer the consequences. And they are the ones who will be there if you need help. Moms are the ones who nurture us by making sure we are fed and bathed. They make sure we have the skills to take care of ourselves when we are older – teaching us the right way to wash a dish and load it in the dish rack so it dries, how to create buttermilk using only milk and vinegar, and how to fold the towels correctly so that they all fit in the cabinet. They get to our hearts by talking about the things we hold close to us. They are a lot gentler in their approach, and not as intimidating when they are screaming at us than our dads are when they throw down the gauntlet. Kids growing up in two parent homes get the benefit of both parents’ personalities. And where each parent is lacking, the other is able to pick up and be the strong suit.
So what does that mean for single parents who only have one side or the other?
I got an email today from a man who is in his own single parent household, raising an 11 year old boy. And because I have been having so much focus on my son lately as I deal with his behavioral issues, he offered to supply me with his own wisdom about raising boys from a male perspective. He hasn’t been the first male to offer such wisdom. And it got me thinking about my role as a mother, and my lacking role as a father.
I have two kids – my almost 12 year old daughter, and my almost 9 year old son. If you’ve been reading along, you’ll notice that not much is written about my daughter. Partly that is due to the fact that as a pre-teen, any mention about her would embarrass the living daylights out of her. But also it’s because I get her. A long time ago (no, not that long…), I WAS her. So when she gets mouth and sullen, or when she had a hard time saying anything without a heavy dose of attitude, I get it. And we give it back and forth to each other until we reach a “White Flag” moment, hug, and move on. But my son? I don’t get him. I am not a boy. I didn’t have brothers. The things and feelings he’s going through, I just don’t understand them. When he looks me in the eye and tells me that I obviously don’t care for him because he isn’t getting his way, and he tells me this after I’ve just spent the whole day working, doing errands on my lunch, grocery shopping, making sure his homework is done, fixing him his favorite food, making sure that his pajamas are clean by throwing in a quick wash, balancing my checkbook to find that I have nothing left after paying all of the bills and signing him up for baseball…. When he claims that I don’t care about him, after everything I do, because I’ve told him that it’s bedtime and he can’t play video games, I see RED. When he tells me that I’ve ruined his day, or that he wishes he had another family, or something else that he knows will go straight to my heart and leave a black hole, I am at a loss. And the way I deal with it when my emotion is on my sleeve does not strike fear in his heart. It only leaves him with more of a reason to insist that I don’t care about him. And being a single mom, it makes me wonder how I can do things differently so that he is raised up to be an extraordinary man – as if he had both parents in the house.
This last week, things came to a head between my son and me. And I want to get to that soon. But for now, I have several questions for you:
Were you raised in a single parent home, or a home with two parents?
What does your own family look like now?
Do you see differences in the way moms and dads raise their kids?
Is it possible for a single parent to be both the mom and the dad?