To understand this, I should start from the beginning.
When my divorce was finalized in 2005, my children were eleven months and nearly three years old. It was agreed upon, and in hindsight was the best decision, that they would live with their mother, while I would be given ‘visitation rights’ (if there is another phrase more heinous in the English language I cannot think of it).
These ‘rights’ came with certain responsibilities, namely that I would be my children’s’ chauffer between homes. I strategically chose a brand-new brownstone that came with lawn maintenance and 7.2-miles between her house and mine, giving back my weekends and my sanity. As a teenager, this distance was nearly the exact mileage between where I lived and the cruise ‘strip’ in my hometown. I made that drive so often the ruts from my ’78 Datsun B210GX can still be found on Sylvia Highway.This drive would be nothing.
So began my ritual back-and-forth between houses, and life, ever since, has in some way been dictated by pick-up and drop-off times. I do not think it any exaggeration that over thirteen years I have put 100,000 miles total across several cars just for the chance of being a father to my kids. That is in the realm of 400 round trips per year. When I see those numbers, I am amazed and saddened that so much of my life as a dad has been spent behind the wheel.
But there is much more to this than frustration with traffic, extra gas and oil changes, or the monotony. Every trip seemed to reopen the wound and reinforced what I came to see as a diminished, and at times, unnecessary role as their father. There have been countless times when dropping them off after a ‘visit,’ I would back out of her driveway in tears. Other times, I would rage at the unfairness of this burden as I turned out of her subdivision for the fourth time that day. A few times I wondered if all the effort was worth it as they ran through the front door and into the waiting arms of their mom and stepfather.
But occasionally, and as I think about it, this was more frequent than my pride then would allow, there was gratitude after spending the twenty minutes along Hwy 92 in uninterrupted talks about everything from favorite movie characters to what characteristics make a good spouse. When heading back to my house, I felt a satisfaction that what just happened in the cab of that truck will ripple through the rest of their lives. On that ride, I made a difference. Those are the trips I would not trade; when the dashboard lights illuminated the silver lining in this whole thing that was far too often clouded over by resentment and fear. In those moments, the drudgery and disappointment of that unrelenting to and fro melted into rapture and delight. That is what I keep thinking of now and will miss the most.
Because within days they will be over – that little three-year-old will soon sit behind her own dashboard.
I could not picture then this day happening now. They were much too young, sixteen seemed an eternity away. In the thick of it, all I could see was the here-and-there going on forever.
I wanted this day to come. Sometimes, it could not get here fast enough.
But now it is, and I am unsure of what happens next. So much of my life as a father has been spent parenting behind a dashboard light, and when those lights finally go out, I am afraid I will be unable to see what lies ahead. Will I get other chances to hold their attention when no seatbelts are holding them in? Will I ever have such priceless opportunities to share what little I know of life, love, and happiness without the soundtrack of the highway hum? Where else will I have such precious quality time to be a parent?
The Queen says that when her children started driving, her job as a parent started changing, if for no other reason than they were never home. I think there is truth in that, but I think it is more. So much of our role as parents is utility. What I mean is that so much of what we do as a parent is a matter of function. Like the alarm clock, we get them up in the morning and ready for school. Or the chef making their lunches. The nurse bandaging wounds, or the cab driver taking them to practice, a dance recital, or the Saturday night sleepover.
We grow accustomed to being needed and relied upon for the services we render. We come to expect, appreciate, and even depend on it-though complaining most of the way. But when that need is gone, when our children can bathe, cook, bandage their own wounds, or as I am about to discover – drive themselves – we are at risk of becoming lost.
It is no coincidence that the older my children get, the more friends they have whose parents are divorced. When they were both in kindergarten, I was ashamed of being a divorced dad, because I was the only one. Now, it seems my children are just a drop in an ocean of broken families. I do not think it is uncommon because the older our children get, the less they ‘need’ us in the ways we have come to expect – and all too often crave.
It starts small, and we are even relieved when the diapers and bottles are gone. A trip to the public restroom no longer is an ordeal. A quick stop at the grocery store does not become an orchestrated production. We begin to revel in this new freedom and independence. But then one day we wake and they are up, fed, and out the door all while we were still sleeping. That is when we suspect everything is changing. Soon we have more of what we once only dreamed about – time for ourselves. But that extra margin gives way to self-reflection and we realize that while busy arranging our children’s lives perhaps some parts of our own were falling apart.
We look into the mirror and ask, ‘now what?’.
Her and my relationship will change. Where it goes from here, I do not know. But I do have it on competent authority that it will likely go from being a taxi service to an ATM machine. Perhaps that is what fatherhood is supposed to be like, an ongoing evolution, one that not only changes my daughter but me as well.
But in the meantime, the question remains, ‘What will fatherhood look like when I am no longer a father by the dashboard light?’