I was so excited. I’d finally saved up enough money to buy my daughter her first two-wheeler bike. I wheeled it over to her mom’s apartment thinking about the look on my daughter’s face when she opened the door.
And she did open the door. My daughter was barely up to my stomach back then and still enjoyed being picked up for twirling hugs. As I thought, she loved the bike. She gave it a quick spin up and down the hallway then kissed me and took it inside.
Before I could even push the elevator button, her mother opened back up the door, shoved the bike outside and went on a rant about how the bike I bought was cheap and I needed to take it back and buy our daughter another one.
The door slammed and I was left alone in the hallway with the bike.
It’s hard not to get emotional remembering this story. It solidified the narrative in my head that the only way to be a good father was to have money. I could afford to get my daughter a bike but not a good enough bike. I could afford to buy her a Christmas gift but not a good enough gift.
Tears welled up in my eyes on my way down the elevator.
“I’m failing,” I thought. “I’m a shitty parent who can’t even afford to buy his daughter a nice bike.”
A shift in thinking
This insecurity was in me long before that incident. Once that bike thing happened, though, I’m ashamed at where it pushed me. For the first time I thought about doing something illegal for money. I couldn’t take the shame anymore. The pressure to provide was getting to me and I saw selling drugs as the only way out.
Thankfully, I never followed through on these thoughts. I came close, but something told me “You’re better than this.” That same something forced me to sit down and reflect on the reality of my situation at that time.
You see, I come from an era and a culture where our father’s largely failed us. All the fingers on one of my hands are too many to represent the friends I grew up with who had both parents, and the one parent they did have was always the mother.
Our fathers were voices on the phone, knocks on the door to hand our mothers envelops, gifts at Christmas. They bought us new shoes, new jackets, the latest video games. That was the extent of their involvement, and that’s for those of use who were lucky they were in the picture at all.
I had no reference to father any differently. Getting my mind to shift to a space that inspired a different view of being a father took years of uncertainty, years of feeling unworthy, guilty, like a failure.
But I got there. However slowly, I eventually realized that my being a father shouldn’t be measured solely on how much money I had. At the time, I lived in a one bedroom apartment so I was paying rent. We always had food. My daughter had clothes for school and participated in extra curricular activities.
I wasn’t doing all that bad for a teenage parent.
Once I recognized that I wasn’t a deadbeat just because I couldn’t afford everything I wanted for my daughter, I started looking at ways I was succeeding as a parent.
I went to all of her track meets. We made snow angels together. We had pillow fights and when it was time for her to go to bed, she wouldn’t leave the couch unless I carried her on my back.
We had built a real relationship. A bond that consisted of me being present and engaged in her life. I learned she cared very little about the gifts I bought her or didn’t buy her. She was happy to have her father.
I think we all have these narratives that have been socialized into our being. But that’s all they are; stories we tell ourselves or that have been nurtured into our minds. We can just as easily tell ourselves a different story and have that be just as true.
I chose a different story. One that didn’t limit my scope as a father. And I’ve continued to rewrite the narrative of my experience as a single parent to my now teenage daughter.