31 January 2005

Single...With Children: Mother Can't Be A Father

(Editor's Note: This was my first "Single...With Children" Column that began my five-year run as a newspaper columnist.)

Mother cannot be a father no matter how hard she tries

Single ... with Children


Publication Date: 07/12/00

Today marks the first of a series of columns that will run the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month in Friends & Neighbors: Single...With Children. Author Susie Parker is a single mother of two teen-agers. She has lived in several areas of the United States and has attended several universities, most recently Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in the advanced psychological studies program. She and her children share their home in Amarillo with her parents and a wide variety of pets.

Recently, my son came home from school, but it wasn't quite the same. Usually he bounds in the door, carelessly tosses his backpack on the table in the foyer, grabs his dog Cassie and engages in a good-natured romp that they both seem to enjoy. This particular day, however, there was no romp. This day, there was no joy.

"Can I call Dad?" he asked me?

"Of course." I immediately replied.

His dad lives in Oklahoma. It was obvious this was one of those times when long distance wasn't the next best thing to being there but would have to do.

Still pensive after hanging up the phone, he informed me his father wasn't home, and he left a message with his new stepsister to have his dad call him. Right away. ASAP.

During the course of the evening, through dinner and later as he absentmindedly joined me in working our latest 3D puzzle challenge, my usually ebullient, never-at-a-loss-for-small talk son, remained lost in his own thoughts. I couldn't help but wonder what was causing the obvious turmoil swirling inside of his mind. All of my attempts at discovering the reason were met with monosyllabic answers that, in fact, answered nothing at all.

Though I didn't know the exact explanation of this quandary my son was currently struggling with, I did recognize the symptoms and would have felt safe in betting the farm on the real core of the problem. It's something single parents see with unfortunate regularity. Whatever it was that was bothering my son, it demanded the time and attention of someone other than the "custodial" parent.

I know that there are, and will continue to be, things that will come up from time to time in my 13-year-old son's life that are more suited to being dealt with by the dad rather than the mom, but I still wish I could fix it. Things that make me want to run to the Internet to see if there's a listing for "Rent A Dad" (FYI, there is no listing. I checked.). All of us walking this path as the parent in charge probably have stumbled more times than we care to remember on similar situations. Regardless of how often though, it's never welcome, and it's never fun to be reminded that we are, at times, inadequate. The right relative but the wrong gender. Whatever was bothering my son, I felt, could be directly traced right back to this.

As our quiet, subdued, almost morose Friday evening wore on, the only time he seemed to take his mind off of this as yet "not up for discussion" conundrum was when the phone would ring, with the hope that it would be his dad returning his call. Unfortunately, the call never came, and for reasons completely outside of my ex-husband's power: he never got the message. As kids often do, my own included, his new stepsister had forgotten to deliver the urgent request that my son had made.

We woke up much earlier than is usual on a lazy Saturday morning to the ringing of the telephone. Of course, it was his father. He apologized for not calling back sooner and had only a few minutes earlier been given the message Justin had left the previous day. After a long telephone conversation, my son emerged, looking a little lighter. He was ready to talk.

It seemed that on the ride home from school the day before, one of his carpool buddies was regaling the other kids with the plans that he and his dad had made to go camping for the weekend. Camping. Out in the wilderness of Palo Duro Canyon where all kinds of adventures were waiting to be had. The kind of camping involving tents, campfires, hunting knives and the kind of give and take that can only be had between a father and son.

As hard as I try to make up for the fact that he is the son of divorced parents, I have had to accept the fact that there are just going to be times that I can't cross the gender gap and morph myself into Dad. It's something Justin and I have talked about several times, and on an intellectual level, I think we both accept it. However, all the talk in the world doesn't make it any easier when situations like this arise, as they inevitably do from time to time.

I think Justin and I both learned something from that experience. Justin learned that stepsisters don't always deliver messages, but that doesn't necessarily make them bad - just forgetful. He also learned an important lesson in patience. No matter how much his father loves him, he can't run to Amarillo from Oklahoma City on a moment's notice to go camping. Simple geography and my ex-husband's occupation prevent anything last-minute, short of a genuine emergency. I learned a thing or two as well. It doesn't do me, or anyone else, any good to fall into the trap of beating myself up on a daily basis because of the fact that Justin is the son of parents who are no longer married. It's a fact of life we have to accept. I also learned to accept the fact that there are simply going to be circumstances in which I simply can't slip into the role of dad and make everything right. Sometimes, we're both finding out, only the genuine article will do.

Justin and his dad are now making plans to go camping. Real camping with all that it entails. I'm sure they'll have a great time, and both of them are looking forward to it. Of course, I'll worry when they leave. I'll have visions of rattlesnakes, encephalitis-carrying mosquitoes and both of them getting lost never to be heard of again. But that's OK. Worrying about Justin is simply part of being a mom. Now that's a role I can handle.

Readers can e-mail Susie at Susiewrites@gmail.com or write to her c/o Amarillo Globe-News.

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