My dad was gone a lot when I was growing up. Hell, he’s still gone a lot, but for different reasons. These days it’s because he and Mom travel a lot. When I was little, it was because he was at work all the time — “saving lives and stomping out disease,” as he likes to say. But he missed a lot of my childhood — recitals, performances, games, etc. — because of his job. I remember one theatrical performance, while I was on stage, actually, that his beeper went off and he had to leave in the middle of one of my scenes. Without breaking the “fourth wall” and looking out into the audience, I could see out of the corner of my eye that he got up and left the audience to call his answering service for the message. I remember hoping he’d come back, but at curtain call, his seat was still empty and Mom was alone.
It never bothered me that much as a kid (other than that one time), because I knew he loved us tremendously. But one of the requirements of being a doctor is that the job MUST come first. It’s a sacrifice you have to be willing to make. Because of this, I decided not to go to medical school. While I know I’d be a good doctor, I know I’m a better mother because I’m NOT a doctor. And I made this decision when I was barely twenty years old, sitting at my desk in my dorm room, staring at MCAT paperwork. I decided to finish my biology degree, and be NOT a doctor. I didn’t know what I wanted to be (0ther than a mommy), but I knew that medicine wasn’t the right path for me.
My dad, even with his many absences, was (and is) a great dad. I’ve always been very proud to call him my dad (except when he drinks too much at a party and starts telling his trademark inappropriate jokes, but oh, well). He was very consistent with the rules, and very clear about what was expected of us kids. My brother Pete, the oldest, was the only one to ever challenge Dad while we lived in the house, and even he wasn’t a very rebellious kid. And Mom was AMAZING about holding everything together and being in fifteen places at once as we grew up, since Dad couldn’t always be there. I still don’t know how she managed to pull it off. The two of them together taught me to be very strong, and very independent. I don’t have to have someone with me all the time to feel loved; I don’t have to have a witness for all of my successes to feel confident. And I think a lot of that is because Dad couldn’t be with us all the time.
My husband, by contrast, is a VERY present father. He comes home at roughly the same time every day, and he PLAYS with Helen and Alice. My dad didn’t do that. And I get kind of wistful when I watch, because I know that the relationship that my girls have with Jerry will be very different from the one I have with my Dad. Not better, just different. And I envy them what they’re getting. Jerry reads them stories and gives them their baths and cuddles with them at bedtime and plays video games (with Helen) and sings to them. He takes copious pictures of them living their everyday lives, and cultivates Helen’s imagination by asking her leading questions. It’s fun to watch. Sometimes I just listen and try not to be conspicuous. It’s a beautiful thing.
I married a man who is a wonderful husband and provider, but an equally fantastic father. Sure, like most fathers I know, he can have a short fuse about normal things that kids do. He asks me a lot, “Is this normal?” when Helen does something strange (like her current penchant for speaking in absolute gibberish). But I envy my girls: they’ll get to know their daddy before adulthood. My dad was so wrapped up in being The Parent that he didn’t really get to know us until we were out of the house.
Different parenting styles, but I think both are valuable. I’m just blessed to get to witness both.
I love you, Jerry! Happy Father’s Day!