By Mark E. Smith
So, I continue on among the most remarkable paths of my life, a single, full-time father – or, as I like to put it, “I’m a 40-year-old single, full-time father with cerebral palsy, raising my 14-year-old daughter….” I love phrasing my life that way because it’s so absurdly over-dramatic, and what’s even better is that it pretty much sums me up as the last guy on Earth any woman would ever date. I mean, if you pull any part of that description out, it plays as a run-the-other-way alarm to any rational woman: A 40-year-old guy – strike one! A single, full-time father – strike two! A 14-year-old daughter (though, she is the best kid ever) – strike three! And, then add cerebral palsy – I’m out! Really, I’m the personal ad from Hell.
However, as over-dramatic as adjectives can make my life sound, the truth is, it’s anything but dramatic these days. See, much like my cerebral palsy isn’t the toughest of roads, neither is being a single, full-time dad. In fact, like my disability, being a single, full-time dad has directed my life in wonderfully grounded, content ways, where there’s a peace and joy in my life that I’m not sure I ever knew – and others may not expect.
The process of divorce, becoming a single, full-time dad, and all of the emotions surrounding it started out as little more than controlled chaos, where there was an initial physical shock to my life. While my marriage was disintegrating for years, my ex-wife still did everyday tasks like laundry and grocery shopping. So, upon her leaving, I was literally left with a pile of dirty clothes and an empty refrigerator, looking at my daughter, thinking to myself, OK, where do we go from here, kid? It’s just you, me, and one heck of a mess!
But, like any time when we’re on the ropes in life – scared, stressed, chaotic – the old standby to Just do something! came in handy. And, that’s what I did. I determined that the priority was to get our house in shape – clean clothes, and food in the refrigerator! – and go from there.
In the process, I learned that we can’t control everything (actually, I learned that a long time ago, per life!), so start small by controlling something. And, in such situations when we’re scared and life feels chaotic, simply finding control over one small aspect in our lives truly gets us moving in healthy directions.
For me, I started by spending a weekend cleaning my master suite while my daughter was at a friend’s slumber party. From there, I got a new bed, redecorated a bit, and got at least my “area” to my liking. I then had momentum to keep going through not just the house, getting all in order, but also addressing all of the emotions and realities that go with being a single dad.
And, it was insanely challenging, more so than most around me knew at the time (few knew the extent of the personal challenges that I was facing because, one, I keep my career and public life on track no matter what, and, two, because I just really felt the need to get my home life on track on my own, with utmost personal accountability). My mindset was, I don’t care what’s happened – it’s my sole responsibility to get things on track for my daughter and me, where I’m willing to tackle whatever it requires. (And, there had to be accountability on my part for the downslide of the marriage, as well — no, I don’t think I was the cause, but even in the best intentions, my codependancy and denial played ultimately destructive roles.) What occurred to me was that I wasn’t at an end, but a beginning – the opportunity to make things right, to get healthy in every way. I realized that when we’re in a bad relationship, we really don’t have much to lose – we’re already living in dysfunction, running on empty. However, once single – especially as a parent – we have everything to lose if we don’t get it right, as it’s truly our chance to live up to be all that we’re capable of being. (This realization especially hit home when I found myself at one point in my process of getting my personal life back on track, where I caught myself developing a relationship with a woman that clearly wasn’t in the best interests of my daughter and me [vulnerability, falling back into dysfunctional patterns, and ego can get the best of us at times!] – and I quickly recognized my poor judgement, hit the brakes, and put an end to it in real time.) Therefore, I wasn’t about to let any aspect of my life slip or any opportunity for improvement pass. I had to be accountable for the past, present, and future.
Every day, I got up long before dawn to get all of the morning chores done, dropping my daughter off at school, being at work by 7:30am. Then, I raced home after work to clean, do chores, grocery shop, run my daughter to her activities, and keep up on my writing, email, and after-hours work, getting to bed by midnight. And, for several months, I just kept going – 20-hour days – feeling like getting the house and our lives on track was a stress-filled, never-ending process. It was like the movie, Groundhog Day, where I went to bed every night hoping for some relief, only to wake up in the seeming blink of an eye the next morning, having to do it all over again.
Yet, I also knew from life experiences that when times are tough, short-term pain is a small price for long-term gain, that when you’re exhausted, you can’t slow down, but must actually speed up, even when you feel like giving up – and there was too much to lose to let even the smallest detail slip. Fortunately, as I had hoped, eventually each day got easier and easier, with the house – and our life together – dramatically in order. And, I could breathe. Finally.
What was poignant during the whole process was that my daughter and I weren’t just rebuilding our life; rather, we were rebuilding our life together. And, through nightly talks – which we call “check-ins” – we set-out to further define our life together, complete with our own mission statement: To share the joys of life, mutually respecting and inspiring each other as we go.
And, it’s worked – it’s all fallen into place. The scariness, stress, and chaos has been replaced with happiness, calmness, and tranquility. Weeknight evenings are no longer about surviving, but thriving, revolving around my daughter’s activities – singing lessons, drama rehearsals, and high-school football. And, I’ve mastered being Mr. Mom, balancing house chores with everything else that I need to do, keeping all on a schedule that allows comforting predictability and normality in our home life.
Every night, my daughter and I make dinner together – getting better at our cooking skills all of the time! – and we do the whole homework thing, keeping my daughter excelling in honors classes. Then, we always have some fun activity to share, from playing board games, to baking cookies, to listening to music, to editing each other’s writing. On the weekends, we’re off somewhere, doing something, enjoying life, the two of us, where the possibilities and adventures seem limitless.
As I’ve shared with my daughter, life isn’t fair, and there is a tragedy in the fact that her mother isn’t in her life. However, we always can make the best out of a bad situation, where at points in our lives we must choose to not crumble, but rise as the Phoenix from the ashes. And, we, together, have proven the title of the Hemingway novel on my bookshelf: The sun also rises.
Indeed, as a “40-year-old single, full-time father with cerebral palsy, raising my 14-year-old daughter,” I may seem every woman’s nightmare of a guy. However, when my daughter and I are curled up on the couch with our two dogs on Saturday nights, drinking homemade smoothies and watching the cheesy ’80s teen movies that we both love, I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s been a bit of an emotional trek getting here, but the journey has been well worth any trials, as for me, just being Dad continues proving the truest blessing of my life.