This Dad’s Life

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.

Just the Two of Us

Mark E. Smith

In an uncanny foreshadow, over 20 years ago, Jim Martinson – amputee, paralympic wheelchair racer, and owner of wheelchair manufacturer, Magic In Motion (purchased by Sunrise Medical) – noted about his being a single father at the time, “I want my kids to just be kids. Let me worry about the rest.”

Jim’s statement oddly stayed with me all of these years, my never fathoming that his words of wisdom would become so poignant in my own life, that I’d be in his situation decades later.

So, what is it like to be a full-time, single father, who happens to have a disability? As the full-time, single father of a 14-year-old, I can tell you it’s the ultimate joy most of the time, and scary as hell some of the time – with a lot of complexity in-between. But, all is worth it by far, with my daughter the center of my life, where I wouldn’t change any of the difficulties I’ve endured in getting to this point. Indeed, even the most challenging of times can bring miracles into our lives, and my daughter has proved one of them.

Our journey together began at 7:39pm on March 3, 1997, just a day after my own birthday. In the delivery room, I was the first to hold my daughter, and in the most profound moment of my life, she made immediate eye contact with me – and I knew in that instance that we would be forever inseparable. Yet, I wouldn’t know to what phenomenal extent for years to come.

The first three years of my daughter’s life were remarkable. I worked hard to build a life for our family, my marriage was great, and my daughter was the best toddler ever – it was all of my dreams coming true. On my daughter’s part, she seemed to intuitively understand my disability, where as a baby, she lay perfectly still for me to change her diapers, and even at the age of two, she would stick with me – either on my lap, or waddling beside my wheelchair – in even the most distracting of circumstances without a fuss. She just always seemed to understand and respect me, including my limitations, in a way that was dramatically different than I’ve seen in other parent-child relationships.

As a result, from her birth through her toddler years, my daughter and I developed a dynamic-duo effect, where we became quite the team. From that foundation, and with my marriage disintegrating over the course of many years, I assumed more and more parental responsibilities as my daughter grew, to where although all of us where still living under one roof, I was increasingly the primary parent, a role that my friends and family picked up on before I did. Even when in an unhealthy relationship, one is still in a relationship, and I suppose that because there was still a “mom” in the physical home, I didn’t realize that I was taking on more and more of a single-parenting role. I look back now and think, Wow, there were years of evolution in that process that I was oblivious to! But, even in a bad relationship, we’re not really “alone,” and I think my trying to balance my career with raising my daughter and dealing with an unhealthy relationship didn’t allow me to see the larger dynamic that was occurring: I was on track to being a truly single parent.

And, that day eventually came, in its own time as life changes go. I’d like to tell you such change has been the best thing ever, but no ended marriage is good, nor is being a single parent what’s wished. It all may be for the best given the alternatives, but it’s never an ideal. Yet, my daughter’s and my approach has been just that – let us together take a less-than-ideal situation and make it for the best. After all, that’s the only way one can succeed in trying times and move forward in healthy directions.

Toward the emotional, those of us close to my daughter haven’t seen her more content and at peace. With just her and me living together, there’s no stress in the home, just positivity, love, and support, where she has an emotionally safe place to breathe. And, it’s proved wonderful. She has amazing friends, and her relationships with strong, healthy women like my sister have been evolving into fantastic role models. Of course, the ideal would be for my daughter to have a strong, healthy mother, but that can’t be at this juncture – life isn’t fair or just – so let me, as her father, at least be aware of the importance of having only healthy female role models in her life.

My daughter and I have had to set clear boundaries on whom does what around the house. Going back to Jim Martinson’s point, kids do need to be kids – and that’s been difficult for my daughter to practice at times. The fact is, she does see me working like a maniac, in every way, and she wants to jump in and help – a testimonial to her character. But, she needs to concentrate on school, drama, band, and friends – that is, on being a teenager. Indeed, she has her chores, but I really need to be Dad, doing as much around the house as possible, even if some tasks are easier for her than for me.

Of course, my daughter isn’t perfect – and I even find great joy in that, where she’s definitely a teenager. I loved all summer when I was busting my butt from 5:00am till 11:00pm, and I’d race home at lunch to check on my daughter, only to wake her up, finding her not yet out of bed! Or, I can’t count how many times per night I have to remind her to take the dogs out, where she’s distracted by texting, Facebook, and chatting with friends. Or, when she’s oblivious to scenes like our English bulldog prancing around with a full roll of toilet paper in her mouth, and I note, “It looks like it snowed in the living room – how did you walk by that dog ten times, and not see her shredding toilet paper?” And, it’s inexplicable to me how her room is such a mess! (They tell me it’s a teenage girl thing.)

And, I’m not perfect, by any stretch. My role as father is the one that’s the most joyous and rewarding to me, where I would go to the ends of the Earth for my daughter. And, while I think I’m doing a pretty good job, it’s still scary as hell at times. As forgiving as kids are, there truly aren’t any do-overs in raising them – parenting isn’t a trial run – so getting everything right is a weighty task, especially as a single parent. For me, there’s constant listening to my daughter – and I mean truly listening – and trying to determine how I can best meet her emotional and mental needs at vital moments. Sometimes I have answers, and sometimes I don’t – and a lot of times I just follow her lead, supporting her in her processes. What I’ve learned is that, as parents, delivering the right answer isn’t always required, but simply supporting our children so that they can find the right answers for themselves in the healthiest ways is often our role. Let me guide, but not stifle.

In my personal life, there’s an overall level of “sobriety,” where my sense of accountability and responsibility is greater than it’s ever been. We know that single parents are statistically more likely to have depression, absenteeism at work, and indulge in substance abuse – but I’ll have none of that. To the contrary, I wish to do right by everyone, especially my daughter and my career, so my tact has been to step-up my game, not let it slide. Sure, I feel overwhelmed and alone at times – there’s an insane amount to accomplish in each day, and I don’t have an intimate partner to turn to for support – but those aren’t excuses to have a drink or crawl into bed and hide; rather, they’re reasons to push myself even harder, staying up as late as it takes to try to get it all done, moving through it all with healthy emotional acknowledgment and tenacity. Twenty years from now, I want my daughter to look back upon these times and say, Not only did my dad work through it all, he actually picked up the ball and ran with it!

In all, we are a dynamic duo, moving through life very well, just the two of us. It’s not always easy or perfect, but we’re striving to make the most of it – and there’s a lot of joy and laughter in our hearts and home these days. Naturally, my daughter has asked me if I foresee “us” ever having a long-term relationship with a woman, possibly step siblings in the mix?

“I don’t see why not,” I told her. “It would have to be a remarkable woman to take on us; but, as we’ve proven, we have a lot of unconditional love to give in return. For now, though, it’s just you and me, kiddo – and that’s pretty special.”