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You can read countless books about parenting. You can talk to your friends about their experiences as parents. You can take as many classes to prepare you for becoming a parent as you'd like. Yet, somehow, parenthood does not feel real until the crazy adventure of pregnancy reaches its conclusion and you are there in a hospital room (or igloo, or public swimming pool, hey I don't know your life) holding a baby, your baby, in your arms for the first time and something that has seemed somehow theoretical and abstract becomes the most real, urgent and important thing in your life.
It's as if a massive shift occurs in your brain chemistry and the old life you had been living, the one that revolved around your needs and the needs of your partner, is over and a new one has just begun—one where your life centers ferociously on the tiny, vulnerable little creature you are holding. Your life changes dramatically in the space of a heartbeat. You stop being the person you were before and become something new and glorious and incredibly hard: a parent.
When I held my son Declan in my arms for the first time I remember thinking very vividly about my father and, in that moment, I felt like I understood his struggles in a way I never did before.
Even now, it's hard to fathom the incredible obstacles my father faced. In 1978, when my father and my birth mother divorced, it was incredibly rare for a father to get sole custody of their children. It was even more uncommon when the father had a degenerative nerve disorder like Multiple Sclerosis, as my father did and does.
We moved around a lot, which meant new schools and new neighborhoods, but the one constant in our lives and the glue that held us together, was my father's unconditional love.
I can't imagine how difficult the road ahead must have looked for him while he tried to emerge from the wreckage of a bitter and acrimonious divorce and start life anew with a two and three-year-old and absolutely no help from my biological mother, who opted out of the whole parenting game after the divorce.
I remember babysitters when my dad was out of town on business and an extended stay with my great-aunt and uncle while he got settled in a new city and began to build a new life for us. But mostly what I remember is how my father always made us feel loved. My childhood was short on stability and security. We moved around a lot, which meant new schools and new neighborhoods, but the one constant in our lives and the glue that held us together, was my father's unconditional love.
The years ahead were filled with pain and struggling. When my father got divorced a second time in the late 80s, he faced an even bleaker future. Not only was he a middle-aged man with MS and two young teenagers, he was habitually unemployed and had to subsist largely on a paltry government pension.
I felt like I understood on a deep level the sort of inhuman pressure he was under.
As a combustible ball of anger and resentment, I didn't make my dad's life any easier, and though I eventually ended up in a group home, even there, my father was a constant and positive presence, making me feel loved and needed when the rest of the world made me feel unwanted and alone.
When I lost my job last year and wondered how I would possibly provide for my son and my family with no guaranteed paycheck and no benefits, I felt in my bones, and in my soul, the gut-wrenching stress and anxiety my father must have felt as a middle-aged man with MS, two difficult children to raise single-handedly and almost no money to do so. I felt like I understood on a deep level the sort of inhuman pressure he was under.
I am blessed to have infinitely more luxuries and resources than my father did when I was growing up. I am blessed to have a wonderful wife who is an even more amazing mother. I have kind and involved in-laws who treat Declan as if he were their own son and allow us to live, rent-free, in their basement. We are surrounded by extended family who adore and spoil our son, and though my days as a salaried writer with benefits appear to have come to a close, I'm lucky to have a thriving freelance career and a less thriving career as an author.
Yet with all of these benefits, being a father is still difficult.
I can't imagine how difficult it must have been for my father without any of them. I want my child to have a much different childhood than I did. I would never want him to experience the kind of pain I did as a boy. But I do want my son to always know, deep in his bones, that his father adores him, and always will, no matter what. That is one sacred gift from my father I definitely want to pass down.
When my father passes 60 or 70 years from now (I'd like to think he'll at least make it to his early 120s), he won't leave behind much in the way of money or possessions, but he'll leave behind a legacy of unconditional love, and that is the greatest inheritance anyone can ask for.