Jim Higley, single dad of three, shares some insight on what “great” really means.
When I was a kid, I used to love playing the board game Life. It made the big, unexplored world seem so exciting. So appealing. You even collected money when you added children to your clan!
The process of adding those children was relatively simple, as I recall, and involved little tiny pegs—either pink or baby blue—that you’d place in the backseat of your miniature, plastic, colored car as you slowly drove through the windy path of the board. I’d often wonder to myself, back in those board game playing days, what it would be like to have children of my own. I assumed I’d have a collection of boys because, well, I grew up in a house of five boys myself. Any deviation from that seemed hard to imagine.
And that was pretty much my first vision of fatherhood. Driving through the game of Life, in a red (my favorite) convertible car, collecting sons in the back seat, while other players ponied up with cash.
Even when my first child was born (and yes, it was a boy!), my head was filled with images of the little guy hoisted up on my shoulders, baseball games, building sand castles, blowing bubbles, and angelic smiles and coos morning, noon, and night.
My how life has a way of throwing a cold glass of water in your face.
I was zooming through life, juggling the typical plates that most 40-something-year-old dads seem to tackle. A demanding job, lots of travel, volunteer projects, and a back seat of a car that suddenly included two sons. And a daughter!
And somewhere out of left field, I received a diagnosis of cancer. My bobbling world came to a screeching halt as I worked through several health issues including surgery, recovery, and follow-up treatments that have pretty much become the new norm in my life.
Funny thing is, I’m as happy, peaceful, and content today—five years post-diagnosis—as I ever have been in my life. I also think I’m finally the dad I was meant to be.
I am a single dad raising my two sons and daughter alone. Alone as in 24/7. Another twist in the unexpected string of events that we all work through.
Michael Lewis, in his wonderful fatherhood journey story, Home Game, hit the nail on the head when he discovers that, “It’s only in caring for a thing that you become attached to it.” Like Lewis, my own journey to dad-dom involved that “aha” moment, which began to more clearly define what it actually meant to be a father to another human being.
One of the first things I learned—post cancer and while doing this parenting gig alone—was that you need to throw away all the stereo-types out there that the rest of the world has. I was trying to play the role of mom and dad, which, truthfully, was impossible. What I learned was that it was far more important to focus on being a “parent,” which really liberated me to a new way of thinking about who I was. It helped me find the path to being the parent my kids needed me to be. I also shed any preconceived images of what I thought I should be. I now follow my kids’ lead, and I’ve learned that they’re pretty good at giving me clues as to what they need from me as a parent. The real challenge is following through on the signals they are sending!
I also learned to give up any notion of being the superman in the house who could fix everything—including disappointment, hurt feelings, lost friends, teenage quarrels, and the host of other ups and downs that come with children. I’ve learned that my kids really don’t expect me to fix everything. Actually, I’ve learned that it kind of bugs them when I pretend that I can fix everything. Kids are happy to know their parents will listen. And be sad or disappointed with them. It’s a good lesson for them. And they do survive.
And hands down the most important thing I’ve learned is how critical it is to always be available to your children. On all levels. Every minute of the day. I’m talking being available not just physically, but emotionally. And if you’re into it, spiritually. When your children know you are there for them—no matter what—it opens a spectacular world of parent-child relationships that is invaluable.
Will all this make you the greatest? Hardly. But it just might make you the greatest to the people who matter the most. Your kids.
And for me, at the end of the day, that’s great enough.
—Photo Will Folsom/Flickr