You can’t control their happiness, their growth, or their mother. All you can do is love them and be there for them.
I was at the airport, and my kids were on a plane that would take them 2,000 miles away from me, on what was supposed to be the perfect Father’s Day weekend. The day had started out with a brilliant sunrise over Big Sky country; it ended with them climbing onto a plane.
It wasn’t the first time I’d spent a holiday without my kids. As a single dad, I often found myself spending Christmas at all-night AA meetings without my babies. I’d done my best, but I was young and, despite my professional success, I still had a lot of growing up to do. In a way, raising my son and daughter—guiding them through rushing rivers and lonely nights, the perils of math homework and opposite-sex traumas—I raised myself to be a man.
I remember baths and books and bunk beds and uneaten dinners of chicken and mashed potatoes. Ice cream and The Land Before Time videos, bottles for Seamus (then 1 year old) and that feeling of accomplishment when I finally heard him and his 3-year-old sister, Kerry, snoring.
Then I would run a tub for myself, climb in, and look up through the skylight overhead. I’d watch the planes fly by, just dots of light, and wonder what I had done, having these two kids and managing to get divorced by the time I turned 32.
When I think about all those new dads out there who are contemplating divorce or just starting out in bachelorhood, I want to tell them that taking full responsibility for your kids is something that, one day, they will look back on with fondness.
After a long day of playgrounds, birthday parties, and changing dirty diapers, the feeling of standing on their mom’s front porch and handing off your kids will rip your heart out. It will also force you to internalize a simple fact, one that most parents don’t have to contend with until college: they are not your own.
Children are a gift from above. The only thing you can do is show up. You cannot control their happiness, or their growth, or their mother. All you can do is love them and be there for them.
When Seamus was just a boy, I would rock him to sleep and take in his smell as his body went limp. I’d hold his little body in the crook of my neck, feel his warm breath, and forget everything that had gone wrong that day.
As a single 30-something, I was lonely for the opposite sex. But I quickly decided that my kids came first; I could have my amateur attempts at romance, but Daddy Time was sacrosanct. I wasn’t going to let any of the women I dated meet my kids, let alone interfere with our time together.
Seamus, who was an asthmatic toddler, put this policy to the test. I had spent New Year’s Eve and Day in Children’s Hospital with him one year, trying to get him to ingest drugs from a nebulizer while he pointed his little finger at the door and commanded, “Home!”
Several months later, I had a date, but I needed to get Seamus to bed first. His asthma flared up, and I tried to call and cancel, but my date was unreachable. I made the mistake of dropping Seamus at his mom’s and heading out on the town.
Later, with my date in my car, I made an illegal turn in front of the restaurant, only to be smacked by an oncoming Cadillac. After making sure that my date was okay, I looked back in horror as the other driver approached—in a police uniform. He wrote me up for everything he could think of, and had my car towed. My date still demanded a steak. But all I could think about was Seamus.
On December 27, 2002—six years to the day from my last drink—I was remarried to a beautiful blond Italian girl at a chapel in Tuxedo, New York. Seamus, a look of fear in his eyes, rang the bell to end the service. Kerry wanted so much to be part of the party that she stepped on Elena’s wedding dress. I felt strongly that the kids should have no doubt that this change, however scary, would be permanent. I didn’t want them to worry that there would be yet another huge change just around the corner.
Relations with my ex-wife never smoothed out. She insisted that the kids needed to spend two-thirds of their time with her, and visit me when it was convenient. I never understood why time with a dad is less valuable—especially when both parents are able-bodied, loving, and have the time and resources to spend with their kids.
Five years ago, I had a third child, Cole, with my new wife, Elena. I was nervous that my getting on with life would somehow scare Kerry and Seamus. I could not have been more wrong. A baby can bind a family unit like nothing else. The very moment I held Cole for the first time, I looked down and knew that my fears were misplaced. He worships his big brother and sister, and they dote on him. The five of us have grown closer, despite the many interruptions of split custody.
Which brings us back to Father’s Day. Our family—Kerry is now 16 years old, Cole is 5, and Seamus is 14—have made it a tradition to get away every June for the holiday. We go to a national park and spend a week riding horses. No Facebook. No cell phones. Just clear mountain air, snow-covered peaks, and good company.
The pace of life slows, and each year I notice how much my kids have grown and how each is an unmerited gift from God. They’re all so special in their own way—Kerry for her sarcastic brilliance, Seamus for his wise-guy sense of humor, my son Cole for his pure love of life.
This year, Father’s Day started poorly. A botched hotel wake-up call had us showered, packed, and ready to go to the airport at 4:30 a.m., two hours ahead of schedule. Seamus, our World Cup fanatic, found a silver lining: “Slovenia vs. Paraguay!” he screamed with delight, realizing he would be able to watch the match, which was being broadcast from South Africa at that ungodly hour.
We finally arrived in Bozeman, Montana, just after noon. We had just touched down when my cell phone rang. I looked at it and was filled with dread; I had been expecting bad news, but I was hoping it would wait at least until after Father’s Day. It was my ex-wife, in tears, calling from her mother’s deathbed. She wanted her kids home.
Within an hour, we arranged for Kerry and Seamus to fly out the very next day. Our long-anticipated week of riding had been cut down to 24 hours.
A violent thunderstorm with dark black clouds and huge crashes of thunder greeted us at the ranch. We had a turkey dinner with all the fixin’s and a huge game of dodgeball on the ranch lawn.
In the morning, we awoke to brilliant sunshine on the snow-capped mountains. Seamus joined me for an early-morning yoga class, his first. We ate bacon and French toast before heading down to the barn. Our cowboy, Terrence, led us out.
We quickly climbed through wildflower meadows and up a steep rocky trail. Up top, the vista was breathtaking. My brain was quiet for the first time in months.
I watched Kerry and Seamus from a distance, took pictures—including during a hair-raising trek across a raging river—and enjoyed my kids having fun. They looked completely at home on their horses.
Three hours after mounting up, we were back in the ranch van, headed to the airport. Cole cried when we told him Kerry and Seamus had to leave. He gave Seamus, his older brother and personal god, a fist-bump. Then he hugged Kerry, turned his back on us and walked to our cabin, unable to look back.
At the airport we hugged. As they boarded the plane, I typed this out on my BlackBerry before returning to the ranch—without Kerry and Seamus.
As I waited for their flight to take off, I found myself staring at the white snow of the Rocky Mountains in the distance, trying to make sense of the last 24 hours. I was reminded again that I am only a father—not a god. I cannot control my kids’ life or happiness. All I can do is show up and see what happens. And sometimes all I need is one horse ride to be reminded how much I truly love being a dad—even when my plans are thrown out the window.
♦ ♦ ♦
Tom Matlack, together with James Houghton and Larry Bean, published an anthology of stories about defining moments in men’s lives — The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood. It was how the The Good Men Project first began. Want to buy the book? Click here. Want to learn more? Here you go.