Welcome to Portraits of Fatherhood: We’re telling the story of today’s dads.
There is no better place to witness the changing roles of men and women in the larger culture than through the lens of parenthood. But rather than speculate on what and how contemporary fathers do what they do, we’d like to bring you portraits of the dads themselves. In their own words. Would you like to be interviewed for this feature? See the end of the post for details.
NAME Jason Mical
HOMETOWN / WHERE DO YOU LIVE NOW? Small-town Ohio / Seattle, Washington
ON THE WEB www.jasonmical.com
NUMBER OF CHILDREN One
WORK Full time
RELATIONSHIP STATUS Married
Jason suggested that to understand his responses to our Portrait questions, you need to know the story of his family. We agree. Here, in his own words, the story of his family:
The context / our story:
Two years ago, child protective services called us and asked if our niece, who had been in foster care for almost a year, could come to live with us.
Our niece had been taken out of her home because she was the victim of some awful abuse at the hands of one of her parents, and long-term psychological and emotional abuse from the other. Along with her two sisters, she’d been living with her grandparents, then two foster families. Then, she went to an inpatient mental health facility after she took a razor to her arms.
Two years before, when our niece was 12, we flew her up to stay with us for a couple of weeks—to give her something special, a fun trip away, and an opportunity to go camping and see the ocean. We knew she was struggling: we knew bits and pieces of her awful home life, and we got in touch with family right after she was removed from her home and placed with her grandparents. “Can she come live with us?” we asked.
The answer was always, “No. It’s too complicated to do that. She’s better here.”
Her caseworker called us a few days after our niece was admitted to the psych ward. She’s healing, the caseworker told us, but needs an environment where she can thrive and be the focus of two parents. “When we asked her if there was any place she wanted to live, she said the only place she wanted to go was to be with her aunt and uncle in Seattle.”
No hesitation. “I need to check with my wife, but yes, absolutely yes.”
Nine months later, our niece flew to Seattle once more to live with us. At the time, we only knew in broad terms about some of the traumas our niece had experienced, and were unaware that her self-harm was systemic, or that she had an eating disorder. A few weeks after she arrived, she had her first breakdown, and we had our first glimpse of what the next year was going to be like.
Several months later, following a particularly hard episode, my wife and I lost the baby we’d been trying so hard to conceive for the last several years. It devastated us. It affected our niece. We leaned on each other as best we could, but like many families in times of stress, all three of us reached our limits.
Still we pitched in and helped each other. We held hands and hugged and did what we could. All three of us sought professional help.
Now, a year later, we’re a family again. Tested and tried and stronger than before, with a talented and creative daughter starting her college search, and a father and mother who are ready to try again for the baby we still want.
We never dreamed that our family would turn out like this; for years, my wife and I simply thought our family would always be the two of us, and that was it. But there is no “ideal family”: just the way people thrown together can support each other and help each other grow. Adults helping kids, adults helping adults, and adults taking lessons from and learning because of how they interact with the kids.
I would not trade it for the world.
HOW DO YOU COMBINE WORK AND FAMILY? How have you, or you and your partner (if you’re partnered), arranged your life/schedule to provide the daily care for your kid(s)?
Luckily I work in an industry that allows for some schedule flexibility, for a supervisor who is very understanding of family needs. I’m in advertising, and sometimes that means working late, long hours, but it also means I can do large pieces of my work remotely. I was a remote worker for several years, so I’m pretty good about getting what needs to be done, done, from pretty much anywhere. My wife’s job also allows her a similar degree of flexibility, which helps immensely.
While there are recurring doctor’s appointments, the key to our schedule is that there is no schedule per se—we have a hard time predicting how our jobs or our family life will be week to week, so flexibility and being willing to pitch in for each other has been key. In almost two years we’ve never had a scheduling conflict we’ve been unable to resolve.
HOW HAS PARENTING CHANGED YOU AS AN INDIVIDUAL?
It has forced me to finish growing up. It helped me take joy in responsibility and being a role-model; I’ve taken on a far greater leadership role at my office in no small part because of the lessons I’ve learned from being a parent, and I love it.
IF PARTNERED, HOW HAS PARENTING AFFECTED YOUR RELATIONSHIP? How often do you have sex? Is it enough? How do you communicate differently (if at all)?
The main thing we’ve had to deal with is our ability to communicate openly with each other, and with our daughter. My wife and I had an extremely open and communicative relationship before, and we’d talk about our feelings bluntly with each other and without rancor. Our daughter came from a house where she was punished for doing that, and our openness really scared her at first. That’s changed in the last several months, but it definitely forced my wife and I to communicate differently—finding time to talk in private when we weren’t completely wiped out. We’ve become far more mindful about setting aside not only time for ourselves, but for each other; we can’t support each other if we both feel eliminated, and we need to be there for each other to be effective parents.
I’m working on inventing a time machine so we have enough hours in the week to do that all the time, too. 😉
WHAT ARE YOUR STRENGTHS AS A PARENT AND WHAT ARE YOUR WEAKNESSES?
My strengths: I feel like I can provide my daughter a different kind of support than normal because we’re closer in age than most parents and their teenaged kids (if I’d become a dad when I was a little older than her age, she could be my biological child). I listen. I try to understand the world from her point of view. Because of my own experience with recurring depression throughout my adult life, I have some understanding of what she suffers through with her own mental illnesses.
My weaknesses: Not nearly enough experience with having kids before this and being a parent. I hate saying no—she was horribly deprived as a kid, and my impulse is to simply get or do whatever she needs—but I realized pretty quick that was a zero-sum game. Discipline does not come easy to me, and it’s easy to forget that a gifted and intelligent teenager is not a fully-functioning or aware adult.
IF PARTNERED, WHAT ARE YOUR PARTNER’S STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES?
Her strengths: She has far more experience with kids than me (her family was enormous and her sisters all had kids early). She’s no nonsense and can sniff out manipulation before I can. She is far better than I am at putting aside her own anxieties and prejudices when it comes to dealing with our daughter and what seems to be another crisis.
Her weaknesses: Our daughter is, biologically speaking, our niece through my wife’s sister, and many of our daughter’s trauma’s are shared among the family. That means that sometimes things impact my wife on a far more personal level than they do me. She’s had almost weekly counseling for it since our daughter came to live with us, and is still struggling through many things that she thought she’d dealt with a long time ago.
WHO ELSE PROVIDES CHILDCARE FOR YOUR CHILDREN? Do you have unpaid family or friends providing help or do you have paid nannies/babysitters/au pairs?
Our friends come over to stay with our daughter when we go out of town (an occasional weekend)—they had to go through the same foster system background checks that we did when our daughter came to live with us.
DO ANY OF YOUR CHILDREN HAVE SPECIAL NEEDS? AND IF SO, HOW HAS THIS SHAPED YOUR PARENTING?
Our daughter is absolutely a special needs child. I don’t want to get into details, but child protective services doesn’t take kids away like that unless there’s a good reason (or, in her case, good reasons). That means she’s got trauma, PTSD, and very likely bipolar disorder, and those things have expressed themselves as self-harm behavior and an eating disorder. Our daughter has weekly therapy sessions; we additionally do a family therapy session once a week, along with a biweekly check-in with her nutritionist and the family doctor to do weight and self-harm exams.
We’re pretty well practiced now about going into lockdown mode, which requires close monitoring of meals and not leaving our daughter alone—even a broken piece of plastic can become a razor, as we discovered. It can mean dropping in at school during lunchtime to make sure she eats, so our schedules start to revolve around that.
The main way it affects parenting (apart from the schedule changes) is that we still have to be careful how blunt we are with her. Parenting is always about “skillful means”—using what works—and choosing which battles are actually important to fight. In our daughter’s case, the important battles are the ones that will help her build the life skills she’s going to need to survive once she moves out. I think those battles shift drastically based on circumstances. I also have a great deal more empathy for other parents and people trying to do this.
IS YOURS AN ADOPTIVE FAMILY? AND IF SO, HOW HAS THIS SHAPED YOUR PARENTING?
We chose not to pursue full adoption because legally we didn’t need to, and our daughter didn’t necessarily want it, so we’re technically guardians. If anything, I wish we had pursued full adoption because we might not have rattled our sabres quite so much when things got so bad—it would afford a sense of even greater permanency than we have.
That being said, my wife and I both made an agreement when we started this process: we would only continue if our own mental health or marriage was not at risk, since neither of us were willing to sacrifice those things. Parents who aren’t in our situation don’t have the luxury of doing that, and there are parents out there with kids who have even more special needs than we have that struggle through. It doesn’t reduce the impact of our own challenges; it makes me respect those people and what they go through, and I feel awful for the ones who it actually does drive apart.
WHAT IS YOUR WORST PARENTING MOMENT?
The worst moment was when we had a serious talk about our daughter about whether the family dynamic could continue, and that because she was with us through foster care, that could mean terminating that arrangement. In short: we threatened to send her back if she didn’t change her behavior. I wish we hadn’t done that, but both my wife and I were well beyond the end of our collective ropes at that point and agreed that something needed to budge. Things did end up changing for the positive shortly after this, in no small part from our daughter receiving the correct medication for her condition, but that was the end result of several long months of constant worry, anxiety, and struggle for all three of us. We were at our worst, and I hate that we resorted to that threat for someone who desperately needs stability.
WHAT IS YOUR BEST PARENTING MOMENT?
My initial reply was all of the times I’ve been proud of my daughter for making progress, and the things she’s accomplished since she came into our lives. From her grades to her personal confidence to her dealing with old mental patterns that were the result of years of abuse and coming out the other side, she has made such great strides that it’s impossible to pick a single moment that’s the “best.” Instead, the best moment was when we agreed to make her a part of our family, and our constant striving to provide her with the best and most supportive environment since.
She is a true joy and has enriched our lives so much, even during the “bad” times, and I’d like to think very much that the reason she’s done so well is not a single moment but a collection of all of the minutes, hours, and days over the last two years where we’ve done our best to provide her with a loving, supportive, and stable family environment.
We’re looking for a few good dads.
IF you’d like to be interviewed for this feature, please write to Lisa Duggan at: [email protected]
Please write “Portraits of Fatherhood” in the subject line.