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 Michael Ellingburg
HOMETOWN / WHERE DO YOU LIVE NOW? Jackson Mississippi, U.S.A. / Sydney, Australia
NUMBER OF CHILDREN One
WORK Full-time engineer (mechatronic) and engineering project manager, part-time personal trainer, all the time dad
RELATIONSHIP STATUS Widowed
HOW DO YOU COMBINE WORK AND FAMILY?
This is actually quite difficult to answer because there isn’t any one thing I do, and sometimes it all falls apart.
I guess that everything really is based around a single decision that I made when my wife died; I decided that no matter what happened, I would make sure my son knew I loved him and that I would be there for him. That doesn’t mean he always comes first or that I don’t think about myself, I don’t think that would be a good lesson to teach him. It does mean that I consider what impact anything I do is likely to have on him, and I don’t do anything that I think runs counter to my commitment to him.
Sometimes, holding to that principle is easy.
Other times, however, it can be very hard. At one point, I was unemployed for two years because the only work I was able to find either required travel that I couldn’t do with my son, or hours that I couldn’t do with him. To cover the loss of income during that time, I started a personal training company. In addition to working with the usual adults, I worked with childcare centers to put together programs for children, and used that to have more time with my son even while I was working.
Currently, I’m working in my primary industry again and am maintaining the fitness business as insurance against the next time I can’t find suitable employment.
Balancing the work that I have also follows the same principle. All my work is scheduled around my son’s needs. I train in the mornings before he wakes up. Once he’s awake I get him ready for the day and take him to daycare/before school care, (He starts big school this year! We are both excited!). While he’s there, I go to work and work until it’s time to pick him up from daycare/after-school care. In the evenings we play together for at least half an hour in addition to our time for dinner/bath/bed. Finally, once he’s back in bed, I train any evening clients or I do any work I still have to do for my day job. When all that is completed, I get the chores around the house finished before I go to bed and repeat it all the next day.
Weekends are where we really get to have fun, but even those are highly structured to allow me to accomplish everything that I have to do to keep the house running.
I’ve also been lucky enough to make some great friends, and I get along well enough with my family and in-laws that I am able to occasionally get a night or a weekend to myself. Those are the times where his grandmother can watch him or a friend will babysit so that I can either do any long hours I need for a project, or get some time to myself for a movie or a catch up with friends.
HOW HAS PARENTING CHANGED YOU AS AN INDIVIDUAL?
This one is complicated. I was the primary caregiver from the moment he was born because of how sick my wife had become during the pregnancy. Afterwards, once the cancer diagnosis came in, I was caring for them both while working. Once she died, I was lost.
I was in my mid-thirties, my wife was gone, the company I was working for was falling apart and I was worried about how I was going to make a living, and I was now a single dad to a one year-old. My friends mostly lived in other countries, my in-laws were all living in other cities, and my family was on the other side of the planet because I had moved country for work and family.
I was, very honestly, lower than I had ever been, but here was this beautiful, happy, healthy, little boy who just wanted to be close to me and who depended on me for everything. Doing right by him – getting up every morning because he needed me to, going to work no matter what because he needed me to, finding a way to get by after losing my job because he needed me to…
He was the only thing that kept me going.
Being a parent changed me by being the one thing left in life that was worth doing, when everything else I valued in my life was gone.
That experience changed everything about me. That experience changed me more than even my time in the army did.
IF PARTNERED, HOW HAS PARENTING AFFECTED YOUR RELATIONSHIP?
In my case it has made dating, once I was ready to start dating again after my wife passed away, really hard.
Women without children, in anything close to my age range, generally find the whole ‘package deal’ thing with me and my son to be just too much.
That leaves other single parents, but most of them are divorced. That’s not a bad thing, but it means that the dynamics get weird. They are generally used to having a couple nights a week without their children. I have my son every night. So even if I have a sitter I can’t stay out all night. I made the decision that I wouldn’t introduce my son to any women I was dating unless it was pretty serious, but that means I can’t bring anyone home with me to stay the night until the relationship is already fairly solid because I don’t want him to think that all women leave him, (that’s not a lesson I want my son to internalize if I want him to have healthy relationships later in life).
With all those restrictions, dating hasn’t gone all that well.
There have been a couple women who didn’t have children and we really had the right chemistry and everything seemed to work, but the extra hurdle of my son was too much for them. Likewise, there was a single mother where everything seemed like it was going to work but we just didn’t work out with each other as anything but friends.
Adding a child to the already complex dynamic of trying to build a relationship up from nothing has just been something that has been too much so far. Currently, I’ve accepted that I probably just won’t be able to date for the next 5-10 years. I don’t have the time with my current work schedule and commitments to my son, and that wouldn’t be fair to any woman I was dating, or to me.
WHAT ARE YOUR STRENGTHS AS A PARENT AND WHAT ARE YOUR WEAKNESSES?
I guess that my biggest strengths are that I respect my son, and that I have worked very hard to provide a stable environment for him.
First, sure he’s only five, but the things he feels and wants to tell me are as valid and important to him as my feelings and concerns are to me. I don’t expect him to be anything but the five year old he is, but I treat him with respect. I’ve always spoken to him like an adult, and though I only expect him to understand as a child I let him show me what he understands instead of making any presumptions about that.
Secondly, when he lost his mother so early, I realized that I needed to give him as much stability in everything else as I could to help him deal with the instability he was facing. It’s been hard at times, but I’ve managed to keep him with the same general schedule for his entire life so far. Even better, it’s not an overly rigid schedule, so though he has the stability and structure I know he needs, he has the flexibility to explore and grow and slowly change the schedule as his needs change with age and development.
My biggest weakness though… that’s a hard one. It’s not hard because I don’t think I have any, it’s more I don’t know which ones to pick. Do I talk about how I lose patience with his stubbornness sometimes? Do I talk about all the times I’ve just had enough and want some time for myself, then feel selfish later? Do I talk about the fact that I constantly question if I manage to give him enough time? Should I have just given up on my engineering career entirely to have more time for him? Am I too hard on him? Do I give him enough structure? Do I give him too little?
I honestly don’t know. Before I was a parent, I didn’t lack confidence very often and I almost never second guessed myself. As a parent, I second-guess myself constantly. Every day he changes, every day he grows and develops and he is a different person than he was yesterday. Every day I wonder if I managed to get it ‘right’… or at least ‘right enough’… wanting to make sure I don’t repeat the mistakes of the generations before. I just don’t know.
WHO ELSE PROVIDES CHILDCARE FOR YOUR CHILDREN?
The vast majority of the time it’s just me. I was born in Mississippi and most of my family still live there. My late wife, who I met when I was in the military, was Australian and I moved to Australia before we were married. After my wife died, I chose to stay here in Australia so my son could maintain that connection to his mother through her family, but they all live in different cities from us. So I get help from the in-laws for a couple weeks each year.
I do have one, amazing neighbor. She is a grandmother herself and ever since my wife died she has tried to give me a night of free babysitting at least once a month, and sometimes more depending on her schedule.
Anything else usually involves having to organize for paid babysitting.
I’m hoping that with him starting school next year, as he makes more friends, I can make some arrangements with some of the other parents, but I’ll just have to see how things turn out.
WHAT IS YOUR WORST PARENTING MOMENT?
I have so many of these I have trouble picking. I think the worst one for me, the one that still makes me feel terrible when I think about it, happened when he was about three and a half. I hadn’t had more than about 3 hours of sleep per day, going on two weeks. He was throwing the most epic tantrum he had ever thrown.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m strong willed, and my late wife was equally strong willed, so my son comes by his willfulness honestly, but on that day he crossed every line a child can cross when they are just trying to force things to be what they want.
First of all, I don’t agree with corporal punishment. I don’t think it teaches anything except for the idea that violence is an acceptable solution for getting what you want, and that’s not a lesson I want to teach. So to try and get things back under control, I attempted the ‘ignore it’ tactic. His response was to run up and hit me. When that happened, I put him in time out. He responded by refusing to go into time out. At that point I gave him the option – get in time out, or lose your favorite toy, (I try to teach responsibility for one’s own choices and started trying to teach that from very early on).
Sullenly, he went to time out, but started kicking a window next to the time out corner. So that he wouldn’t break the window, I moved him to time out on the stairs, where he refused to go to time out again. So I put him in his room because by now he had been screaming, hitting me, throwing things, and yelling for about 15 minutes straight and I was starting to feel a bit frazzled. Next thing I knew I heard things crashing into the door. He was hitting the door with a chair.
It’s important to know, at this point, that my son is big for his age. At three, the nurses told me he was the average height and weight of a five year old, (currently, at five, he matches against eight year olds). He is also strong for his size. So when he picked up one of his chairs and hit the door with it in his otherwise standard three year old rage, he did it with the strength of a child closer to six. He also broke the chair.
I finally sort of lost it. I opened the door and told him that since he couldn’t follow the rules in the house without breaking things he could stay outside the house until he calmed down. I then picked him up, took him outside, and locked him out of the house until he stopped beating on the door and calmed down.
Eventually, he calmed down. It took almost half an hour of him screaming and pounding on the door. Eventually I heard him start crying instead of yelling in anger and I opened the door and let him back in when he said he was sorry. After a hug, he went to time out for three minutes where he sat quietly, crying, and then when he was let out he just came and wanted to hold me and be hugged until he felt better again.
He’s actually a really good kid. He’s happy, cheerful, and generally obedient. Even back then he was really a good kid most of the time, but he was doing what kids do and trying anything he could to push the boundaries.
I’m, theoretically, the adult in our father/son relationship and it’s my responsibility to be the one who handles things responsibly. But that day, I just couldn’t take it. That day I just hid from him for half an hour with him locked outside the house, in the yard, pounding on the door.
I don’t know if that was right or wrong, but that day still bothers me. I still feel like I should have done something different, but I still don’t know what else I could have done without compromising any of my principles.
WHAT IS YOUR BEST PARENTING MOMENT?
Every day when I get back from work to daycare and my son sees me. That moment, nearly every day, no matter what he’s doing, he drops everything and yells, “Daddy!”, in excitement. The he runs to me for a big hug, and starts telling me all about his day. He shows me the things he’s drawn and tells me about what he’s done.
I live for that. I’m already dreading the day that it will stop.
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.