Mark Sherman always thought he had been a great dad, until his son had the courage to enlighten him, and to give him a second chance.
I was one great dad, or so I thought—especially compared to my own verbally, and sometimes physically, abusive father. I had never hit my children, and they had never heard me say, “You goddamned little bastard!” with my teeth bared.
True, I had been far from perfect as a husband, especially with my first wife; but I was proud of the kind of father I had been to my three sons—that is, until I turned 51, when my oldest let me know where I had fallen short.
At 21 I had not been ready for marriage or fatherhood, and less than three years after our marriage, my wife left our Cambridge, Massachusetts apartment and went to Las Vegas, Nevada for as quick a divorce as she could get—taking our not quite two-year-old son, with her. I missed her, but I missed him even more. It was 1966, divorces were not the commonplace they would soon become, and I had no idea what to do about seeing him. I was a graduate student at Harvard, and on the advice of my legal counsel—a student at the law school working for Harvard Legal Aid—I didn’t try to visit my son until the divorce was finalized; even then I still had to wait until Christmas break. By the time I did fly out to Nevada, nearly four months had gone by since I had last seen him.
When I walked into my now ex’s little apartment just off the Las Vegas strip, my son, who hadn’t seen me in four months, didn’t know who I was. But within a few minutes, his face lit up and he shouted, “That’s my daddy!”
I spent a wonderful two weeks with my little boy, being with him every minute of the day, and enjoying the casinos at night, both being a break from the intellectual rigors of Cambridge.
Before I left, my ex made it clear she liked living in Las Vegas and intended to stay. So soon after my return to Cambridge, I started applying for teaching jobs within driving distance of my son. I was not really close to completing my PhD, but I figured—no doubt wrongly—that I could finish the research for my dissertation and write it while teaching full-time.
I was offered a job at a new all-women’s college in Claremont, California, just east of Los Angeles. I was ready to go. The idea of teaching 19- and 20-year-old “California girls” (as in the Beach Boys’ song), and being less than a four-hour drive from my son was very appealing. But soon after I told the college I would be coming, my ex called to let me know that her mother, living in Poughkeepsie, had had a heart attack from which she was slowly recovering; she would soon be moving there to be closer to her mom.
Now there was no reason to leave Cambridge. About once a month I drove the four hours to see my son, often driving another 90 minutes to bring him to my parents’ home in Queens. Within three years I had finished my PhD, married again, and had started a teaching at a state college just a few miles away from my son, who was now six.
My wife and I went on to have two sons, and I really felt like I was being a pretty terrific dad to all three. I saw my oldest regularly, giving him undiluted encouragement when it became clear before he was even a teenager that he wanted to be a filmmaker. I was pleased with myself, proud to be so different from my own father, a physician, whose message had always been that if I didn’t go to medical school, I’d be wasting my life.
When my son went to NYU film school and asked me to play a small part in his senior project film, I was delighted to do it. When, after graduating, he settled in LA, I was excited for him, patting myself on the back for being so encouraging.
I also felt very good about the fact that I had always observed that most important caveat for divorced parents: I had quite consciously never put him in the middle between his mother and me. If he complained about his mother, or stepfather, I avoided the temptation to jump in and say, “Well, I don’t do that.” Even about the one thing his mother did that really bothered me, I said nothing.
My former wife had remarried when my son was still little, and perhaps thinking this would make his life less complicated, she had him call her new husband “Dad.”
Because I didn’t strongly object to this with my ex—though it upset me a great deal—and never said anything to my son about it, I began to think that he was forming a very close relationship with his stepfather, and that I was becoming something of a secondary figure in his life. After all, he hadn’t lived with me since he was a baby, and he was seeing this man, a good man, every day. I thought I was doing okay with the whole situation.
The problem was that he didn’t think so.
He didn’t let me know this until he was an adult, his revelations starting with e-mails from his home in LA when he was 30. By this time I realized I hadn’t been the nearly perfect father I thought I’d been with any of my three children (years of pot-smoking, now ended, certainly having not helped me in this area). But whatever faults I’d had, I felt good that I had spared my children anything close to the abuse I had suffered at the hands of my own father. I had never cursed them with epithets or slapped one of them across the face. In fact, as a student of behavioral psychology—having even had a course with B.F. Skinner—I knew all about, and used, positive reinforcement, limits, time out, and the like. And I told them all the time how much I loved them, something I didn’t remember my father ever saying to me.
Yes, I knew all about what it took to be a good dad. What I didn’t know anything about was how it felt to be the child of divorce.
After a few e-mails back and forth, we spoke on the phone, and my son told me of how left out he had felt as compared to his two brothers. He brought up what, in retrospect, was obvious. When my wife and I, and our two younger sons, had gone to Cape Cod for two weeks, as we did nearly every summer, why hadn’t we invited him? What about Thanksgiving dinners, when all our parents came; why hadn’t I thought to invite him? In fact, he asked, why hadn’t I invited him to my wedding (when he was five). And, come to think of it, why hadn’t I? Was it because my parents—who would have been the top candidates to bring him—just weren’t the kind of grandparents to do that? Was that really a good enough excuse?
In fact, did I have a good enough excuse for any of this? In my oldest son’s childhood years there were few people or books available to counsel divorced parents. Had my wife erred by trying to give him a second “dad,” and by trying to make this “dad” primary? Had I erred by not telling her how upsetting this was to me?
One thing was clear: Absolutely none of this was my son’s fault. So his phone calls were figurative punches to an unprotected midsection, which quite literally made my stomach clench. Yet, when I told friends what my son was saying, they would say, “That’s wonderful! He feels close enough to you to let you know how he feels.” Oh yes, I felt like saying, it’s so wonderful. You try dealing with something like this without a drug or a drink.
My whole view of myself as a parent had been upended, and I wasn’t going to take it lying down. I fought back.
“You know,” I said to him on the phone one day, “I’m not so bad as a father. There are lots of fathers in this situation who completely abandon their children, or have almost nothing to do with them. I kept seeing you even when it was difficult. I drove the 200 miles from Cambridge to Poughkeepsie regularly to pick you up, and then another 75 miles to Grandma and Grandpa in New York. I purposely looked for a teaching job close to you. I’ve heard many young people tell me of fathers who they hardly ever saw.”
His response, “I don’t care about what other people’s fathers did,” gave me a quick lesson: Children don’t feel grateful simply because you don’t abandon or ignore them. Hearing that things could have been worse doesn’t make them feel better.
But there was a very bright side to all this: My son was making clear to me that I was far more important to him than I had ever thought. When I commented on how I had believed that since he called his stepfather “Dad,” and was with him so much more than me, he probably had a stronger bond with him, he said, “You know, I always carried around a photo of you in my wallet, your high school yearbook photo, dreaming that you would come for me.”
“I’ve only got one dad,” he said.
Very much to my son’s credit, he gave me the chance to change. When my wife and I began, immediately, to invite him to Thanksgiving and on family trips, he never said, “Oh sure; I’ll bet you’re only doing this to placate me.” Rather he seemed genuinely happy that we were including him.
Several years later, though, he reminded me that I still hadn’t been as inclusive as I thought. He was now 36 and was visiting from California with his wife. The three of us were sitting in our local diner, and he took that moment to say, as nicely as he could, how it hurt him to see in our house so many photos of his brothers as babies and little children, but practically none of him. There were just as many photos of him as a young adult, and, in fact, there was one small one of me and him, when he was about four. But I couldn’t really argue.
I got defensive. “What can I do?” I asked. “Do you want me to put up a photo now? Won’t that look like I’m just doing that to please you?
“I’d be fine with that,” he said. And as soon as I could, I put up a wonderful photograph of him and me, taken in Cambridge, when he was not quite three.
More than a dozen years have passed since that conversation, and I now feel as involved with him as with his two brothers. When his son was born, I was given yet another chance to make up for lost time. And we have had many one-on-one coffees, not to mention a father-son week-end in Las Vegas. Now we’re talking about another one in New York. There can still be occasional tensions, as is no doubt true in virtually every relationship between a parent and his or her grown child. The important thing is that I listen. And for the most part, our conversations are warm and loving.
Novelist Tom Robbins once wrote, “It is never too late to have a happy childhood.” Maybe so, but only if parent and child are willing to go through some pain to get there.