Laughing at Big Fat Liar in a Manhattan movie theater on a recent Sunday afternoon with my daughters, ages 7 and 4, I thought to myself, "Hey, separation may not be as bad as I'd envisioned, for the girls or for me." We'd already had a full morning at the aquarium on Coney Island, dancing in the near-empty subway cars en route. And here we were, happily devouring popcorn and falling in love with Frankie Muniz.
Then a half-hour into the movie, my younger daughter leaned over and whispered seven dreaded words: "I need to go to the bathroom." This despite my effort to make a last pit stop before we took our seats. I looked at her sister as she chortled at the screen, glanced around the theater, and wondered, "Do I make her come with us? Do I leave her? How do single parents do this? Is it different in the suburbs?"
Months earlier, after having made the heart-wrenching decision that divorce was the only remaining option, I had quickly sought out recommended literature to help me deal with my kids' emotional and practical needs, particularly the book Mom's House, Dad's House. It covered parenting plans about holidays and school mail, custodial and child support solutions, standards of conduct and access. But there was nothing about the more mundane aspects of single parenthood -- like what to do when one kid needs to use the bathroom in the middle of a movie. When there are two adults, this kind of moment is invisible; you don't even think about it.
I wasn't questioning my adequacy as a parent; I'd always been a more-competent-than-average dad, the freelancing husband of a wife who works full-time. Nor was this a Judith Wallerstein moment -- I didn't suddenly yearn to reunite with my wife for the emotional well-being of the kids. Yet I did find myself wondering anew about the high divorce rate in our country and all the single moms and dads out there, and getting a clearer picture of how the other half -- the divorced population -- lives.
After recalling the physical layout of our situation -- we weren't in a megaplex, the bathroom was just outside the theater doors -- I decided to ask my 7-year-old if she would be comfortable if we left her. It was the kind of offer I wouldn't have made just a year ago, but in the past few months she had blossomed into a confident, self-aware, and self-sufficient girl. Of course, she said yes; she didn't want to miss any of the movie.
I made eye contact with a nearby mom who nodded comprehension of the circumstances. With the knowledge that another adult understood what was going on, I quickly scooted my 4-year-old up the aisle and then shuttled between getting her settled in the bathroom and checking on the older one. Luckily it was a fast visit and we made it back to our seats within two minutes. My older girl hardly noticed we were gone. But for me it had been a rite of passage to my new single fatherhood. A few days later, when I was with my daughters and a friend of mine who was able to run into a deli to get a bottle of water, it occurred to me that biology probably had it right to require two people to make babies.
From the first time my wife and I told the girls about our separation, I had reassured them that no matter what, I would always be their father. In the movie theater that day, I learned that there are times when I have to be something more.
Yes, our divorce is an ending for me. But it's also the start of something new -- of trying to maintain relationships with my daughters between visitations, of trying to nurture them but not go overboard to compensate for the guilt I feel about the divorce, of trying to give them the best of me plus some of what their mother provides, since she's not around when I'm with them.
On my seven previous Father's Days as a dad, I could simply revel in the corny recognition from my girls -- the goofy presents, the handmade cards, the favorite foods. This year, as I try to adapt my role to our family's changing circumstances, Father's Day has a more profound meaning for me -- and, I hope, for them.
Copyright © 2002. Reprinted with permission from the June/July 2002 issue of Child magazine.