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(Comstock/iStockphoto)
(Comstock/iStockphoto)

My father was a single dad ahead of his time Add to ...

I used to be my father's wife.

I mean that in the most old-fashioned, sexist way. I know things have changed, but when I think of the word "housewife," I still see the 1950s illustration of a woman behind an ironing board, happily removing the creases from her husband's work shirts and slacks. Replace that aproned woman with a glum teenaged boy and that's me at 13 years old.

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After my parents' divorce, I lived with my father. He decided that it would be my duty in our new household to iron our clothes. Since my T-shirts and jeans didn't need it, this really meant that it was my duty to iron his clothes.

And according to my mother, in addition to dusting the surfaces of the house weekly, putting the dishes away, taking out the trash, and cleaning the bathroom, I had also taken on the job of caring for him emotionally, like a partner should.

I wasn't sure about that, but I latched onto it later, especially when I was angry with my dad for not giving me money. But now, I don't know.

Now, I think my mother was wrong. My father was not perfect, but he was avant garde. He was breaking new ground. Raising me all alone in the eighties and nineties, he was a forefather of a new frontier: single fatherhood.

Yes, it's true that he once came to my bedroom door in tears. Things were not going well with the woman who eventually became his second wife; but that was a couple years after my parents' split.

Earlier on, when we'd first moved in together, he took me to dinner and a very bad romantic comedy - maybe I was more like his girlfriend then - and during a scene where the two lovers kiss, I heard him breathing strangely. I glanced over to see that his eyes were filled with water. I felt the knot in his throat in my own and I felt his sore heart too as he quietly shared his loss with me in the darkness of the theatre, at the same time protecting me from having to view its violence directly.

When the credits rolled, he smiled as he put his hand on my back and asked, "Did you like it?"

He drove us back to the home that he'd made for me, even if that home didn't have anything on the walls or any living things in it besides us.

My mother, whom I saw two weekends a month, used to take me shopping for clothes, but my father started to do that. He was functional and efficient at this task - shopping was done at one store, once a year, and in less than one hour.

But there was more time, then, for the sports that we played.

After dinner in the summer, he took me to the tennis courts that were lit up for night games. I had been the ball boy for my parents' matches, but now I was in the game. He taught me net volleys and serves. Later, I made it on the varsity team.

Meanwhile, I was the most unfashionable kid in my grade.

"It never occurred to my dad that he would have to be a single parent," my friend Grace said to me last week. My only friend who was raised by a single father, Grace expressed well what I've been thinking lately.

"I look back on it and realize he did the best he could. He was brought up in a very traditional man-housewife household. He had no role model for child rearing."

Grace was 6 when her mother died, and her father was left with three kids to finish raising.

"My parents had a subscription to the symphony, and I became the one he started to take. That was awesome for me," she recalled.

Not so awesome was when he took her to his business meetings because her older siblings weren't around to watch her. "I got a ballpoint pen and a pad of paper. If I was excruciatingly bored, he'd give me a Pep-o-mint Life Saver." (Of course, after only a couple of years at her last job, she quickly rose to become general manager.)

When she was 11, Grace's father remarried, and guess who was joining him at the symphony suddenly? "I was sort of the stand-in," she said. "It was back to the way it was supposed to be. It makes perfect sense." Like a break-up, though, it took her a while to get over the change.

Like Grace's father, mine never thought that he'd one day be raising a kid on his own. In fact, he never considered it as a possibility. I have no doubt that's true of all single fathers out there of that generation, whereas - for better or worse - women have always been able to imagine it.

For this upcoming Father's Day - which is next weekend, by the way, so go buy your gift now - I'm remembering for the first time the great job my father did under not-so-great circumstances.

Here's to all the single fathers out there. Let me know if you need some shirts ironed, because I'm quite skilled at it.

Micah Toub is the author of Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks.

Follow on Twitter: @MicahToub

 

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