Monday, January 21, 2013

The Making of a Dad


I write about running quite a bit in this space. But, running is only a small part of what makes me who I am. What I am mostly, is a Dad. I became a dad for the first time when my son Casey was born. I was 23 years old. Much too young to be married let alone a new father. But there I was, in 1992, with a new-born baby boy, a degree in Architecture and a job at a t-shirt factory. Not exactly how the “big plan” was supposed to turn out!

Those early days of parenthood were completely surreal. My wife and I were living with my newly-divorced mom, in the house I grew up in. Our baby’s nursery was a closet that I papered with Beatrix Potter wall prints and outfitted with new wood shelving for his teeny-tiny clothes and all those diapers. And now, this “little alien” with a misshapen head was looking to me, barely out of childhood myself, to care for him and guide him through this crazy, mixed-up world!

Two years later, I finally landed a job in my chosen field and had another child - this time a beautiful baby girl named Erin. By this point, I considered myself to be a “parenting pro”, on top of everything and in total control. Of course, that dynamic changed completely when the second child entered the picture. All of a sudden, instead of being pulled in just one direction, I now had to put out multiple fires, from multiple children, at the same time. Naturally, nobody tells you any of this. Otherwise, we’d all be only children!

During this time, my wife was dealing with some issues that would only truly surface a few years later in the form of substance abuse and self-destruction. Taking money from our checking account to fuel her habit, not paying the bills and totaling our now uninsured car (with the kids in it) was the last straw. Or so I thought. We separated for a short time but after she “came clean” about her problem, and vowed to get her life straightened out, we got back together with the hopes of salvaging our fragile relationship for the sake of our children.

We went to clinics and counselors - through rehab and relapse after painful relapse. It was literally a roller coaster ride through the dark side of the human psyche. Eventually I came face to face with a very difficult and sobering fact: Even something as powerful as love, ultimately has its limits. I learned that you can love someone to the moon and back, but if they don’t love themselves, they’ll never get off the ground. Four years later, after almost killing herself (and the kids) in a near head-on collision, while driving on the wrong side of the road, I filed for divorce and sought full custody of the children.

Despite her obvious shortcomings as a mother, the court battle was long, expensive and extremely nerve wracking. It’s very challenging, even in this day and age, to prove that a father is a better, more nurturing caregiver for a child than it’s own a mother – regardless of the situation. It was only after she failed her court-ordered drug tests, that I was finally able to make my case. Later, more than a year after the proceedings began, I was granted full custody and the three of us began our new lives together.

Being a single parent was one of the most challenging, yet rewarding, things I’ve ever done. With two, now school-age, children I had to be both the disciplinarian and the comforter, the rule-maker and the love-giver, the strong leader and the shoulder to cry on. In short, I had to be both a Mom and a Dad. A mo-fa-ther! Fortunately, with everything we’d gone through during the previous few years, I had some practice playing this multifaceted role!

Being a single parent also had its advantages, however. For one thing, I never had to worry about being “on the same page”. There was only one page. And it was mine! Being the sole food preparer also allowed for a little more freedom in the kitchen. Pancakes for dinner? Sure, why not? As long as they’re chocolate chip! Bacon bits went with everything. And, let’s not forget “Chicken Dipping Night” which included Tyson chicken strips and bowls of whatever sauces we could find in the fridge. My favorite was maple syrup!

Dating and the single Dad is also quite an interesting experience. Who gets through, or even wants to get through, to the inner sanctum of the family? How, where and when is the right time for them to meet the kids? Would it be better to find someone who already had children of their own and understands what it’s all about? Or, would a non-mother make a better mate? And all the time, the specter of the children’s real mom hung over all of us like a dark cloud.

Some days she would just show up out of the blue and beg the kids for money. Or call, and make them feel guilty about not missing her enough. They were really put through the emotional ringer in those days. I did my best to be a strong, positive influence for them and be there when they needed someone to talk to. Nevertheless, it was a pretty tough time for them and it was made even tougher when she was forced to spend a month in jail for DUI and later was ordered to live in a lock-down rehab center.

It’s sad to witness someone you care for fall apart before your very eyes. And, even more painful, I imagine, if that person is someone who’s supposed to be your role model. Through it all, she maintained that she didn’t belong with the “junkies” she was thrown in with. Never really taking ownership, or responsibility, for her life - a life that was sadly cut short one night, alone in a city jail cell, after overdosing on a deadly mix of pain killers.

Telling the children that their mother had died was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do. But, it was made somewhat easier by the fact that, by that time, I had someone I could depend on and who could help me shoulder the burden that I bore. That’s right, after a few years worth of near misses and awkward kisses I finally found a woman just crazy enough to fit into our so-called family.

After I met Johanne things moved rather quickly. We bought a house, got married and had a little baby girl all within the span of about a year. Emily brought such joy to our already very full life. The older children welcomed her with open arms. And I tapped in to some long-dormant life skills. Rocking, swaddling, feeding, soothing and changing a dirty diaper in 30 seconds flat! It was just like riding a bike. A kicking, screaming, wide awake at two in the morning bike!

Eventually, life got back to “normal” and the 13 to 15-year age difference between the children did have it’s immediate advantages - built-in babysitting! But it also brought some new and mostly unforeseen challenges. A feisty teenage daughter and a new mom/step-mom operating on just a few hours sleep a night is a very dangerous mixture to leave lying around the house. So, I was forced to add “peace-maker” to my already stacked parental resume.

Three years later we put the icing on our family cake when not-so-little baby Ethan entered the world. Two boys, two girls, two parents and two nickels to rub together! But, we’re happy – mostly. And this “blended family” has done just that. With the older children getting to re-live a bit of their childhood through the younger children. And the younger children having two extra “parent-like” people to care for and nurture them. It’s really been all I could have asked for. And much, much more!

I think the toughest part about being a parent is learning to sacrifice. Whether it’s something big like taking a lower-paying job outside of the city just to be closer to home. Or, driving your kids to a school near where their mom lives to help them maintain a little bit of normalcy in the midst of complete chaos. Or, something small like handing over the last ice cream sandwich. Or, switching off the big game to watch yet another episode of Dora. A good parent must live their lives for their children. Simply put: Once you have a child, your life is no longer your own. And that, sometimes, can be a difficult thing to accept.

The best part about being a parent is watching a miracle take place every day, right before your eyes. Witnessing your child trying to learn something new. Seeing the smile spread across their face when they’ve accomplished something, or overcome a fear. Being surprised by the amazingly honest and insightful thoughts that find their way out of their mouths. These days, some of my favorites moments involve one-on-one time with the younger children. Taking Emily bowling or reading a story to Ethan. These are the things that I look forward to at the end of a long day, or week.

Every day as a parent is full of new discoveries and hurdles to overcome. But, in the end, it’s worth all the blood, sweat and tears you’re required to shed. Parenting is, by far, the toughest job you’ll ever love. And, I don’t always get things right. In fact, sometimes I get things very, very wrong. But I think my children know that I’m doing my level best, that I try to learn from my mistakes and that I hope to do a better job the next time around. Twenty years into it and I’m still a work in progress. Just like them!

Ultimately, a parent's primary job, other than loving their children, is to teach them not to need us - which is no easy feat considering they come into this world as toothless, hairless creatures who are nearly blind, can't roll over and crap green paste!  Casey is now 21 and is a fine, upstanding young man, as far as I know! Erin is 19 and is a strong and beautiful young woman, despite her fathers face for radio! Emily is 6 and is a thoughtful and sensitive little girl. And, Ethan is 2 and is an energetic and dangerously smart little boy. So, I think we’re on the right track!

I have 4 kids - ages 2 thru 21. One of them will be smarter than me, one of them will be more successful than me, one of them will be richer than me, and one of them will be more talented than me. But, none of them will be luckier than me, because I have THEM as my children.

My life as a Dad - by the numbers:

30,000 – Number of diapers worn by my 4 kids – I’ve changed half of them.
$22,000 – Room, board and tuition for Casey’s 1st year of college – 2010.
$16,000 – Tuition alone for Ethan’s 1st year of daycare – also 2010.
64 – Age that I will be when Ethan graduates from college.
36 – Number of years someone 18 years or younger will live in my house.
0 – Number of times that I’ve regretted any of it.


  1. This is beautiful Michael... thank you for your honesty and for sharing your obvious love for your kids & your important role as their Dad.

    1. Thanks Deb. As you know, parenting is a labor of love. With Labor and Love having equal billing. :)

  2. Michael, I have always been proud to be your dad and I never needed another reason to be so. However, this latest piece of yours has given me yet another reason for my pride. For everything you have done and everything that you are, I love you, Son. -- DAD

    1. So, I guess you like it? ;)
      Love you too, Dad.

  3. Michael, I only know you through Ryan, but simply felt compelled to comment on this post - it's an incredibly powerful piece of writing. It sounds like your kids have a pretty amazing father - I hope you are proud of yourself for doing what appears to be a wonderful job navigating what can only have been a tough road. And I'm sure that all that you've been through has helped not only put your running in perspective, but helped you power through a lot of runs and races. I'll look forward to continuing to read your posts! -Danielle

    1. Thanks for reaching out Danielle. Running did help during the difficult days. It was MY time to think (or not think) about what was happening in my life. Some days were so bad I just wanted to keep on going and going but the kids always brought me back. It was a good balance, I guess.

      Saw your blog and will add it to my list. Now that Ryan doesn't do that sort of thing anymore. :)

      Looking forward to reading your posts on ultras. I think I may be hooked.

    2. Michael, I do not really know how to say this. It brought tears to my eyes reading your blog but I always knew you were a wonderful person and father after meeting with you,Casey and Erin for the first time and knew you would be a wonderful addition to our family. I am very proud and happy to have you as my son in law. Love, Bernie

    3. Thanks Bernie. It's not always easy, as you know. Some days, particularly when the little ones are being impossible, you really question your sanity. But, seeing the older ones succeed, gives you hope that it's ALL worthwhile - in the end.

  4. Thank you for sharing your story. You have a beautiful family! Oh, and my littlest one is named Emily too. :)

    1. Thanks Katie. Glad you liked it! Based on the responses, I guess I should post about non-running related topics more often!

  5. I really enjoyed this post Mike. I only know you as a runner, but I now think very highly of you as a person after reading that.

  6. Thanks Kevin. I do what I do mostly in an attempt to deserve the children I've been blessed with.