Katie and Julie were well into their elementary school years when their mother and I divorced. I had been a loving, attentive father who enjoyed the inexpressible sweetness of watching his daughters learn and grow and change, and I was determined not to become one of those divorced fathers who live at the fringe of their children's lives. Ours would be a continuous, ongoing relationship.
So I moved just down the street in order to see them every day and stay a part of those "little" moments -- walking the girls to school, helping Julie find the "Ninas" in a Hirschfeld caricature, making sure Katie takes her vitamin every morning, teaching them to make chocolate milk like I did as a boy -- open mouth, fill with milk, squirt in chocolate syrup, close mouth (very important!), slosh around in a clockwise direction (also very important!), swallow. Delicious!
Of course, I missed not living with them and I felt that loss every day. But I had let go of a loveless relationship with my wife and held onto a loving relationship with my children despite the sharp severance of divorce. In their fast-changing world, I had remained a constant. That would never change, I vowed.
But our walks to school ended along with my other "daily" fathering activities when their mother remarried and moved out of the neighborhood. In spite of this, I tried to stay connected to Katie and Julie. But lives are lived in the moment, and living apart from my daughters, I rarely witnessed or participated in their moments any longer -- certainly not the little ones. Cracks developed in the world we knew together. I couldn't keep up. I spent a lot of time feeling like someone who fell off a wagon and was running like mad to catch up. Eventually I found myself on the outside looking in at their lives -- their twists and shouts and schedules -- much of which were constructed without concern for me simply because I was not there.
I no longer knew the names of their friends, whom they were mad at, what they liked or what was bothering them. It became disconcerting listening to one of them explaining an event of crucial importance and realizing that I knew neither the actors nor the landscape. Finally, their physical distance and busy schedules wore down my resolve and, after too long feeling unimportant and left-out, I closed up, shut down and retreated into the safety of pained silence and self-pity. For a while after that we had only intermittent contact, ultimately achieving a wobbly detente of sorts.
Today the challenges of adolescence keep Katie and Julie busier than ever. I still don't see them as often as I'd like. We spend a lot of time on the phone. Some calls are easy -- one long continuous conversation. Other times we can't keep a conversation going for more than a few minutes. It will take time, I know, before we reach each other again, unencumbered by distance, divorce and adolescence.
Their mother tells me she rarely sees them, either. They're never home, she says. And when they are, they're in their rooms with their friends or on the phone. But she lives with her children and that's the difference. She has the chance to see them, to be a giver, if only for a few minutes, on a daily basis.
Fathering is different from mothering. Even under the best of circumstances, men come to their task from the outside. It is harder still when a divorced father ends up living at the boundary of his family rather than in its heart. Can I live separated from yet remain connected to my children? Are physical distance and emotional proximity compatible? How do I maintain that comfortable flow of intimate parenting I once had when now, for the most part, I am but a voice on their telephones?
More road maps, guidance and positive stories are needed to tell divorced fathers what to expect and how to simply maintain, never mind strengthen, connections with their children. Clearly, too many divorced fathers have nothing to go on but their emotions. Mine are, at times, volatile, free-floating and out of control. They don't get expressed and bounced around, so they sit inside me and make me feel like a dope. I am sorry for myself. I can be ambivalent, too. One minute I'm giving with all my heart; the next minute my heart isn't in it. Usually, when I pull back, it's for protection. Then I'm less vulnerable to feeling neglected.
Raising children is a process of disconnection. I understand that. Daily, they inch toward adulthood, knowing more and asking less, and eventually we must let them go. But I wasn't ready to disconnect so soon. When their mother and I divorced, it wasn't my intention to divorce Katie and Julie as well. I wanted to see my role through to the end, to be as consistently and meaningfully a presence in their adolescent years as I'd been in their growing-up years. What I failed to understand is that children are raised by the parent who is there, not the parent who is a phone call away or who makes an appearance every other weekend.
Yet I consider myself one of the fortunate divorced fathers. I was there for Katie and Julie's growing-up years -- Pampers, Barbie dolls, apple-juice Popsicles, barrettes and dirty socks scattered everywhere, doors left wide open and endless entreaties about getting a dog. We interacted on a day-to-day basis. Today, the thoughtful, spirited young women they are is partially because of my presence, not in spite of my absence.
Still, there is really no end to this story. There are moments of relief when I am with Katie and Julie, and moments when I am distracted from my loss. But it is always there, and Katie and Julie are not.