At 21, I’m finally arriving at an age in which I can somewhat objectively reflect upon my fairly unconventional childhood. It may not have been incredibly different from yours—many of the elements of a “normal” American upbringing are there. As per the status quo, I had a mother and a father, two younger sisters, a rotating menagerie of pets, an insatiable curiosity and friends of both the real and imaginary variety.
We moved around a bit when I was younger, leaving the home I’d known as an infant near Houston, Texas, for San Antonio when I was 5 and then leaving San Antonio for Dallas when I was 7; and finally leaving Dallas for Austin just before the start of my fifth grade year. My father has been a youth minister for nearly 35 years, and the moves were always an amalgamated necessity—church politics and more intimate reasons, some of which have only recently manifested as family secrets. As I’m sure many of you know, the life of a minister, the church behind the stained glass windows and plastic smiles, can be just as ugly as you may imagine the lives and scenes behind the doors of any prominent government office and corporate boardroom to be. I was aware of this gross ecclesiastical malady from an early age. I had watched from the nursery hall and listened to the adults talk in hushed voices after I had been tucked into bed at night.
I was aware of other things too—my mother’s escalating descent into the basement of loneliness and depression, her diminishing respect and love for my father, my father’s own skewed, albeit well meaning, priorities to the students in his church and anybody else who didn’t quite fall under the rubric of immediate family. I’ve now come to believe that we, his family, were never consciously shelved (I know that we were never ignored)—but that in becoming an extension of his self and his life, we also became victim to his self-sacrificial predilection.
The move to Austin the summer following my 10th birthday was a key moment in my life for a multitude of reasons, only a few of which are remotely relevant here. I’m convinced that my mental adolescence began long before the age of 12 or 13. At 8 and 9, my cynicism and rollercoaster self-esteem were already bright and glowing with the emotional sweat that only a mind experiencing the loss of childhood notion and the gain of adult self-consciousness can ooze.
So, another relocation at age 10 from a place I loved to a place I didn’t know only precipitated this feeling of life-dread. In time, though, I came to love our new church home in Austin—it was different and exciting and much bigger than any community we had been a part of. The message was primarily of grace, of forgiveness and of love. I can see now with the move and new church community, God was preparing my family for something of which these messages were most important in the healing.
The relationship between my parents grew worse. My mother moved out of their bedroom and into the guest room adjacent to mine in the fall of my sixth grade year. A few months later, sometime after Christmas, she moved out of the house entirely and out of town to her sister’s in San Antonio. Divorce inevitably followed. This thrust my family into new territory—my dad into a new role as a single father and primary care-taker of three girls (11, 8, and 7), my mom as a still-young woman at 31 without her children, and us as the children of divorce struggling with a clueless dad and a mommy who became just a mother who felt thousands of miles away.
A million dinner disasters and frustrations and sad moments characterize the first few years of adjustment in a home that had housed five, and then only four. My mother soon remarried and started a new family, changing cities every couple of years like a pair of sneakers, and despite the fact that she has always emphasized how much she loves my sisters and me; our relationship became shallower. Truthfully, she is a very different woman than the mom I grew up with, and sometimes it’s hard to even remember her as I knew her in those new and naïve days before my world began to cave.
My dad and I have only grown closer. During the separation and divorce and in the years to follow, he says that we taught him as much, if not more than he taught us. That’s partly his intrinsic humility talking, but completely the truth. I think that’s the remarkable thing, for as my sisters and I were growing physically and intellectually, he was growing as well. We matured together in faith and wisdom, though his capacity for such I’m sure strongly exceeds ours. He has always emphasized the importance of discernment, grace, mercy and compassion. Nothing was forced upon us, choice and autonomy prized and though there have been some stumbles, even plummets along the way; I have emerged from childhood relatively healthy and joyful and my relationship with the Lord remarkably intact. My earthly dad has only served as a beautiful and challenging human model of my Heavenly Father.
My dad is one of my most favorite people. How many can say that? But I can read the enormity of the impact of the divorce in his tired eyes; I see how it has affected his health. He has not yet remarried and that predilection for self-sacrifice still remains strong, though he is now the sole victim. He has struggled to maintain balance between an emotionally demanding job as a minister and an emotionally demanding job as a single father. He encourages me to write, but does not allow himself the time to pen the thousands of books in his head and in his heart.
I can’t imagine growing up without his quiet influence everyday and while I am still very saddened by the circumstance, I no longer look back upon my life and long for something different to have happened to my family 10 years ago. We have been shaped by the events in our lives and our responses to them, as well as the response of others close to us. I like who I am. It’s been a far from perfect 21 years, and I thank God everyday for helping us to tame this leviathan of modern American family life—let’s just pray this creature doesn’t become the household pet of the status quo.
Notwithstanding, the number of single fathers with primary custody of their kids is on the rise. As a culture and community of believers, I think we should offer these men just as much praise and recognition as single-mothers—my dad has been both mother and father for 10 years.[Ariele Danea is an English major at Baylor University with an overwhelming love for coffee, live music and the writings of Dostoevsky, Faulkner and Sylvia Plath.]
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