Sometimes a single parent is the only parent a whole family needs.
Last night, my children took their first music lesson with a lovely, talented young trumpet player and music educator. As I watched them connect to his kind teaching and the music, my eyes welled up. Their dad, a musician, should’ve been the one to teach them music.
I left my husband with nothing, only an instinctive determination that with my skills and experience, I’d make things happen quickly. I had two small children to protect. Feelings of insecurity and self-doubt were luxuries I could not afford. Sorrow, mourning, and despair were never an option. So, I anchored into my inner strength and my love for my children and braced myself for the unknown.
The love that flowed between my children and I ignited a fierce drive in me to move us through hardship quickly. In those first few weeks, I did everything to hide my children from my anxiety and our financial setback.
Within three months, an exciting career opportunity presented itself that allowed us to relocate to a beautiful home in a new city. Still, despite the move and the career change, my children and I had a long way to go in rebuilding our family.
Initially, watching my children move through the world fatherless was heart wrenching especially in the early years of their development and our own family’s restructuring. I did everything to hide the disappointment and anger I felt toward their dad. When they asked about his absence, I didn’t give much more than, “Your daddy loves you. He just has a sad heart.” In those moments when I still raged at him inside, I didn’t have the capacity to give much more than that.
The truth is I felt guilty. I faulted myself. I married a man who did not want nor have the capacity to be a father to our children.
An insightful friend recently said to me, “Every time you feel guilty that your kids don’t have a father, put that guilt on him. It’s his, not yours to own.” His words resonated. They helped me unload that weight and create space for forgiveness. I forgave myself. I came to understand that my children’s dad is a man with a lot of pain who perhaps made an over-determined choice to not participate in their lives. Today, I do feel sympathy and compassion where I once felt only resentment. That said, I do hold him accountable and always will.
In the three years since we left, my children and I have rebuilt our family. We are humming toward whole.
As my children grow, their natural talents present themselves. Each time I see them discover and connect with their gifts, I am reminded of my own and more importantly, I am reminded of their father’s. I have a responsibility to my children to honor the traits they share with their father. Somehow, I’ve discovered an incredible capacity to share with my children who their dad was before life happened to him…before the scabs formed.
In the authenticity of our love for one another and the design of our family, I’ve discovered an ability to infuse their father’s memory into our family’s narrative. When I celebrate his talents, I celebrate my children’s.
Driving my daughter to school one morning, we listened to Maxwell’s cover of Kate Bush’s song, “A Woman’s Worth”—my favorite song. My daughter commented on the beauty of Maxwell’s voice and I, for the first time in years, remembered how beautiful their father’s voice was. “You know, when you were born, your father sang the entire time the doctor performed the c-section. You, baby, were born into a room filled with the sound of your dad’s singing voice and it comforted me throughout the operation. He had a more beautiful voice than Maxwell, you know.”
She sat quietly, delighted, “My daddy did have a beautiful voice then.”
My son, genetically wired to play ball, can throw a football, tackle his sister, and throw a perfect pitch with his two fingers holding the ball in the official baseball grip. I’ve never taught him any of it. He naturally understands what to do. And I get why. Their father played college football, was the captain of all his high school teams, and was an impressive mass of sheer muscle. My son is as diesel as a preschooler can get. So when he proclaims with arm muscles flexed, “Mommy, I’m strong,” I offer up a slice of his father. “You know your daddy was really strong. He played football and baseball.” And my son smiles to himself with an expression that indicates to me he likes knowing where his strength comes from.
Last night when I watched my children naturally connect with the music, I remembered their father’s own talent and smiled/wept to myself. I thanked him silently for passing that on to my children.
It’s within that space of forgiveness that the children and I have grown into a whole family. I say that with confidence. I listen to their narratives and hear my children express deep love, joy, and pride in the stories they tell about our family.
There are other signs—signs I’m sure that many families who had to restructure after a divorce, abandonment, and death might recognize in their own family narrative.
My son, who is almost 4 and has no memory of his father, embraces the men in our life with openness and ease. He runs into the arms of my male cousins, my own father, and my dearest male friends with genuine expressions of love. He plants “smooshy” kisses on their cheeks and loves them generously. He has no apprehension, no wariness, and no yearning. He just loves purely and honestly.
He’s the one who states, “We have the most beautiful home, mommy. I love our family.”
I asked my daughter the other day if she missed her daddy and she said quite matter of factly, “No, I don’t. We’re a family.”
Recently, while I packed for a quick business trip, she asked me with a bit of apprehension, “Hey, mom, is it OK when you go away if I don’t miss you?” I smiled to myself, “Of course, we don’t have to be together all the time.” With a bit of relief, she replied, “I have fun when you go away.” I agreed, “I have a lot of fun too.” And she just nodded her head with a big smile and said, “Cool.”
My daughter is not afraid to be in the world if just for a few days without me by her side. She faces outward to the world fearlessly, inclusively, and compassionately. That tells me she feels safe and secure in the anchor that is our family. She is so confident in the love of our family that when we are not all together, she still feels its support.
The end of our marriage set the children and I on a path to becoming a whole family. Back there in married land, we were broken, toxic, dysfunctional, and destructive. Despite a traditional nuclear framework and the bonds of marriage, we were not a family. Today, inside divorce, abandonment, and single-parenthood, we are a whole family defined by togetherness and triumph.
A dear friend came to visit recently. The children and I, as we always do with visitors, welcomed him with warm, generous hugs. As we included him in our bedtime ritual, I saw how our love overflowed onto him. He glowed with it. He said to me later, “If anyone wants to see what a whole family looks like, they just need to look at you and your children.”
Katerina Zacharia is a media executive, teacher, and sole parent raising two children on her own. She is passionate about her work in media, diversity, and education, her children, her friendships and family, and keeping her sanity. She has no nanny.