Raised By a Man
I never gave much thought to my parent’s relationship, or the impact they individually would have on me, because it’s not something you notice when you’re so little. But as the days and I grew older, it was simply unavoidable. My father used to tell me “I’m the dad…but I’m the mom too”, and it’s a phrase I wouldn’t understand until the years flowed by, and it was just him and I.
On January 1st, 2004, I was born in Bakersfield California, my mothers’ hometown. My father had grown up across the country in Elmira, a little town located in Upstate New York. He moved to California after meeting my mom at just 19 years old. They continued their journey, married, and had my 4 siblings and me. My mother and my father were together for 15 years by the time they had their last child, my littlest sister who came 4 years after me. Just a few years after she was born, I noticed the rift occurring between my two parents. I was just turning 9 when my mother left to stay with a friend for a while. I had no idea where she was going, or how long she’d be gone. Eventually it seemed that my parents had figured it out and decided to stay together. Needless to say, that didn’t last. Progressively there were more arguments, my mother was gone more often, and my dad wasn’t as cheery as I had always known him to be. I had a small understanding that my parents didn’t want to be around each other, but I struggled with understanding the why or what it even meant for my family.
When they officially split, I was 12 and the court decided on joint custody. One week I would spend with my dad, the other I would spend with my mom. During this time, I constantly felt like I had to choose between the two, and I never fully understood what was happening. In the midst of the divorce, my mother was much more withdrawn than usual, so I ultimately desired to spend even more time with my dad, and I did.
So, when my dad made the decision to move back to his hometown, I chose to go with him. He sat me down at our kitchen island and said “I need to leave. I want you to come with me, but ultimately, it’s your decision, and regardless of what you choose, I need you to know I love you.” My heart ached for him and for my family. What would this mean for me? For my family? My siblings? For my dad? In the moment, all I knew was that this was the first time I had ever seen my dad cry, and everything I felt told me I needed to go, and that it was the right decision.
After moving away, I immediately noticed that my relationship with my mom wasn’t like anyone else’s relationship was with their mom. I began piecing together all the little things that made it so different. Unconditional love and affection, quality time, and various other things were lacking in our relationship. I accepted the bare minimum from her. I became so accustomed to her crude and withdrawn behavior at a young age that I developed the idea that it was normal, and possibly even my own fault.
Following the move, I began visiting my mom in California over the holidays, and what was meant to be a vacation full of fun and catching up with my mom turned into negative memories I’ll never be able to shake. I remember the first visit after I turned 13, and it was the one that launched me into the awareness of my body and how others portrayed me. I stole a black and white stripped short sleeve shirt from my older sister’s closet, and just minutes after I put it on my mom popped her head around the corner of her tiny apartment bathroom and said, “girls with big boobs can’t wear stripes, it makes them look fat.” I stood frozen in the bathroom and had no idea what to say or do. After she left me alone, I looked back in the mirror for what felt like hours and felt disgusted that I would even consider wearing stripes and told myself “Well, maybe she’s right.” I immediately changed into something new and decided I would never touch stripes again. The following week, we had all just gotten back from swimming in the apartment complexes’ community pool and I was complaining about the way my swimsuit fit me. My mother turned to me and said, “If you spent more time outside tanning, you would look skinnier.” My face turned as red as my sunburn from that day, and I looked down at my stomach and told myself “Well, maybe she’s right.” I spent as many hours as I could outside in the sun before I had to back to the dreadful New York weather.
By age 15, I understood that actions like this weren’t normal, and neither were the various other things she did to me. I decided that I no longer wanted her apart of my life. It was somehow the easiest decision I had ever made, but also the toughest.
The adjustment to New York was hard, and so was losing my mother, but I had my small little family, and that’s all I needed. My dad was still taking the divorce hard all while learning how to be a single parent. Our relationship at first struggled. A part of me was angry and I simply didn’t know how to go to him for things. I still hurt from not having a mother in my life and understanding why I didn't. As I got older, things changed, and a stronger relationship developed once we began to understand each other. I began to open-up and acknowledged that he was the one consistent thing I had in my life. I realized it wasn’t my fault for the torn relationship with my mother and I realized that I didn’t need her as much as I thought I did. I am now capable of understanding that if someone wants to be in your life, they’ll make the effort, they’ll fight for you, and they’ll never stop, just like my dad did.
He became the mother that I lacked throughout my life. He took me shopping for my first prom dress, took me to get my nails done, gave me the bird and the bees talk, held me while I cried over my first heartbreak, taught me how to drive, bought me my first car, supported me in graduating high school early, and so much more. Raising a teenage daughter is a hard role within itself, and my dad did not only this, but he became the father I needed, the mother I needed, and the best friend I needed. He never gave up on me, even when learning to be everything I needed would be the hardest task he’d ever face.
Every day it hurts less and less because I now know family isn’t what is given to you, it’s what you make it. You don’t have to allow something negative to live in your life just because others consider it a social normality. I think back and realize that my dad and I’s relationship struggled because it needed too. We needed to struggle in order to better understand each other. The moment our relationship grew stronger was the day we both had the mutual understanding that we both lost somebody who promised to be in our lives forever, so over the years we silently promised to never do the same to each other.