Steady Through the Years: A Single Dad’s Journey

by Glen Gates

At 53, my days as a runner are a fond memory. Not to say I couldn’t get back into the shape I was in 1983 when I got up every morning at 6:00 am to run two miles before work. It’s just that I seem to have run out of time for myself these days. I’m a single dad.

In 1991 I married my office sweetheart and soon there was a baby. Our beautiful daughter learned about turbo-charging and statistics when I held her as an infant. We discussed flight dynamics, Bernoulli’s principle, profit and loss, load factor, lift and drag when I changed her diapers. By 12 months we were reading all about horses and spaceflight. Well, I did most of the reading while she did most of the listening, pointing and smiling.

Although I loved her mother, Savanah and I became a team as we watched her mother enter one recovery program after the next in many failed efforts at sobriety. One Christmas Eve, I found my wife wasted on pure vanilla extract, waving a cigarette carelessly. Before I could intervene, my toddler daughter had a burn right between her eyebrows. Thankfully, the wound healed, but sadly my wife continued to struggle with her disease.

Cute young girl looking through telescope with her fatherWhen my daughter was six years old, we read all about Misty of Chincoteague by Margaret Henry and let our imaginations draw beautiful pictures about life on the outer islands, horses, boats and great food.

As a successful businessman who had climbed the corporate ladder, I had depended on my wife to manage our home and be there for the kids while I traveled the globe in my airline business development role. As Vice President, I had enormous responsibility to generate new revenue. What caused me much anxiety was the knowledge that I could not trust my wife to remain sober. It became apparent to me that if I was going to be successful at raising my daughter, I needed to take over household parental duties as my wife entered another long-term treatment program.

Along comes September 11, 2001, with my wife in rehab and all of my spare time spent with Savanah at Brownie meetings, school functions, doctor appointments, clothes shopping, softball practice, hosting sleepovers and doing homework. My company failed. I was an out of work dad.

Just when I was hoping for some good news, my wife emerged from recovery and wanted a divorce. She had a new direction. I guess I saw it coming. After five tries, my interest in — and available cash for — another recovery program had run dry.

My daughter and I moved and I took a job with the U.S. Postal Service. I held her hand and walked her to fourth, fifth and sixth grade every morning. We walked home after I finished work and after daycare at the church across the street from her elementary school. She made new friends and started horseback riding. We grew together.

She is almost 16 now, rides her horse, plays guitar, gets decent grades and has a social life. I work out of the house and am here for her.

December 2009. She was in 11th grade now and the marching band season finally ended. Whew! Practice every day, weekends, nights, $800 to participate, paying for mallets … but the percussion band was good. My job was to write checks, drop and pick up from practice, go to the football games and competitions and provide moral support when the fun wore off and it became real work. She played in the “pit,” the percussion section with glockenspiels, xylophones, cymbals, keyboards, chimes, and the bass drum. What a team experience. I have new respect for the instructors who molded a bunch of “never befores” into a unit that placed very high in state marching band competitions. We were both committed.

Then winter season started with a new instrument to learn. I decided to make an investment in a “keyboard,” an electric synthesizer. Maybe I’ll learn to play it. Guitar lessons continued and the formal reading of music lessons turned into “let’s learn a riff.” Much more fun according to Savanah.

I bought a used 1983 Porsche 911 SC from a guy who was a fanatic about keeping it in good condition, and my weekend fun quotient went up by a thousand percent. The car is fast, corners like it’s on rails, has outstanding brakes and makes me feel very involved when I am at the track in drivers education. My passion, which long ago had been flying, found a new hobby to get the juices flowing again.

Summer 2010. My daughter started driving on a student permit. Her driving is pretty good. She doesn’t quite understand the subtleties of accelerating and steering through the turn, and tends to throw her passengers around a bit too much for my comfort. We work on that and other tactics to keep her safe and aware of the limits. Slowly but surely she is gaining independence and maturity.

I like what I see most of the time. Her friends are courteous; her habits (music, X-Box, marching band and equestrian) suit me although I have to keep prodding to ensure the academic performance is where it needs to be. So far, she seems to be somewhat indifferent about school work and she will soon realize that failing to make the grade will have negative consequences.

August 2010. School starts tomorrow. She is a senior, smiles and laughs a little like me and a lot like her mom. Work is tougher than ever, and many changes in the composition of the company management structure make for a lot of tension. Thanks to the sports car and a beach close by, I can loosen up and not let the work become overpowering even though I am a slave to the Blackberry. It’s all part of trying to manage a global organization and win a big new contract.

My daughter has been doing her own laundry for the past four years and that is a big help. Now if I can only get her to pay attention to the dirty dishes in the sink and the trash. Seems she has other priorities — unless, of course, she wants money. But it’s progress!

Nine years. I often wonder if there is anyone else out there who understands what it is like to be a single dad raising a daughter. My parents, brother and sisters know, but talking with others about the struggles and day-to-day life is not only difficult, it’s more than most conversations can bear — especially if it is with someone new.

Speaking of someone new, the biggest void in the last decade has been someone to help share the load — an adult female with whom I have a relationship. I try to be a good dad but I’m not a very good mom even though I have the assignment. To say it’s been mentally challenging is an understatement.

There are times when the overwhelming responsibilities mount up and I withdraw in silence, because doing nothing eases the pressure. But I know that, ultimately, this just lengthens the list of things to do and increases the tension. Being on the endless loop with no relief, no second string, can test the strongest of people. I feel like the test has been underway for nine years and I have failed some parts of it.

The end game, at least for me is that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. If I am successful at training my daughter to be self-sufficient, have good common sense, and be aware of the things and people that can help her and hurt her, then I have achieved my goals. In that regard, I give myself a B+. She is showing signs of independence and makes good decisions. I have comfort in knowing she is not prone to hang with the wrong crowd; she sees the good and positive most of the time; and she has demonstrated an iron will and a get-it-done attitude about keeping her room clean, doing her own laundry, getting up on time, being ready and engaging in work, school or social activities — and mostly with a smile.

Perhaps one day I can take a rest and not have to be on “daddy duty,” although I think the job is never going to be over. And that’s fine with me. If I could go back ten years, I would never choose this path. But from where I’m standing now, it’s not that bad.

glen-gatesGlen Gates is a single dad who worked for 30 years in the airline industry. Along with being a father, he enjoys flying seaplanes, sailing, being a ski instructor and driving sports cars.

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