Fun Dad

I am a divorced Dad of a 16-year-old daughter named Kaitlyn. She lives with her mother in Mattoon, while I live in Champaign. It is an arrangement we’ve had for the last ten years. Kaitlyn doesn’t remember a time when Mom and Dad ever lived together. For her, having two parents and two different households has always been the norm.

I was lucky enough to be raised in a two-parent home, but far too many children today are denied that luxury. Additionally, plenty of children are being asked to juggle multiple family households and blended families. Not only can these new family dynamics be difficult for the children, it can be a challenge for the parents as well.

Divorce can be difficult on children. However, my ex and I endeavored never to make it difficult on Kaitlyn. Just because our marriage didn’t work, didn’t mean we couldn’t work together as parents. For the most part, Kaitlyn has never been left wanting in the parenting department. I may not have been always present, but my presence was always felt.

So while she may have lived most of the time with her mother, over the years I made the special effort to bond and connect with my daughter on the weekends. Early on, we eschewed the normal every other weekend concept and I picked her up nearly every weekend for a Friday night to Saturday evening visit.

Early on, my daughter and I created things exclusively “Daddy – Daughter.” For example, we’d have epic battles of Chinese checkers or toy lightsaber duels around my apartment. We’d have Friday night pizza and build a massive marble track. I’d wake up on Saturday morning and find an enormous city constructed out of wooden blocks sitting upon my coffee table and we’d pretend to be monsters and knock it all down. These things became the “nuts and bolts” of weekend time with Dad and were the kind of things she got to do with me, but never ever thought to do with Mom.

Three things became the staples of our relationship – amusement parks, swimming and movies. Every summer, we’d take a long weekend and turn it into a road trip to a nearby amusement park. We had wonderful times, just the two of us, at Six Flags, Great America and King’s Island. It was our mini-vacation and we always made the most of it. Almost hand-in-hand with the amusement parks were water parks and swimming pools.

My daughter had a few swimming lessons over the years, but she’d tell you I was the one who made her unafraid of the water. It was my private joy to see her go from being scared of jumping into the deep end to jumping off a twenty foot platform to going down the water slide and jumping off the diving board at the Urbana Aquatic Center.

One thing I instilled in her was a love for the movies. For a good long while, every weekend we’d either rent a DVD or go out to see a movie at the Beverly or Savoy 16. She saw My Dog Skip at Ebertfest and was allowed to pet the dog actor. She has a movie ticket stub collection stretching many years.

All of these “Fun Dad” things connected her to me in a way unlike the connection she has with her mother. Fun Dad was also “Serious Dad” and “Confidant Dad.” Some of the best moments in our relationship came on the interstate driving back to Champaign when she quietly uttered the words, “Don’t tell Mom, but…” What followed usually involved her transition from private school to middle school.

One of the most endearing qualities of my daughter is her sensitivity and empathy. Bullies targeted her. She didn’t understand. I did my best to help her toughen up and avoid those kinds of confrontations. I couldn’t fight her battles for her, but I could be in her corner and that was all she wanted. She needed her Dad. I was happy to be there.

Nearly at the same time as her transition to middle school, her mother remarried and started a new family. In short order, Kaitlyn was now the oldest of four children – herself, two girls and a boy. She was also the only one with a different last name in the household. I think going from just her and Mom to her and Mom and this new guy and then three more was as jolting as you might expect.

To her credit, she rolled with the changes far better than I think I would have in the same situation. She stepped in to help her mother whenever she could from bath time to reading stories. However, I’m still convinced one of the greatest pregnancy deterrents for a teenager is to have younger siblings she has to help take care of.

After all this time raising and teaching her to the best of my ability as a single Dad, she eventually taught me something. I had been constantly referring to her sisters and brother as her half-siblings and never noticed the slight cringe every time I said it. It took my girlfriend, herself a product of a blended family, to notice how it was affecting Kaitlyn. So on one of those drives back to Mattoon, I told Kaitlyn how it occurred to me that I was actually offending her when I called her sisters and brother half-siblings. I saw how they weren’t half anything, but simply her brother and sisters. I admit I might have “had something in my eye” and I know her eyes were watering as well.

This past summer, we made a return trip to Great America. Toward the end of the day, which included riding four roller coasters in thirty minutes, I asked if she was having a good time. She responded with, “Oh, yeah.” I asked her what made it so fun and she answered, “Because it’s just you and me.”

As a divorced Dad, I get to be “Fun Dad” more often than not. Of course, that might change when she moves in with me in a couple of years as she gets her requirements out of the way at Parkland before moving on to Pharmacy school. Nah, “Fun Dad” is here to stay. I doubt Kaitlyn would have it any other way. Besides, her lightsaber skills now rival my own.