A Father's Calling
Would he become a dad, or another deadbeat statistic? One man's journey to an unexpected fatherhood.
Since that day, my sister and I have become close. We're both misfits of sorts, and probably would have gotten along great as kids. There was instant acceptance between us, and the unconditional love from her long-lost family laid a promising foundation for the future. Becky reminds us, though, that we all still barely know one another—20 years, she says, is a long time to make up. My father agrees, and he, too, has talked with me about the pain of not being able to regain what was lost over those years.
Now, I found myself in the same spot, and I thought that maybe the old cliché was right: The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. More important, perhaps, I silently wondered if the fact that I wasn't part of her life would hurt Olivia.
The first year of Olivia's life passed by before Sarah pursued the paternity test. At the time, I wasn't bothered by not knowing what was happening: I was busy raising my two children, and had married a woman, Nikki, who had two children of her own. Like Olivia, Nikki's kids didn't have a biological father around to share in the parenting duties. Nikki and I were crazy about each other from the first night we met. We were married in Vegas during a business trip, and she was pregnant within a month of our wedding. I couldn't have been more ecstatic about our new life together as a big, blended family. This was what I was used to: It was how I had grown up as a kid, and I often remembered it fondly. It was near perfect. But something was still missing.
During her pregnancy, Nikki and I began discussing, in more detail, our thoughts about the future of our children. Olivia began weighing heavily on both Nikki and my consciences. We went through the same flood of emotions that I had experienced the first night Sarah called to inform me of the pregnancy: We were confused, concerned, and scared of doing the wrong thing for our kids. How could we bring another child into the world knowing full well I was rejecting the last one I had fathered?
When Nikki, pregnant and now raising four children, offered to take in another child, it was the most unselfish act I'd ever seen up to that point in my life—with the exception of my stepmother taking in Becky when she came into my father's life. I had lived through five marriages by the time I was 15, and plenty of selfish men and women had come in and out of my life as I was growing up. But Nikki was different, she saw the bigger picture, and she encouraged me to be more than just a Paycheck Daddy.
Ten days after the DNA test I learned what I'd known the moment I held Olivia in the hospital: that she was, in fact, my daughter. Sarah was gracious and allowed me into Olivia's life, despite the fact that I hadn't been part of it for her first couple of years. I took on a new role as Olivia's father, on gradual terms, and we eased into one another's lives.
It's been two years now, and I see her every other weekend, plus the occasional holiday. Olivia grows up a lot between our visits, her ever-expanding vocabulary a constant reminder of how much I miss when she's away. Most days have been full of laughter—trips to the park, backyard trampoline adventures with her siblings—sharing in genuine moments of love and revelation and learning what makes each other tick. We've both had moments where we struggle to bond, like when she misses her mother during bedtime, and I'm forced to wonder why the solace of my arms isn't enough to comfort her. But as I finish writing this essay, she's down the hall and our take-it-one-day-at-a-time routine of discovery has tuckered her out. On the heels of a birthday party with her extended family, she's off to la-la land, her blonde locks draped across her princess pillow.
I'm constantly concerned that I'll fall short. I know that her life, that our life together, with Nikki and the rest of my children, will be a challenge. But I also know the odds are stacked against a child who doesn't have a father in her life—that she would be at least twice as likely to be poor, to experiment with drugs, to have trouble at school and at home. While I don't excuse my dad for making the decisions he made with Becky, he was always there when I needed him. And as I've gotten older, I've realized that being there is a huge part of being a dad.
I may not know for years—if ever—whether or not I'm doing it right. The only thing I can do is be certain that I'm around when my children need me, and close by when they don't. I've found that loving unconditionally and without fail is all it takes to get through the incredibly complicated maze that is being a father. The photos on our home's walls are lined with mystery, hope, and a hint of the unexpected—and, instead of being reminders of what has been lost, they are rooted with possibility. While I know I'm not a perfect father, I'd never know what it takes to get there if I didn't at least answer the call.