Wednesday, January 21, 2015

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How having a father in jail made me a better father

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My father left when I was nine, and died from drug addiction when I was 19. During those ten years he was in and out of jail, mostly for driving while intoxicated. When I was 16-years-old, he was given an 18 month sentence in the Utah County Jail. This was his longest sentence, and sadly, it included the most consistent communication of our relationship because he had two phone calls a week, and he often spent them on me because I was one of the few people still willing to pick up the phone when he called.

I hated having my father in jail. I hated having to explain it to friends and teachers, because I knew that they would look at me differently, so I often lied about him. Sometimes I said that he lived in another state, but mostly I said he was dead. It just seemed easier than the truth, which was that my father was not much of a father at all. In so many ways I just wanted to forget him. Pretend like he never existed because it was easier than dealing with the fact that I found him embarrassing. But most importantly, I felt a deep sorrow in knowing that he wasn’t like the fathers my friends had. The ones that were dependable. The fathers that showed up to sporting events and parent teacher conferences. The fathers that were supportive and compassionate and sober.

I’m not trying to say that my father didn’t have some valuable qualities. He wasn’t completely without worth, and over the years, and as I have gotten older, I have started to better understand who he was. He’s been dead for 13 years, and now that I’m a father of three, I think about him a lot more than I ever have.

Honestly, I wish he would have been better. More dependable. More compassionate. More dedicated. More connected and understanding of his children. When I first had my son, I thought a lot about the fact that I never really had a father, and I didn’t know how I was going to be a decent father without a good example.

It made me bitter. It made me jealous of fathers who had good examples. I hated chatting with other dads and hearing them tell me about lessons they learned as a child from their fathers that came in handy now. I hated hearing them tell me about how they had a good chat with their fathers before having children about what it would be like to be a father.

I though a lot about all this stuff for several years until one day, when my first son was five-years-old, and we were living in Minnesota, I helped my son make a stick horse. We were living in a town home and I was attending graduate school. It was fall, and there were leaves and sticks in our front yard. I asked Tristan if he’d ever rode a stick horse. He looked up at me big bashful blue eyes, and said, “No.”

I found a couple sticks on the lawn, broke off the side branches so they would be straight, put one between my legs, and hopped around the yard like I were on a horse.

“That’s it,” I said. “I used to do it with my father.”

And with that statement, I thought about when I was a boy, and one of the few happy memories I had with my father. I was around 7-years-old, just a little older than Tristan. Dad handed me a stick, just like I did with my son, and showed me how to ride it around the yard.

I remember feeling warmth in what he did. A simple tenderness that I assumed would always be there. I could see that same feeling in Tristan’s eyes as he rode his stick horse.

I knew that I wanted more of these moments with my children, but rather than getting bitter like I used to, I thought about the dad I had for just a short moment. The one who showed me how to make stick horses, and I said, “I’m going to be that dad. I’m going to be the father I never had.”

I committed to being dedicated to my children. I promised myself that I would never abandon my children. That I would love my wife and my family more than myself. I promised to never consume drugs or alcohol. To show up to my children’s parent teacher conferences and sporting events. Rather than getting more pissed off about what my father wasn’t, and using that as an excuse to feel lost, I decided to do something more.

Tristan and I rode stick horses in the yard for an hour or so. Eventually Tristan’s three-year-old sister, Norah, came out and joined us. She mostly just banged her stick horse on the driveway, but she seemed to be enjoying herself. It was a simple, but awesome moment for me as a father because for the first time I realized that I was getting back what I’d always wanted, a father-child relationship.

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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress, and an angry baby girl. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His work has been featured in Good Morning America, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, Fast Company, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.