Thoughts on parenting a caring, clever daughter from 340 miles away.
Several years ago, my therapist asked me what kind of father I hoped to be. My daughter was six months away from being born; the brief romantic relationship with her mother had ended earlier that year; I had just begun dating a new partner (now my wife); and I was preparing to move away from RVA for a new job in the Midwest.
My therapist asked me to reflect on where I would likely fall on the father-involvement continuum, given that I’d be moving to a different region of the country before my daughter was born. (The “absent father” option was untenable for me.)
Would I be a complementary co-parent with my daughter’s mother, splitting roles and responsibilities equitably? Despite my generally progressive attitudes toward masculinity and fatherhood, co-parenting was and is simply not an option given our jobs, lives, and locations. My daughter’s mother is an amazing caregiver for her–attending to her daily needs, introducing her to new and varied experiences–but all of this happens several states away from me. The periodic visits that my wife and I make to see her and her mother are insufficient kindling for effective co-parenting.
Would I be the “fun dad,” sweeping in sporadically to break up my daughter’s typical routine with awesome adventures? (Theme parks! Ice cream! Staying up late!) I prefer Louis C.K. jokes, reading comment threads on the internet, craft beer, and quiet introspection. None of these are exactly kid-friendly pursuits,1 and there’s not much left in my parenting-at-a-distance toolbox after those alternatives are exhausted. What is “fun” for me is not something I can impose upon a 21-month-old and expect some kind of magical bonding to result.
For now, I occupy a position somewhere in between these approaches, something else entirely: a (mostly) virtually-connected father engaging with his daughter as best he can, often at a substantial distance. I’m not there to put our daughter to bed on Tuesday night or to pick her up from preschool when she’s having a rough day, but I can be present with her when she needs me to be thanks to FaceTime and its ilk. Her iPhone-wielding mother and I coordinate when these conversations happen–usually during or after meals together–although my daughter excels at inadvertently tapping the red “End Call” button.
Because I’m not with my daughter every day, it’s difficult to know exactly what resonates with her when we spend time with each other. I try not to presume too much about her feelings any given moment and instead make space for her to recount the story of her life. Lately when we talk, I’ll ask her “What did you and Mama do today?”, “Who did you see at school?”, and “How does this music make you feel?” I figure that if I’m able to remain genuinely curious and enthusiastic toward things about which she’s curious and enthusiastic, it won’t matter as much that I’m not around on Tuesday nights, that I’m there without being there. And it warms my heart when my daughter is the one who asks to initiate another telephony-enabled conversation with her father.
What I’ve recognized, as my daughter has gotten older and marched into toddler-hood, is that whatever I might unilaterally decide I’m going to be like as her father is utter garbage. I’m increasingly aware of how my daughter may perceive her family–her mother, my wife, me, and all of our relatives–and I hope she sees it as rich and full of love rather than abnormal or inadequate.
Although I don’t live in the same town that she does, I want her to grow up knowing that loving fathers can live apart from their children. That loving fathers and mothers may (or may not) be married. That loving parents are capable of being emotionally-available in their children’s lives even when they are not physically proximate.2 That other people in her parents’ lives love her intensely, too, and without qualification. I hope that my daughter will come to understand this as she grows up, but for now, we blow kisses, we laugh, we talk, we play, we cuddle, and we read as we fall asleep–which, regardless of the medium, feels universal to the aspirations associated with parenthood.