When I was four years old my parents got divorced. In a move that I’ve come to learn is relatively unusual, a California judge granted full custody to my father with the caveat that me and my sister would spend every summer with our mother. She would stay in our lives, but my father would now be the one to help us get ready for school, usher us into our teen years, and be our main day-to-day support system.
Growing up, I was on the receiving end of much handwringing over my dad’s fit-ness to parent two small girls. I came of age in an era that predates the prevalence of “unorthodox” family structures, when a single dad still seemed like an anomaly—and to some, an abomination. While we quietly navigated these reactions for years, I'd now like to say as loudly as possible that not only did being raised by my dad not handicap me, but it taught me the meaning of self-sacrifice—and in many ways, prepared me to forge my own path in life.
Shortly after the divorce was finalized, my dad moved my sister and I across the country from Northern California to New York. An academic in Chinese history, he was given the opportunity to teach at an idyllic college upstate, so he packed us up and prepared to start this new job—and a new life. I can’t imagine what must have been going through his mind on this first solo journey. I don’t know if I’d be strong enough to take that same ride.
I should mention that both of my parents were, and still are, actively involved in my life. I always felt loved by both my mom and my dad. Strangely, though, growing up, everyone I told about my home life assumed my mom was dead. After watching concern flit across the faces of strangers upon hearing that I lived with just my dad and sister, I got used to saying, “Yes, my mother is fine. Yes, she is alive. Yes, I see her every summer and talk to her every week.” It’s funny how confused society can get about a man choosing to raise kids on his own. To us, this was just the way it was.
My father learned to braid my hair, and in the morning he dressed us in sturdy corduroy pants and turtlenecks to protect us against the foreign cold of East Coast winters. He sent us off to school, checked our homework, and put his needs for female companionship on hold. I now have a stepmother, but she is a recent addition; maybe my father dated when we were younger, but if he did, he hid it well. I never considered what this meant; seeing him as a single parent was the default, so I didn’t question it. Maybe the work of raising two children and holding down a full-time job was enough, and dating felt too heavy a load. Maybe he wanted to make sure we were fully grown and ready to be on our own before he dedicated emotional labor to finding a partner. When I think about what he gave up for all those years, my love for him deepens.
I’m pretty sure my dad was the one to take me to the gynecologist for the first time—a memory I have, for the most part, mercifully blocked. I’m confident he would have handled my first period with similar composure, but I am eternally grateful that it occurred during a visit to my mother. When we’d go grocery shopping in my teen years he’d turn a blind eye when I would throw a box of maxi pads into the cart along with the cereal boxes and granola bars. I wasn’t embarrassed, but as a 13-year-old girl experiencing the rough transition that is puberty, I appreciated his non-acknowledgement.
As a result of being raised in a single-parent home, my sister and I learned certain responsibilities earlier than most. When my dad was away at work, we did our own laundry, cooked meals, and took care of each other. I like to think that we even gained a specific kind of independence. Raising a child alone is not an easy task, but simultaneously working a full-time job to support that child is just as hard, if not harder.
The national discussion about single fathers is a quiet one. Most writing on the subject focuses on solo fatherhood as a hindrance to the father's dating life and offers cautious tips for those who want to dip their toes back into the dating world as damaged goods. Meanwhile, women are still assumed to be more suited to childcare because of biology, whereas men are often showered in praise for doing the smallest domestic tasks.
Many people assume that fathers have to be taught responsibility, that they have to learn the kind of fierce, protective care parenting requires. Growing up, I picked up on cultural messaging that it's men's nature to shirk responsibility for childcare. It’s the world’s oldest, and least funny, running joke. There are legions of fathers in America who, like my dad, are heroically raising their kids on their own without much fanfare. Legions of dads making their sons and daughters as proud has my dad has made me.
Megan Reynolds is a writer and editor with bylines in the FADER, The Billfold, BuzzFeed, Racked, and more. She lives in New York.