Do you have anyone who has touched your life as a parent – whom you’ve never even met?
Nine years ago, after writing Mommy Wars and struggling to find my way as a new mom of three kids, I started writing a daily online parenting blog for washingtonpost.com. “On Balance” became a surprise hit among moms, dads, babysitters, grandparents, teachers and pediatricians. People flocked, digitally speaking, to the blog, which attracted anyone interested in the art, science, joy and drudgery of raising children. Hundreds of readers around the country wrote hundreds of comments every day, sometimes more than 700 in only a few hours.
One of my favorite regular commenters signed his posts “Father of Four.”
It turned out he was born the same year I was. He lived only a few miles from me. My three kids and his four were about the same ages. Like me, and everyone else who was part of the “On Balance” cyber community, he was extremely opinionated about how we raise children in this country.
Father of Four was the first parent I truly respected who was very different from me. He was Catholic, where I’m nothing. He was a college drop out, where I sometimes feel I’ve got HARVARD tattooed on my forehead. Father of Four was fairly conservative in many of his views. He loved camping, beer and do-it-yourself projects. He was easy going, funny, never one to sweat a small detail.
Mostly, he was different from me simply because he was a man. That was the best part – to debate parenting with someone who came at the job with a completely different worldview. His comments sometimes made me splutter with rage and frustration. We argued, pushed each other’s convictions, made each other see critical parenting decisions from different viewpoints.
Then, about a year into reading his online comments every day, the On Balance community learned something about Father of Four: he’d been blind for over 15 years, since before his first child was born. Two weeks after returning from his honeymoon, he was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy. Thanksgiving 1990 was the last time he saw his wife’s eyes. Their first child was born the next year. He was raising four children without ever seeing what any of them looked like, at least on the outside.
He’d been afraid to have sons because he’d never be able to play ball with them. Afraid he wouldn’t be able to convince his daughters they were beautiful if he couldn’t see them. Worried about supporting a family as a disabled breadwinner and the extra burdens his limits put on his wife.
But Father of Four loved being a dad. He went to all his son’s wrestling matches even though he couldn’t see what was happening. He teased his teenaged daughters that boys at the mall were staring at them not because they were pretty ,but because they were leading around their blind dad. He witnessed every moment of their lives without ever being a helicopter parent.
He taught me that passion for parenthood covers a lot of imperfections. That, in fact, being imperfect is a critical part of being a good parent. By example, parents who accept their own flaws teach our kids that perfection is meaningless – so they don’t lose sight of their own passions and talents and values in the elusive, oppressive quest for getting every single detail right in life. He also showed me the value of listening to other parents, and understanding that no one gets parenthood exactly right. We all do the best we can, and thankfully most kids understand that.
I went to Father of Four’s funeral today. He died of complications from diabetes last week, a few months after turning 50. Imagine: his youngest child just graduated from high school, and his time as a parent is over. No wonder he was trying to cram every ounce of parenting joy and wisdom into each moment he had with his kids. I never knew him in person, and his funeral was the first time I met his beautiful wife and children. But being a parent alongside someone so very different from me brought lasting joy to my toughest parenting moments, and galvanized the way I’ve raised my kids, no matter how imperfectly I do it.