Bad Dad

Michael Fitzgerald Working Parent

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The other software developer and I followed the human resources woman and sat down. Our boss was behind his desk, red-faced and unblinking. I thought we were in trouble for less-than-discretionary Web surfing. Instead he told us he liked us, but that the company was being forced to make some cuts. Our last day would be in one week.

What I felt more than anything as I was riding my bike home that day was I have failed my 6- and 3-year-olds. I have put them in harm’s way. I’m a bad dad. I’m in a position to be laid off because I’m not a serious person. I dabbled in writing rather than fully committing to my software engineering career. Get off this bike and apply to the Computer Science Program at Montana State University. Finish the application before this weekend.

But I didn’t do that. In the evenings, for that first week, I gave myself little pep talks to the effect of, “No beer until I have a job;” then I’d drink 10. I stopped eating and, after averaging 40 miles a week in preparation for the Missoula Marathon, stopped running. At the Saturday Market, my 3-year-old asked for a $2 cannoli, a treat I’ve bought him every time we’ve gone since he could speak, and I almost bit his head off.

Also, although it wasn’t really a decision, I didn’t tell the kids about losing my job.

Prior to their arrival, I guess, if I thought of them at all, children seemed an interesting accessory. A young boy launching off a park bench on his skateboard might suggest he learned this trick from some older wiser skateboarder. A ridiculously cute little girl –  are there any other kind? –  would highlight some fanciness to my genes. It never occurred to me they were small people in need of food, coats, love, and endless, endless summer camp tuition.

But then they arrive and within hours of getting them home from the hospital, it’s clear we should have been thinking differently about this. Everything has changed, right? One thing is over and another has begun. Sleep becomes a vague exotic luxury. Lounging on the couch with a magazine is an indulgence, one likely to bring out the wrath of your even more exhausted wife. They, the children, blow us back to the Stone Ages. The world becomes sticky and sleep deprived and reeking of Enfamil formula. All our goals become elemental: keep the child warm, fed and relatively clean. Within hours we see so much of our previous life as frivolous and petty. Now every waking moment is about life and death necessities, every decision fraught with the possibility of messing the child up. Every time you take a pee, you make a calculated gamble on whether they’ll pull the television onto themselves as you flush.

We crumble before them. They pummel us into meal and eat us with dirty spoons and soon we are them.

I heard someone once say kids are equipment-intensive sports. After they got here, I furiously re-prioritized. Made an offer on a house we couldn’t afford, started a 401K, bought a $400 baby jogger. A hobby, computer programming, which we considered a joke that supported my wife and me while we wrote novels, suddenly became an incredibly attractive career. I no longer thought of myself as a writer. I was a “software engineer.” I introduced myself as a software engineer. Software engineer who buys shit for his kids. Overnight, I became the cliché my father had been suggesting all along.

Then the second child arrived and it was like watching doors rust shut. Everything was officially over. No more writing. No traveling. Go to work and earn college tuitions, repeat, forever.

But, as we all know, it’s not that, right? We come out the other end. They get out of diapers. Our lives are infinitely richer. In fact, life becomes more punk rock than ever. You do everything you were doing before but you do it without having slept. You do it broke. You do it with mac and cheese in your hair. You do it with little barf stains on your shoulders. It’s so much more punk rock. People without kids suddenly look like amateurs. Writing software (or a novel) is nothing compared to writing software with a 2-year-old jumping on you from the top of the couch covered in peach yogurt.

Going on a month, the 6-year-old knew something was different. I was doing contract work from home. And although money was coming in, my ability to say where I worked or what I actually did wasn’t particularly firm.

One of Missoula’s weathermen is the father of his kindergarten classmate. The kids all know what their dads “do.” Although I’ve supported us through software programming, I was an “author” when I came in to visit the class one day. (Outside the class, in the grown-up world, I’d published a novel to small acclaim and even smaller sales a few years earlier. The total income for the book was about two months of salary from my software job.) When my wife and I would talk about money or jobs during this month, the 6-year-old would quiet.

Then one day, he asked, “Dad, don’t you work at  –  –  any more?”

“It’s complicated. I sort of work all over now.”

“You mean you’re writing more books?”

“I’m trying but it takes a while,” I said. “To be honest, I’m not really sure what I’m doing. But you don’t need to worry about it. Everything is going to be fine.”
He looked at me, puzzled, but clearly thinking that when I talk like this things probably aren’t fine.

Why exactly is me losing my job a direct affront to their lives? It’s like plates have shifted in my being. I’m physiologically different than before them. Someone snuck in and replaced my kidney with one that didn’t work while they weren’t being thought of constantly. We have no choice. And we like the feeling of having no choice. It’s like how some people talk about faith: we give ourselves over to something bigger. And once we do, it feels good to focus on a team rather than ourselves. And when the world out there messes with our ability to do our team right, I’ve never felt a rage quite like it.

Things eventually worked out. Job offers trickled in and a small start-up I co-founded began gathering steam. Then one night, right before I accepted one of the offers, the 6-year-old and I were eating ice cream on the porch. He wanted to go to the river the next day and I told him I couldn’t because I had a job interview. He asked what that meant. I told him I was speaking to someone about working for them.

“Why don’t you work for P – – anymore?”

“They ran out of the kind of work that I do.” And I paused trying to gather my thoughts on how to explain it all to him. I looked over and he was licking the bowl.

“That’s cool,” he said after it was clean. “Is the new job a better job?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe.”

“That’d be great if it was, huh?”

“Yeah,” I said. “That’d be nice.”

I kept it from him because of shame and my own insecurities, but he could care less. Their trust and admiration runs deep and wide. Summer camp is nice, but even if things are a mess, they just need to go to bed each night with a little ice cream inside them and dream their dreams. And later, in my own bed, I think, I am not them. But before they came, I was a projected image on the wall of a well-lit room and then darkness fell and I became clear and bright and there was exhaustion and fury but also my knives got sharp and there was clarity and purpose: them.

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About the Author

Michael Fitzgerald

Michael lives in Missoula, MT with his wife and two young sons. He's the founder of and , and the author of .

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