I have two children. Both girls. One is 18. One is three. The eagle-eyed among you probably picked up on the 15 years separating them. And yes, that is a lot. That’s from W’s first year in office to the middle of Obama’s second term. That’s from a year before the iPod to the Apple Watch. That’s from the waning days of my first marriage to the 11th year of my second.
What’s it like having children 15 years apart? Well, it’s an awfully long time between changing diapers. And except for Sesame Street—which has a weird new theme song and is on HBO now—all the kids TV shows are different.
There are other differences. I’m more aware of the preciousness of each milestone and how quickly time passes. I was youngish when my first was born. I was oldish when my second arrived. (Wait. I’m going to be an old dad? I never thought about that. I always felt bad for kids who had old dads.)
But these differences are the same ones that maturity and experience bring for any parent with more than one child. The real difference for me comes from being the noncustodial parent of the first and living full-time with the second.
I’ve had to fight to have a relationship with my older daughter. Not any sort of legal battle with my ex, but a battle against distance, time, and money. For 15 years, I’ve flown to see her about every month. It was a plane ride to her first day of school in kindergarten, first, and second grades until she told me to please stop. It was a plane ride for my annual volunteer days at her schools, which I did through eighth grade until she told me to please stop.
It was a plane ride for Christmas pageants, Quiz Bowl meets, and teacher conferences. It was discipline-by-telephone. It was three phone calls a day to see how she was. It was getting her to me via the most complicated, irritating “service” in air travel: the Unaccompanied Minor program. And I did it all gladly. It’s simply the price of parenting when you aren’t fortunate enough to live with your child.
I feel guilty about how easy it is with Daughter #2. If I want to know how preschool was today, I just ask her when I’m walking her out of class and strapping her into her car seat.
If I want to find out if she’s happy, healthy, and can reach her princess gown by herself, I just walk into her room and see. I am there for every blissful, unremarkable moment of her life.
The guilt doesn’t overshadow the joy. It helps me soak in this beautiful time. It has also, for the first time, helped me understand what life has been like for Daughter #1.
From my point of view, the relationship with my older daughter has been made possible because of my efforts. Because of those 6 a.m. Saturday flights after working until midnight on Friday. Because of those overnight trips just to have lunch with her, but bad weather in Chicago kept me at the O’Hare Hilton instead and I never got to see her. Because of the always-on-time child support payments on top of the cost of the flights, hotels, rental cars, and restaurant meals. The way I see it, these are Father-of-the-Year feats. And by comparison to other noncustodial, out-of-state parents I know, these are Herculean efforts.
But I just realized that none of that matters to a kid. To my first daughter I’ve been Dad-on-the-phone. Dad-at-the-airport. Dad-in-the-rental car. And that is a lot different than Dad-downstairs-in-the-kitchen.
The lesson here is, it sucks when you don’t live with your children and it’s wonderful when you do. Also, I’m sorry #1. I did the best I could. And I’ll keep trying, even if you tell me to please stop.