***The following is a Guest Post submitted by Nick Messina***
My name is Nick Messina. I’m a 45 year-old, divorced, single dad. I’m also a teacher and a writer. But before I became any of those things, I was a boy raised by a single mom.
I was eight when my parents got divorced, during a time when not many other kids were coming from broken homes. It was so isolating and made me feel so different. I was the only boy on my baseball team without a dad there to see him play. My friends’ dads would play with us in the backyard at their birthday parties; my father had an annual tradition of forgetting my birthday. Even in emergencies, like when I had a severe allergic reaction to multiple yellowjacket stings, the frantic call my father received was not enough to get him to the doctor to hold my hand as I got four shots of epinephrine in one arm and three in the other.
The one who did hold my hand was my mom. Always. Every time. Without fail.
Whenever part of my heart broke because I wanted my dad so badly, my mom was the one to pick up the pieces. She would let me cry on the ride home from my baseball games, gently “shhhh-ing” me and rubbing my head the entire way. She would sit on my bed after my birthday parties were over and offer the mystifying, but somehow reassuring, explanation that I memorized like song lyrics, “I know he disappoints you, but your father does love you.” And when we finally made it home after the yellowjacket emergency, it was my mom who helped me lift my arms into my pajamas because I was too sore to lift them myself.
Even as an adult, she helped me stand when I was too sore to move. The last thing I ever wanted to be was a single dad; to have my precious boy, Luke, experience the isolation and loss I felt as a child. And yet when I felt that part of me snap–that part that said, “Enough. I’m better than the treatment I’ve been receiving. I’m done,” it was my mom who reassured me of two things:
1) I was doing the right thing, because she had felt that self-same breaking of her spirit come so many years before, and
2) I was not my father, and Luke would not ever experience the disappointment I became so accustomed to as a child. On my worst days going through the divorce process, when I couldn’t see an end in sight and didn’t know how I would ever smile again, it was my mom who taught me the will to be strong, because that’s what she had to be for the three of us.
As a single dad, I can relate to her even more now–although I’ll never pretend that a father’s role is equal to that of a mother’s. My mom has often told me that when she put me to bed that night after the bee stings, she broke down crying because she realized for the first time she was alone in this. What I’ve never told her is that I remember vividly how many times I could hear her crying at night from behind my bedroom door. There was anguish in her cries. Anguish. And frustration. And sheer exhaustion. And yet the next day, there she was again, with breakfast on the table, school lunches packed, and our clothes laid out for school. She would be strong for us even if she didn’t feel that way inside, and she taught me that I need to be “The Rock” for Luke, despite how loudly my anguished cries may be behind closed doors after he goes to bed.
“The Rock.” That’s actually what my brother Anthony would grow to call her: “The Rock of Our Family.” He was two months old when my mother kicked my father out; so young and innocent that he used to call me “Papa” because he never knew what it was like to wake up under the same roof as his father. Growing up, he was the quiet one, and to this day he doesn’t typically emote unless copious amounts of alcoholic libations are involved. Maybe that’s why the letter he wrote to my mother on the occasion of her 70th birthday and retirement party shocked us all so much.
Anthony beautifully captured what it was like growing up under my mom’s loving care. He recounted all the basketball games and track meets she would attend for his sake–with no mention of ever missing my father, because he did not have that luxury. She was only, ever, all he knew. He told her how while we didn’t have money for fancy vacations and the like, the special moments she made for all of us on holidays made up for it, like hiding “one extra gift from Santa” in the closet because the three of us were so good that year–even though we had long-since ceased believing. He thanked her for the little surprises she would bring home from the supermarket from time to time, like Hostess Cupcakes decorated with red and white icing for baseball season. And he recounted the evening he had croup, and she wrapped him in a blanket and rocked him on the back porch to help him breathe. He told her that although it was a frigid January evening and he was sick and scared, she made him feel safe.
This isn’t to say she was perfect, but her intentions always were. There was beauty in her efforts and grace in her failings, and she instilled in her three boys the sort of sensitivity and compassion that I’m not sure we would have developed otherwise. I can proudly say that all three of us grew up to become loving, patient, hands-on dads, and devoted, supportive husbands. We wear our hearts on our sleeves and give of those hearts to help the people we love; another lesson we learned from our mother. Our single mother. The one who became, at the tender age of 32, a team of one, and who did what I wholeheartedly believe was a miraculous job.
And that’s my message to anyone reading this. Your children are a testament to your love and sacrifice. The struggle you’re making your way through today, the tears you may cry behind closed doors, the exhaustion you feel, the second guessing, the special thing you did for your son or daughter today that you may forget a week from now–those things are all part of the letter. You are helping your children write their future letters to you; the ones that they will stand and read proudly to a room of people. And you’ll cry and smile at the same time, knowing that all of this, the hard times as well as the good, was worth it.
You’re not perfect. You’re going to make mistakes along the way. But take it from this 45 year-old, divorced single dad–the one who’s a teacher and a writer now, but started off as an 8-year old boy being raised by a single mom–there is beauty in your efforts, and grace in your failings.
And you’re doing a miraculous job.