PERSONAL
06/15/2019 14:10 EDT | Updated 06/16/2019 08:38 EDT

My Childhood Was A Mess Of Father-Figures. How Lucky Am I?

They didn't always see eye-to-eye, but they did agree on one thing: loving me.

Natalie Stechyson
Natalie Stechyson, who is unimpressed to discover the lump in the bed was actually her father playing a trick on her.

One of my first memories is of my dad tickling me with his foot on our living room floor when I was three years old. It’s remarkable not only because I remember something from when I was so young, but because it’s the only memory I have of my mom and dad living under the same roof.

I can see still see and feel it so clearly: the white walls of the room, the sunlight shining through the windows, my dad’s giant toes wriggling on my belly.

By the time I was three and a half my parents were divorced, and I had new kinds of memories. The coconut smell of my dad’s SPF 4 sun tan oil, which he’d lather himself with at the pool in his condo complex. The parking lot halfway between his house and ours where my sister and I tearfully switched from our mom’s car to his every second Friday, and then tearfully back again on Sunday. The three of us running through the toy aisle at Zellers and pressing every button on anything that made noise, then getting ice cream.

Growing up a child of divorce in the 1980s and ’90s, when American divorce rates were at their peak, wasn’t anything all that unusual. And my experiences are similar to others’ who grew up with dads who lived in different houses than them.

Except in one regard: I don’t have abandonment issues. If anything, I have the opposite. My sister and I grew up surrounded by fathers and father-figures clamouring to be the primary men in our lives.

I’ve had a father, a step-father who became an ex-step-father, a ... Doug (what do you call your mom’s partner of the last 15 years? There’s no Hallmark label for that! He’s my Doug, I guess. And I should clarify he’s never tried to be my dad. I was an adult when he met my mom), and an extremely involved grandpa. All of them have played important roles in my life.

Natalie Stechyson
Natalie Stechyson and her grandpa, who might not look tough, but will fight you.

It wasn’t always pretty. Once, my now-ex-stepfather wanted to adopt us even though we had a perfectly capable father. Things got downright ugly, too, like that time my grandpa “jokingly” socked my dad in the stomach at my sister’s high school graduation, and my dad walked out. 

There have been tears, fights and heartbreak. There have been nasty fights. There have been painfully awkward holidays shuffling between houses and trying to fit everyone in and make everyone feel involved.

In the lead-up to my wedding, my sister and I joked that in order to make everyone happy I’d have to walk down the aisle with a dad on each arm, Doug bringing up the rear, and my grandpa walking in front with his arms crossed. I called it the “football formation of awkward” and told my now-husband that I’d understand if he ran. 

I’ve lived most of my life juggling the time and affection of all my men-folk. It was awful. It was hilarious. It was the fodder of many therapy sessions.

How lucky am I? 

Natalie Stechysion
Natalie Stechyson's father (the OG!) walks her down the aisle at her wedding. Yes, she went with just the one. What do you think this is, "Mamma Mia"?

For all their faults, the stress and the family drama, I’ve always been surrounded by fathers and father-figures who are all in.

They’ve showed up at swim meets and choir performances, graduations and weddings. My dad used to stock his fridge with all my favourite snacks and stay up-to-date on the latest celeb gossip so we could talk about it over microwave popcorn and Orange Crush. My grandpa read every article I wrote until his dying day four years ago. When I was on maternity leave, my Doug (ugh, come on, we need a title for this, Hallmark!) would take my infant son for walks so I could go to pelvic floor physiotherapy.

My ex-step-father and I lost touch after the divorce, but for a decade he was a pretty formidable force in my life. He also taught me how to drive, which never stuck, and I blame this partially on their split when I was 16.

These aren’t the stereotypical bumbling or deadbeat dads you see in sitcoms or depicted in memes. In fact, I know very few dads who are.

Natalie Stechyson
Natalie Stechyson's Doug holds her newborn son.

When I gave birth to my son three years ago, my dad and Doug sat in the waiting room along with my mom and my sister from about midnight to 3 a.m., eagerly waiting to meet their first grandchild. 

I groggily introduced them to my baby, who I named after both my father and my now-deceased grandfather (the two didn’t exactly get along, but they shared a first name, Robert, which is my son’s middle name).

Later, Doug, who never had children of his own, posted a picture of him holding my son, with the caption: “Thank you for creating Granddoug.”

Today, my son calls Doug “GoGo,” my dad “Grandpa,” my husband’s dad ... “Grandpa” (listen, we ran out of creativity) and he’s surrounded by grandfathers clamouring for his time and affection. 

How lucky is he? 

Natalie Stechyson
Natalie Stechyson's husband, Ian, holds their son and placates their cat.

Our son also, of course, has a father who would do anything for him, because kindness and compassion are some of the many qualities I sought in a partner.

My husband sings my son his final lullaby each night as I scroll through internet memes of dads not pulling their weight. He knows the names of all our son’s little buddies at daycare. He spent weeks transforming his stroller into an airplane for Halloween two years ago (last year he wore a full-length banana costume to match our son’s monkey costume, which I feel is just as much of a sacrifice).

He, like the dads in my life, and so many other dads I know, is all in.

And I’m grateful. 

(I also hope you all will accept this as your Father’s Day gift, because dammit there’s a lot of you and I’m only one person and there’s still no Hallmark category for “Doug.”) 

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