Growing up without a father in the home these days is not that uncommon. Sadly, nowadays it is almost "normal."
Growing up without a father in the 1960s, however, was not that common... at least in my neighbourhood.
The first time I realized that our home was "different" was when I was in the second grade. Having gone to a Catholic school for kindergarten and first grade, the status of my family was politely not discussed. But in public school, it was fair game. There were no nuns around to shush children who found anything different about another student from broadcasting to the rest of the class, "Hey! Stevie doesn't have a dad!"
For the next two years I was the only kid in my class who didn't have a dad at home. I finally found another kid in my fourth grade class who didn't have a dad, but she was a girl, so it was okay if she threw like a girl. Not so for me.
My mother taught me the things that a dad usually teaches a boy. I had to re-learn some things that she taught me, like how to throw a baseball, and that I didn't need to sit down to "do number one." It was in the fourth grade that I began wondering what it meant to be a "man."
I thought when I grew a moustache I'd be a man... but hen I realized that my grandmother had a moustache. When I get married then I'll be a man. Getting married made me a husband. I mow the lawn, fix broken stuff and carry my wife's purse in the mall. Maybe having children will make me a man. I have two. I went from husband to father -- changing diapers makes you a dad.
Now that I'm married, I've also learned what it means to be a man from my wife. She has instilled in me a sense of generosity and compassion -- a sense of responsibility to give back since I am in a position to do so. I speak on behalf of World Vision at my events, and this makes me feel like a man who cares about the world around him and the people in it, and I hope my kids notice.
But here I am, 30-something years old, and still battling my identity as a "man." Seeking counsel from a dear friend and mentor, I asked Mike the question I'd only asked myself a million times.
"Mike, what's a real man?"
Mike looked me in the eyes and said softly, "Steve you want to know what a real man is? Well, a real man can play with Barbie dolls."
At first I thought Mike may need some therapy until he added, "You see Steve, a real man can play with Barbie dolls if that's what his daughter wants to do. A real man cares more about affirming his love for his daughter than he cares about what others think about him playing with dolls."
Now that may sound simple or trite, but it was profound for me. Especially at that time of my life. Being in the entertainment industry image is important (too important), and I needed to maintain a level of "cool"... or so I thought. My insecurities began spilling over onto my wife and children in the form of insisting that they "keep up the image" that I had for myself. I'm sad and embarrassed to say that I put a lot of pressure on them to "perform" in public and not make me "look bad." And one thing that I would never do was anything that made me look or appear "non-manly."
Mike knew me all too well and that my daughter Kirsten had almost every Barbie made during her lifetime of about three years. I bought her lots of them. Every time I came home from a tour or weekend of comedy shows I was never empty-handed. She either got the latest Barbie or the newest Beanie Baby -- but those are another story. I bought them for her, took them out of the package for her (which required pliers and a lot of patience), and even put them away for her when she'd fall asleep and they'd be all over the house. But I never -- ever -- played with them. Ever! Mike's insight into my soul was pretty alarming, but freeing.
I believe it was the very next day that Kirsten and I were sitting in our living room surrounded by a plethora of Barbie dolls and the gazillion accessories that I also had to purchase. We even had a Skipper or two, but no Ken dolls... no men allowed around my precious daughter!
There we sat, changing their outfits, brushing their "hair," with me doing my best falsetto voice, as we all got ready for the prom. Kirsten was giggling at me not so much for the voices, but for the fact she had put a lovely purple bow in my hair that matched Malibu Barbie's hair ribbon. We were having a blast! Then there was a knock on our front door...and I had a purple bow in my hair.
Living on the outskirts of Nashville Tennessee provided us with the comfort of not having to always have the front door locked. It also provided us with the security that whoever knocked on our door was either a neighbour or friend. Without thinking I called out, "Come in!"
Standing there at the threshold was my dear friend Jeff. My "single" friend Jeff -- my no-wife-and-no-children friend Jeff. Did I mention the bow in my hair? I felt my face turn red and my back start to sweat as I tried to think of a manly reason to be surrounded by Barbie dolls. Maybe I'll tell him that one of the arms fell out and I was just fixing it for Kirsten... and then I remembered the bow in my hair.
Suddenly I hear Mike's voice in the back of my mind saying, "A real man Steve... a real man."
I had a naked Barbie in one hand and her panties in the other. Without thinking another thought I held out the Barbie and said, "Here you go Jeff, we're getting ready for the prom." Holding my breath wondering what to do next, Jeff snatched the Barbie, sat down next to Kirsten and said, "Cool, what's everybody wearing?"
There we were, two real men and a little girl playing dress up. Jeff and I were having so much fun that we didn't realize that Kirsten had left the room... until my wife walked in.