I was 16 years old when my son was born. And I remember, clear as day, sitting in that hospital room and holding him for the first time. The smile would not leave my lips, and my eyes could not be bothered to remain dry.
A couple of days later, I drove him and his mother to her parents’ house 20 minutes away from the hospital, and I dare say it was probably the slowest and most careful I have ever driven in my life.
I got a job that summer, before my junior year of high school, washing dishes at a steakhouse-type restaurant. In August, I would wake up, drive the 10 minutes to work down M-22, clock out just in time to head back into town and participate in two-a-day football practice, and then end the day spending time with my newborn son at his maternal grandparents’ house.
As a guy who was generally awkward around little kids, it took me a good deal of time to become used to being a parent. Especially in high school, I found this hard.
I grew up in Northern Michigan, where, in a network of small towns and small high schools, everyone knew everything about everybody else.
I’d walk into a neighboring school’s gymnasium to cheer on our varsity basketball team, my son secured in my arms, and I would get the distinct sense that all of the opposing school’s kids were looking at me, judging me.
When I found out my girlfriend was pregnant, it was impossible to keep some negative thoughts out of my head: Now I’m going to be one of those kids who threw everything away for one night of unprotected fun, I thought. Now I’m going to be perceived as a lesser person, someone for whom the potential of success has been substantially lowered.
I had done most everything right up to that point. I had great friends, did well in school, volunteered my time at almost every opportunity. And all of a sudden, I felt as if the mortal error had been committed and everything that preceded it was for naught.
But it was not the end of the world. Not even close. My friends, while shocked at the news, could not have been more supportive. They jumped at the opportunity to be honorary “uncles” for my little guy. They let me know I was still a good person, and they wouldn’t look down upon me for becoming a dad at such a young age.
My parents and my son’s maternal grandparents offered as much help as they could, which was and continues to be a service to me that I will never be able to thank them enough for. Because of them, the question of continuing my education or not was one that needn’t be asked.
Coming to the University of Michigan, though, presented me with new challenges as a young parent. When I said goodbye to my then-two-year-old son before leaving for college, I do not think I fully grasped what it would be like, what it would mean, to be four hours away from him for a greater part of the coming academic year.
But I understood the depth of that distance soon after arriving in Ann Arbor. After maybe five days on campus, I missed a call from my son on a Saturday. He left a voicemail.
“Hi, Daddy. I miss you. Come back. Bye.”
So then I sat there and wondered: Was going to school this far from home really a good idea? Was my dream college something that should have just stayed a dream?
I rationalized and justified and defended my decision to myself. I said, you’re going to a great school, which will lead to a great career, which will allow you to provide for your son in the future.
But I still sit here and wonder, as a senior in my final semester at Michigan, whether I made the right choice in coming here and staying for four years. And I think back to freshman year, when I felt like I had a big secret to keep from everyone all over again.
Telling my friends at college that I was a dad was never an easy thing for me, and to some extent, it still isn’t. Approaching the subject with new people is like entering the gymnasium in that other high school, fearing how they will react, what they’ll think of me.
My sophomore year I took a developmental psychology course, and on the first day, just out of curiosity as it related to the course material, the professor asked the 200-person class if anyone had children already. I didn’t raise my hand.
The subject of having kids has come up during my time here on a number of occasions, and it is always in the context of looking toward the future. For me, that future began six years ago, when I first learned I was going to be a dad.
All the anxiety and stress and guilt I’ve experienced over my own insecurity is something I am disappointed in myself with. After all, everyone I have met, generally, has not reacted in a negative way to my having a son.
And, more significantly, all of the joy and pleasure and happiness that my son has brought me over the past five and a half years overshadows those negative feelings by far. He is smart as can be, funny in a way that oftentimes only kids can get away with — by being brutally honest — and his hugs are the ones I most look forward to.
Looking back on that first day in the hospital, holding him for the first time, tears threatening to wash down my face, I could never have imagined how much of a blessing in disguise that little guy was going to be.
And if I told you I didn’t cry while writing this, I’d be lying.