I was grocery shopping with my mother and my two daughters. My mom was in town for my son’s birthday. I left our home in Utah almost six years earlier, and this was the second time she’d visited me. This is not to say that I hadn’t visited her. We had. It was just that we don’t see each other all that often, and usually our time together is surrounded by other adults. For the two of us to be shopping together was unusual.
We started in the produce section. In the top seat of the cart was Aspen, my toddler, and in the basket was Norah, my 7-year-old. My mother was in her early 60s with short bleached-blonde hair. She was a little stout with age, an inch shorter than my 5-foot-6. My wife was at home with my son, who was sick.
We were looking for sweet potatoes when Mom said, “Do you usually do the shopping?”
I shrugged. “Mel and I split it up, depending on who’s available,” I said.
“I noticed that you do the laundry, too,” she said.
“Every week,” I said.
She opened her eyes slightly, a little shocked, and I said, “I don’t see why this is a big deal. I just pitch in.”
She mentioned that my older brother did some of the same things and that she didn’t know where we got it from. She started talking about my father, and how he never went to the store, or did the laundry, or any of those things. My father was a man influenced by the ’50s, I suppose, or so I’ve gathered. Honestly, I didn’t know him all that well. He left when I was 9, and died from drug addiction when I was 19.
The funny thing is, for the longest time, my mother didn’t like talking about him. He, in every shape of the phrase, left her high and dry. He left her with debt. He didn’t pay child support. He just moved on. He’s been dead for over 10 years now, and it’s only been in the past three or four years that my mother has started to talk casually about him. In fact, this was one of only a few times that I’ve heard her bring him up without me prompting it.
“I didn’t know that,” I said. “In fact, I never really thought about it. Dad wasn’t around, so I suppose I didn’t have the opportunity to pick up his bad habits.”
We were looking for taco shells now. Mom was looking at the box of shells, making sure that they weren’t expired — something I’d never done, and she insisted that I needed to start doing.
“Mel does a lot of the things that I probably should be doing as a man,” I said. “She manages the budget. I can’t do that. I’m horrible with numbers. She also did most of the legwork when we bought our house, figuring out how to get a mortgage, that sort of thing.” And as I spoke, I thought about my fear of becoming my father.
When Mel and I were first married, I was really scared that because my only example of a father wasn’t a very good one, that I wouldn’t have any option but to follow in his footsteps. But as I spoke with my mother about how my father was so rigid with gender roles, and how Mel and I seem to have fallen into a more liquid and egalitarian relationship, I started to realize that not having an example has made me very open to focusing on what works best, rather than what is expected.
And as Mom and I walked through the store, we chatted about my kids. We spoke of my wife. She checked expiration dates and commented on how I should be checking if the box was open. Even though I wasn’t super interested in her tips for shopping, it felt like she was happy to teach them. We chatted about my father. We talked about his addictions, his many marriages, and his death. But we kept shifting back to the things I do that my father never would have. It seemed like we were both interested in the topic, and once we were in the dairy aisle, near the end of my list, I asked her a question I’d asked myself from time to time but had never really known how to answer.
“Am I a better father than Dad was?” I said. “I just…” I thought for a moment, trying to figure out how to verbalize something I’d grappled with for a long time, but didn’t know just who to ask about it. “I’m always afraid that I’m going to end up turning into him. I really don’t want that. I want to be there for my kids. I don’t want to walk out on them. The day he left, he really changed my life in ways that I still struggle with.”
We were in the checkout line now, placing items on the belt. Mom didn’t think about my question very long. In fact, she scoffed at it, then she said, “Yes. You are much better than your father.” But then she paused for a moment, and I could see her fighting that old bitterness towards my father that she’d struggled with for so many years. Then she said, “The first few years I was married to your dad, he was a good man. He tried real hard to keep us happy. But near the end, the time you would’ve known best, he wasn’t much of a father. You turned into a good dad, Clint. You should be proud.”
All the items from the cart were on the checkout belt now. I looked at my mother, gave her a half smile, and then went to pay.
We walked out to the car together. We stopped talking about my father after that. Instead, we talked about my kids, their lives, and how I needed to finish the laundry.
As we drove home, I thought about what she said. I suppose I’d always assumed I was a better father than the one I had, and I’d always strived to be so, but I think a lot of parents who were raised without a father or mother worry about this same subject. It’s like you have no comparison, and you often wonder if you are preordained to make the same mistakes. Honestly, it felt good to have her confirmation. And it felt good to have her notice what I was doing to create a steady, supportive home for my wife and family. It felt like, for the first time, I was doing something truly right.