We had our roles. He was the one who coaxed the kids onto the dance floor while I sat back and smiled. He went on the roller coasters while I held all the bags. He jumped into the pool and played in the parent-child softball game and took the secret trips to Dunkin’ Donuts, while I made sure there were enough healthy snacks and drinks packed in the car for emergencies. My husband was the fun parent, and I was the…not as fun parent. The roles don’t work for everyone, but they worked for us.
Until he died.
Until we—my two children and I—stood at the edge of a party, and they looked from me to the people moving unselfconsciously on the dance floor. They tried to hide from the spotlights and the DJ’s dancers urging them to step forward with the other kids. They clung to me, with a shyness and tentativeness that was all too familiar because it was a reflection of my own shyness and tentativeness. They needed someone to take the lead, to show them how to step out of their shells, how to let loose and not care what anyone else in the room thought of them.
They needed their dad, the fun parent. They got me—a deeply introverted mother who was very, very afraid of the spotlight, of the idea that attention might accidentally even for a moment fall upon her.
My heart broke in ways that are all too familiar after so many years as a young widow and solo parent. He should have been here, taking their hands and dragging them onto the dance floor, pulling me out along with them as I rolled my eyes and pretended to be horrified while actually reveling in the safety of his hand in mine. He should have been there, doing goofy dad dance moves that they would have laughed at and mimicked and copied without a hint of self-consciousness. He should have been there showing them that no one is actually looking at them, and if they are, then who cares because you can’t go through life worrying about how you look to other people.
Time stood still as the tremendous weight of this milestone moment settled in around us. To anyone looking on, the weight was invisible and the moment was insignificant. But to me, this moment felt as if it might come to define everything: whether my kids chose next time, when I wasn’t there, to step out onto the dance floor with their friends or watch from the shadows just outside the DJ’s vantage point—to jump into the game or sit on the bleachers, to do and be unafraid of the spotlight or hide, for fear of accidentally being seen.
There’s nothing wrong with hiding from the spotlight—it works for me. I enjoy my introverted ways and am happy to teach my children the joys of sometimes watching from the sidelines. But I want them to know both options, to be exposed to both the parent who steps onto the dance floor and the one who doesn’t, and then to let them choose which option feels right. I don’t want them to hide from the spotlight simply because that’s the only option they have been taught.
I hesitated. To be honest, after 30-plus years of learned behavior, I maybe more than hesitated. I wanted to turn back around and wait until the next dance floor occasion when maybe there’d be a fun aunt around who could drag the kids out while I hid by the bar with an extra glass of wine.
But I couldn’t. Because, I told myself, in this life that I never asked for I was now the fun parent, as well as the less than fun parent. Because in this life as a young widow, I’ve been so often tasked with stepping outside my comfort zone that stepping outside my comfort zone is almost becoming my new comfort zone. And because in this young widow life as a solo parent to kids who have lost so much, I have to find a way to give them more than I have, because they don’t deserve to have any less than everything.
That night, I stepped onto the slippery dance floor and dragged my two kids with me. I led us to some place just shy of the center of the dance floor—where we’d be least likely to stand out to the spectators we’d left at the edge of the dance floor—and tried (and maybe failed) to find the beat of the song blaring through the speakers. Holding hands in a little circle we shimmied and jumped and didn’t shrink when the spotlight slid across our square of the dance floor. We didn’t jump on stage to dance. We didn’t squeeze close to the DJ to sing into the mic. And we also didn’t stay on the dance floor that long.
Nevertheless, that night, it felt like a victory.
And not because I’d become the fun parent.
Because the truth is, my husband was the fun parent, and now he’s gone. My kids are left with just me…the non-fun parent. I can’t be what I’m not. I can’t show them how to do the things he would do, because I am not him, and as much as I’d like to manifest him, I simply cannot.
But maybe I can be the parent that shows them how to step out of their comfort zone. Maybe I can be the parent who shows them that sometimes, for the people you love, you do the things you thought you could never do. And maybe that’s enough.