Awesome Is What Makes a Dad

So this column is about what makes a dad. It’s not about what a dad is, or how a dad is defined, but simply what makes a dad. And what makes a dad “awesome.”


I grew up in the ’70s when a dad washed the cars on Saturday morning, wore aviator sunglasses, and a suit and tie to work every day. He was the stricter one, but the one you could count on to give in if you really worked it. A dad drove the company car (where one could always find fresh packs of Certs) and it was the car reserved for dinners out on Sunday nights with your grandparents. Your mom’s car, maybe like ours – the Dart – was the car used for grocery shopping at the A & P and dentist-visiting and such. Those days, a dad cut the grass on Saturday afternoon and had a stubby dark-brown bottled Labatt’s 50 afterwards, which you could fetch for him if your timing was just right. Every dad smoked and it was cool then.

A dad knew how to camp and build a fire in even the rainiest weather. A dad shaved and you got to watch sitting on the laundry hamper, if you were quiet. He took you to the Pop Shoppe once a month and let you choose the flavour you wanted, even if it was Lime Ricky. He delegated controversial decisions to your mom and ate more cobs of corn on a late summer evening than you could imagine anyone eating. Dads were the verified origin of the now-far-too-overused “Awesome” and I was lucky enough to have one (and still do!). Most of all, a dad was a bit of a mystery. The guy you always wanted to impress.

But that was then. Dads aren’t so “cut and dried” anymore: they come in a variety of sizes and shapes and names. They aren’t just the dad you have. And often, they aren’t the dad you were “born” with. Now, I’m all for dads that become dads through their role rather than through their DNA. Being adopted, I completely and utterly get the whole idea that your parents are the people who are there for you, like my parents have been, day in and day out, through the rough patches and the celebratory moments.

I have only met one person on earth with whom I share DNA – Georgia – and yet I have never doubted the support, and solid ground that my family has provided. They’re my family, and I almost never think about the whole “but we don’t share any DNA” thing.

And that’s why I’m writing about dads here. Georgia has a father that she shares DNA with and he’s not around, by his own choice, not for a long time now. But Georgia, well, she has a dad. His name is Chris. She doesn’t share any DNA with him. But she does share a love of Plants Versus Zombies, Kraft Dinner with ketchup and peanut-butter-and-syrup-covered pancakes on Saturday mornings. For all intents and purposes, Chris is her dad and is around for the long run. Which will hold plenty of challenges, laughs and trying moments. And which is, in fact, a long run. Georgia will live with us, we suspect, for the rest of our lives, with as many opportunities for independence and creating her own space, as possible. But we’ll always be “the three of us”.


This is what Chris signed up for, astonishingly. We’ve known each other for many years, professionally, and met at conferences annually as he lived in Halifax and I in Toronto. He thought I was tall and unapproachable. I thought he was arrogant and distant. Boy, were we wrong (okay not about the tall part; I’m pretty tall). Five years ago, when we decided to prove each other wrong, I ventured into the long-distance thing very tentatively. I wasn’t exactly the profile of what most guys were looking up on Lavalife: a 40-something single mom and career woman with a kid who has autism. Yeah, I can see the incredible demand for that profile! However, Chris was interested. Five years later, now in the same city and in fact both faculty members at the same University, we get along like a house on fire, as they say, and I’ve discovered that you can have this great person who is not only a supportive, fun and amazing partner, but also…well, a great dad. For someone who has had absolutely no practice for the job of dad, and who didn’t seek the job out, he has established himself clearly as the best guy for the job.

One of the first things Chris did when he came to Toronto and stayed with us was to watch Georgia. He observed what she did, how she reacted. And then, miraculously, he acted. One day, her computer desktop was customized for her with an eclectic mix of Bob Marley, the Wiggles and Baby Einstein along with the Beatles and Disney Cars. Another day, they made a video together to help her learn her words. They went to the basketball game together. They went out to a sportsbar for nachos and juice. They sat on the beach together and listen to music. They developed routines and activities together that have provided them with a unique relationship, so that while most of the time, it is “the three of us”, sometimes it is actually “the two of them”. That, for me, is the best. Truly the best. It’s really hard to describe how meaningful that is to me, after a long time of doing most day-to-day things with Georgia on my own. “The three of us” doing stuff still often makes me secretly smile inside, with a sense of disbelief and excitement. “The two of them” makes me, well, the happiest I could be.


He’s also been there for the less fun things and he is definitely hands-on. He’s cleaned up after and nursed a sick kid, wiped a nose, washed hands, helped with teeth brushing, and dealt with all the things that parents deal with, when a child needs help with every activity of daily living. You name it, he’s done it. Always with a sense of humour, a deep respect for Georgia as an individual and occasionally, a deep breath afterwards.

It isn’t always easy. In fact, it’s tough sometimes. We are very different disciplinarians and we often find ourselves at odds with how to approach situations. We have to maneuver our way through a lot of unexplored territory: for me, learning how to “share” parenting and for Chris, figuring out what kind of a parent he wants to be. It’s not always basketball games and nachos – often it’s serious parenting talks late at night to try to work it out.


And he is awesome, yep. He gets it, this whole how-to-be-a-dad thing. He can throw her in the pool as many times as she asks and more. His arms never seem to get tired. He doesn’t mind that she likes to wear swim goggles out to dinner occasionally or travels with a stuffed parrot. He sets up her iPad and sets it up again and is much more patient than I am, when deleting the 976 videos of our living room she has shot in one day. He teases her no end, which (as those of us who grew up with brothers know) is “character-building.” He takes her on the rides on the Ex that I sadly cannot tolerate, i.e. those with any kind of circular movement –  and then staggers about with her in search of French fries afterwards.  He asks her whether or not she likes the tie he’s chosen when he’s getting ready for work and she is peppering him with random distracting questions.

I’m not sure if he even knows it, but he’s the real thing: a genuine dad. A great one. One of the best. I know for a fact that he had a great dad whom I never had the privilege of meeting. If there was one wish I’d like granted, it would be for Chris’s dad to be able to be here to see what a wonderful dad his son has become, and how much he’s loved in that role. He’d be so proud.

I love the idea of dads. Even more so, I like the reality of dads. I have a great dad, Chris had a wonderful dad. And the super best thing of it all is that Georgia – well, Georgia has an awesome dad in Chris. Lucky her and lucky us.

You know, “the three of us”.

Wife With Tenacious Teenage Georgia

Georgia’s 13 now. That means she has the raging crazy hormones and innate quest for independence from her mother that most kids her age have, contrasted with a developmental age and capacity for rational thought somewhere, well, less than 13.

She’s also a stubborn and incredibly focused person at times. She has a talent for perseverance and a breathtaking capacity for repetition – all part of her autism. And well, she’s tenacious. Very. In fact, Georgia is really what tenacity wants to be when tenacity grows up, as they say.


This weekend Georgia had a few not great days. Well, I’ll be honest; we had a few not great days together. That mellow baby I’ve told you about has the capacity to get really quite upset, be angry, frustrated and insistent now that she’s figured out that she actually wants things. With the increase in her ability to communicate has also come an increased ability to know who to ask for things and to articulate just what she wants (and even more often, what she doesn’t want). Her increased capacity for emotion, expression and desire are all good things. They are skills and attributes I want her to have. But it also means we encounter what I will diplomatically call “roadblocks” some days.

Usually a roadblock happens when Georgia gets something very random in her head that she wants and it simply isn’t possible. Examples? When she insists she must go to the daycare she is now five years too old to attend. Or insists on having Christmas in July. Or when she wants to sleep over at her uncle’s house “today!” who happens to be on vacation for two weeks. Or when she insists we leave for summer vacation “right now” in November or that we must have sushi for every meal.

There are days that Georgia asks to go to the park. Sometimes these are warm summer days with nothing to do but hang at the park. Sometimes, however, these are busy frozen wintry days with 2 feet of snow on the ground – weather that Georgia actually really dislikes, but she doesn’t understand that it isn’t always “sunny and warm and full of kids playing” at the park. So while she really does seem to want to go to the park, I know that she’d last about a full 20 seconds perhaps before she’d be, “It’s so cold! I don’t like the park! Ugh!!” And some days, we simply can’t go to the park.  On such days, no matter how we tell her that the park is not a good option, it doesn’t make a difference and the asking turns to insistence, which quickly becomes anger and frustration.

She’s very good, and can average an “ask” about every 1.48 seconds and efficiently turn up both the volume and whininess of the request with each “ask”. We start with the friendly responses, “Oh heavens, darling, it’s too cold for swings today!” or “There’s no kids there today! That’s no fun at all!” but these quickly get replaced with the close-ended options: “It is closed. The park is closed. Closed.” or “No one is allowed to go to the park today.” (Her typical response would be to ask if the police said so, and we might just be desperate enough to claim that, yes, the police have banned park use today). By the 480th time asking, and the 480th time responding, we do that thing that parents do. We become the junior psychologists, the very above-it-all, this-won’t-work-on-me parents: “Let’s just ignore the requests and not give her attention for that.” Very successful strategy for some kids, I’m sure. Not this one. She is impossible to distract – which is amazing as she is such a highly distractible kid in other ways.


Her next strategy (and this one is truly the best) is to vehemently claim, “I. Want. The. Park. I. NEEEEEED. The. Park.” Add to each syllable an emotional Tarzan-like fist thump to the chest and you’ve got it. At the end, insert a heartfelt, “I’m soooo disappointed!” Make that a full and richly repetitive afternoon and you’re headed to the bottle of Advil by, oh, about 4:30 pm.

It’s odd. Georgia is, on one hand, so easy going and not a kid who is neither “spoiled” nor prone to tantrums. Yet there are those days when she gets often VERY random things into her head, hijacking her attention, and it will take a full waking day to discuss, argue, cajole, wrangle, empathize, and work through it, at the end of which everyone is utterly exhausted and you realize you haven’t had time to enjoy anything at all about your day.

Picture trying to discuss whether or not the ball in play was knocked out of bounds with a referee who is not only arguing the ball was in, but who has also been wearing a blindfold for the entire play. The blindfolded referee is keen to make his point, but you know he can’t really see what’s going on. He’s arguing with you because he thinks he’s supposed to, to establish himself as right rather than take off the blindfold to see what’s really happening. For me, at times like this, Georgia’s autism is, in a sense, like a blindfold she didn’t put on and one that she can’t take off.  And while I rationally understand that, in the moment, I feel as angry and frustrated as any parent with a whiny kid who won’t stop and who won’t listen. And often I am baffled. I use up all my strategies quickly. You may be familiar with some of them – reverse psychology , ignoring, being super extra stern, giving a time-out, ending the time-out, offering a super nice alternative, attempting to distract and even avoiding triggers (“Let’s just decide to never drive by a park ever again. That’ll work.”). We often resort to the old favourite: “I’m counting to three…and then…!”(Just imagine all the things that may happen after 3). This method is a timeworn desperation tool of all parents, and based on the fact that most kids have wild imaginations and can picture a potentially very scary world “after 3”. The reality is I can count to 2876, but she’ll still be insisting on whatever it is that has hijacked her attention.


Smart people who I love and respect offer me lots of advice. A very common one is “You just can’t let it get to you” along with “You can’t react to it.” Um, okay. I’m fairly smart but don’t really get the “not letting it get to me” part. It gets to me. It really does. I want my kid to be happy and I want to be a good mom. These kinds of days make me feel like I’m not achieving either goal. Not reacting to it is not an option, when a small person is following you throughout the house tapping you on the shoulder, collapsing in disappointment, whining, sniffling, sitting on your lap and insisting “But I want Christmas TODAY! I NEEEEEED my Christmas!” (Insert Tarzan chest-thumps). Other advice is to set rules, like, “We don’t yell in our house. That’s the rule.” We’re working on it, but that’s a tough one too. And, oh yeah, sometimes I end up yelling which technically is breaking the stupid rule. *sigh* Perhaps I just need to just learn how to serve sushi for every meal, pull off Christmas in July and arrange my summer vacations for November. Come to think of it…