As a kid, I was pretty awkward. I was an introvert with a bunch of extrovert friends. I wasn’t particularly good at anything, but I did well in school. I had a huge imagination and spent a lot of time playing by myself, often getting lost in G.I. Joe wars or a Nintendo game. I have a little brother that is just 16 months younger than me, so we spent a lot of time together playing at home or in the neighborhood. To borrow (and adapt) a line from a popular book… we were the best of friends and the worst of friends. Looking back, we were lucky to have each other.
My family didn’t have much. My dad worked for the city’s street department and my mom babysat or picked up the occasional “regular job” when we were little. My mom and dad were both wounded by previous marriages, yet they found each other in a bar one night when my mom’s friend Sandy took her to a tavern to get out. The two divorcees hit it off with cold beer and fake flowers in a small town south of St. Louis, MO.
My mom had a daughter, my sister Chrissy, that was not yet 10 when she met my dad. Chrissy had a complicated relationship with her father who began to withdraw from her a little more each year after her mom remarried (my dad). Chrissy’s dad remarried and adopted a child from another country, starting a new life with his new family. There wasn’t much time for Chrissy, and soon my dad became the main man in her life.
For years, it was difficult for my sister, not feeling like a full-fledged member of the family. I didn’t quite understand it because I had both of my parents in the home. I remember years later having a conversation with Chrissy on the phone. These kinds of calls didn’t happen much during those years. She wanted to tell me that she would no longer call my father “Bob,” but “Dad.” Changing those three letters seemed so simple, but it changed everything for them.
My parents, Bob and Gayle, are two amazing people. They didn’t have much to give me or my siblings financially growing up, but they always showed us love and compassion. They supported us in everything we wanted to do… school, sports, music, clubs. Somehow, they always found the money to pay for registration or uniforms, even while my dad drove an old rusty truck with pronounced holes in the front and soles that were worn as thin as paper. My dad ALWAYS worked the extra shifts plowing snow, picking up trash, or helping at the water department. He never missed an opportunity to give us hugs or tell us stories. My mom made sure that my siblings and I had food on the table, clean clothes, and lots of kisses. I can’t imagine having better parents, providing correction when I needed it, and support when I wanted to, at times, give up. It’s almost nonsensical that as I grew older and more independent, I could get it so wrong.
At 15, I got my first job working at the municipal pool. I continued to work there through the summer after my senior year, but also held down several other jobs during that time like working at a clothing store (year-round), rolling papers for a paper route (Sunday mornings at 2:00 am), and refereeing basketball games at the local YMCA (winter). It was always important for me to support myself, to be self-reliant, and work toward my goals.
At 18, I moved out and began attending a junior college. I had to leave my other jobs behind but began working a part-time job at a local grocery store, taking a full load of college courses, and spending close to 30 hours each week playing for the college’s baseball team. I even managed to hold down a serious relationship! I tried hard to cover my own rent, pay all of my bills, and still have some money left to fund my suddenly active social life. I relied on help from my parents only when it was absolutely necessary. After all, they had given me so much even when they had very little to give. Looking back, I’m not really sure how I did it. However, it was those experiences that prepared me to deal with life’s later trials.
So, I married that college girlfriend, Shelley. Before I did though, I graduated with a teaching degree and was set up with my own class of first graders. While teaching by day, I was coaching high school baseball each afternoon and still working for that same grocery store company (new location) from my college years. There’s a really great story here about three veteran first-grade teachers who helped raise me during these years. They saw all the warning signs and helped me to be a better man, where I would let them. Honestly, the rest of the story isn’t likely to have a happy ending without them.
It’s interesting looking back, but I dated Shelley for five years before I proposed. Most of her friends told her to move on, that I wasn’t going to commit to her. I guess I’ve always had difficulty putting anything/anyone in front of my goals and dreams. And to be honest, unlike most of my friends, a wife and kids were not exactly part of my goals and dreams.
My real dream was to be an outstanding teacher and coach. Much of my passion for helping children succeed came from having teachers that believed in me, even when it seemed no one else did. I mean, my parents always told me I was great but isn’t that what a parent is supposed to do? Aren’t they kind of obligated to build up their kids? That was the way I saw it then.
As you can probably see from how this story is beginning to unfold, I ignored my marriage and spent nearly every waking hour in my work. Where working lots of hours each week used to be about being financially self-sufficient, it now had become a two-headed monster of paying bills and taking care of anyone except my family or myself. My parents called me the “prodigal son,” and not in the way I thought they meant at the time. I wore it as a badge of honor, being so busy trying to help the world. In the meantime, my wife essentially lost a husband and my parents, a son.
My wife, Shelley, grew up with dreams of meeting a nice guy, getting married, having kids, and holding down a job (if necessary). Having grown up in a family with cousins and second cousins (on both sides of her family) all living very close by, she was changing diapers and caring for young children in her family even as a little girl. She was destined to be a great mom. She met the guy, finally married him, and even got that job that was necessary (because she married a teacher). The children, however, eluded her.
Struggling to Get Pregnant
There was a period early in our marriage where I straight up told Shelley that I didn’t want to have kids. After all, I was taking care of 25 kids in my classroom each day, and another 20+ on the ballfield/weight room in the afternoon. After a few years of selfishness, I finally relented.
Getting pregnant is supposed to be easy. Nearly everyone I knew was having kids and we expected to get pregnant pretty quickly after we “started trying.” When things started out slowly, we decided to seek some help. This “help” led to Shelley having surgeries, getting put on medication, and strict protocols. Yet, nothing seemed to work. With finances being a major hurdle, we both decided that in vitro fertilization (IVF) was something we would never do. I was working three jobs and Shelley was driving more than an hour to work (one-way) just to make ends meet.
During this time, we had some friends that were really struggling. The wife was having some serious emotional issues and one of her family members recommended this local church. The short version of this story is that after attending a few times, we became regulars, and eventually Shelley and I gave our lives to Christ.
Churches talk a lot about miracles. I guess Shelley and I figured that once we joined Team Jesus, all of our hopes and dreams would magically be laid out before us. I’m clearly exaggerating, but we did have a renewed sense of optimism after finding Christ. We joined a couple’s small group and not only met couples that were parents of young and/or grown children, but others that had also been struggling to conceive a child. We prayed with and for them to conceive, and they did the same for us. For the first time, we felt like we had found people that understood what we were going through, and they were not going to give up on us. During this time there was a lot of prayer… unanswered prayer.
Move to the Coast
When the primary earner in your home is a teacher, you must be creative about vacations. Each summer, Shelley and I left our home in Jackson, Missouri to “go to the beach” in Pass Christian, Mississippi. We were able to stay with Shelley’s brother for one week each year, essentially saving nearly $1000 on hotels.
One of the added benefits to this annual trip was that Shelley’s nephew would certainly be visiting. Shelley’s brother and his girlfriend got pregnant shortly after high school and had a son named Bryn. They stayed married for a short time but eventually realized that even though they were both committed to raising Bryn, they were better off doing it in two separate homes. Both of them remarried and raised Bryn in north Mississippi until Shelley’s brother moved to the Coast after Katrina. Bryn would come down each summer to stay with his dad and work in the family electrical business that Shelley’s brother owns. It was a really good way to connect with Shelley’s side of the family since mine was so close. Plus, the views weren’t bad either.
Side note: Bryn is currently attending the University of Memphis where he will earn his bachelor’s degree in 2021 or 2022. He is a student manager for the university’s football team and earns solid grades as well.
During our trip to the Coast in 2011, I had this feeling like I needed to move my family there permanently. I didn’t say anything to Shelley, thinking that it was simply my affinity for “beach life” that was trying to call me there. After all, I had recently received another promotion in my school district and was now going to be a principal. I couldn’t give that up! However, after being saved later that year, and the same feeling coming on even stronger during the 2012 trip, I reluctantly decided to have the conversation with Shelley.
The conversation started off like any serious conversation… a quick diversion about the day’s weather and then pivot suddenly and unexpectedly into the real topic. To my surprise, Shelley had been having the same feeling about moving to the Coast and hers started right when we got to Pass Christian that year. After that conversation, we both decided to have conversations with our supervisors about possibly leaving in one year.
During that next year, things went remarkably well with friendships, our work, and our family. My brother and his wife just had their fourth child (my half-sister also had two boys now in their teens), and we were living just over an hour from all of them. In a weird way, it was like we were leaving our own kids since our nieces and nephews were the closest things we had to our own children. Still, we decided to move. That story is best left to another time.
After securing jobs and a place to live, we moved to the Coast. We found a church and started attending regularly. Soon, we had new friends and new people with which to share our story. Again, more prayers were followed by more disappointment. I remember hating that week of the month… the one where there was an evening that started full of expectation and then left you with a kick in the gut while you hold your sobbing wife, unable to give her answers. Yeah.
After eight years of that junk I had finally given up and I shut off that part of my emotions. I’m not sure if I did that because I didn’t want to deal with the guilt of “not wanting kids” sooner, or if I just hurt for my wife. Either way, it was more than I could bear if I wanted to keep moving forward with my career and my faith. To further cope, I told myself that “God just doesn’t want this for us” and I tried to swallow that pill… that bitter pill.
One night, we were lying in bed and Shelley told me that she “wanted to try one more time.” I told her that there was no point in putting herself through that again… err… putting us through that again. Plus, it would likely cost us a lot of money and we had already spent a small fortune only to come up empty each time. Long story short, we saw a new specialist who gave us some new hope. I didn’t know how the other docs had missed such obvious information in old reports and figured maybe this guy was making up stuff to sell us an expensive plan. The conversation came up a few nights later… in vitro fertilization.
I know, I know… we promised each other that we would not do IVF. To this day, I’m not sure why I caved to Shelley’s pleading. Maybe it was my guilt. Maybe I just couldn’t stand the fact that Shelley might resent me for not doing everything possible to try to have a baby. So, I agreed to move forward with IVF. The doctor gave us a timeline of six months before we would have the procedure. In the meantime, he wanted to redo the process that the previous doctors had used, but with a closer eye on key factors.
I now had the daunting task of coming up with about $15,000-17,000 in six months. To do this, I sold my Jeep (I loved that Jeep) and put our dream house up for sale. We did absolutely everything we could do in order to come up with a few hundred extra dollars each month for six months-cable, lawn care, house cleaners, eating out, etc.-all luxuries that we had become accustomed to enjoying regularly.
Something interesting happened in those six months. I guess some would say a miracle. Shelley and I found out we were pregnant after one of her appointments with the new specialist. There was no need for IVF and we were able to save a lot of money for that baby for which we had been waiting so long. Something really changed for me that day. I wasn’t just happy that my wife’s dream had come true. Deep down, below the callouses that had formed after years of guilt and sadness… below the pain and anguish of feeling like a failure… below the part of me that I had almost completely devoted to my vocation… I found that at my core, I was created to be a father.
All of those years that I said it just wasn’t part of God’s plan when it was easier to just abdicate responsibility by making God out to be the bad guy. All of those times I prayed with other couples and watched them get pregnant, bitterness growing inside me with each one. All of those times I resented men for abandoning their kids when I myself was unable to experience exactly what they were running from. All along, God had a plan for Shelley and me… for me. A few weeks later, we learned that God doubled down on this blessing, literally. We were told that we were having twins, which had both Shelley and me overcome with an unfamiliar blend of fear and joy that we had never felt. It is true that God has a sense of humor, though at that particular moment I was unable to appreciate the joke… that err… wasn’t actually a joke.
If I try to define who I am, I first have to look at the many important roles I play in this life. Educator. Mentor. Husband. Son. Christian. Father. For me, the most enjoyable is being a father. Why? Maybe it is because of the challenge. Lord knows it isn’t easy, but I have found that the previous struggles in life have prepared me for sleepless nights, explaining things dozens of times, negotiation, etc. Maybe it is because of the crazy things my kids say. Often, I’m just hoping they don’t repeat something that slipped out of my mouth in a moment of frustration or carelessness. Maybe it’s because of the hugs, kisses, and “I love yous.”
Maybe it’s the way my kids look at me as their hero, unaware that I’m not Superman. Heck, I’m not even Clark Kent on a good day. In the same way, they need a hero to help them feel safe, I strive to be everything they need me to be for them. There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do to ensure their safety and to give them the best life that I can offer them. At the same time, I have to continue to grow… to reprioritize… family first. This life isn’t about me anymore, or even just about my marriage. We brought two amazing human beings into this world and they need more of me than I have ever been willing to give up before. Maybe that’s growth or maturity. Maybe that is me shifting my priorities. If God SO LOVES each of us, his children, that he would give his only begotten son for all of us, what am I willing to sacrifice for my children? A night out with the guys? Choosing what TV show I want to watch? Not getting the new shoes or clothes I had been saving for?
Garrett and Gracie just turned three in April. They had a rough go of it early on, being born at 30 weeks and spending their first six weeks of life in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Memorial Hospital. I remember not knowing if they would make it. I remember wondering if they would be able to live normal lives after being born so small with underdeveloped organs, and unable to receive key medicine in time to correct the issues. With lots of love, cuddles, and God’s grace, they are doing great at age three. Garrett is a quiet observer, often getting lost in his thoughts, much like his dad. Gracie, on the other hand, is full of spunk and is afraid of nothing. She has to experience the “why” instead of just following directions. Fortunately for Garrett, the observer, there are a lot of lessons for him to learn just by watching his sister. And, she can teach him to not be afraid of the world. At times, it reminds me of the relationship with my brother.
I have learned a lot in the last three years. I’ve learned that we cannot be afraid of the unknown. We are going to make mistakes, and some are going to hurt. People are going to judge us for how we handle situations, and in some cases, we will look back and wish we had a do-over. There is no ideal situation in which to bring a child into the world. Being born at 30 weeks sure wasn’t ideal.
As dads, the reality is that we will never have enough money or people to support us when we need it. Heck, many of us may not have a clue about what a good dad looks like because we’ve never seen one. But, when our kids wake up each morning, they do not see our flaws. Garrett and Gracie are thrilled to see my face when I lift them out of bed and they hate it when I leave them at night. It’s not because I am great at my job, am known in the community, or have achieved any number of personal or professional accolades… it’s because I am Dad.