October 15, 2013
Becoming a Father—8,000 Miles Away from Home

A moving story about how a young man plunged into the role of a full-time father during his grad student days.

by Taufiq Rahman
Issues // Relationship
Father_Distant_Island
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When you are a slacker, you don’t need a plan in life. The most important decisions I have taken in my life never required a plan, and I believe that it was from pure luck that I have made it this far. I could not quite remember why I decided to get married. Maybe it’s love, or, quite possibly, because I loved myself too much that I wouldn’t be able to make it through without her company. We never planned to have kids, but one year after we tied the knot, that beautiful little creature arrived.

I expected some changes, but it was business as usual. My job, music, books and movies took most of my time, and it was my wife who had to do the heavy lifting of parenting duties in those early years. I was visibly bugged when our daughter cried late at night, and was not at my best behavior when it was my turn to change the diaper. Until she was three, I could easily count the few times I carried her in my arms. My argument was, “She is too fragile, I might hurt her if I am not careful.”

I was just a boy and fatherhood did little to change me.

Four years ago, my lack of plan once again led to a big change in our lives. I had to relocate to Chicago to get my master’s degree. It was a two-year spell and I had no plan to bring my family along. I was a free man away from home, but miserable at the same time. Alone in a faraway land without an emotional support system.

Before my second year started, I made a decision that, in retrospect, could’ve been one the most disastrous I ever made in my life. As if living as a graduate student on a US$1,060 monthly stipend in a studio apartment and subsisting on Chinese take-outs and fried chicken (this was before I went vegan) was not hard enough, I decided to bring my family along. It wasn’t a hard decision, my wife had won a one-year scholarship to the US. The only problem was that she had to stay in Minneapolis, which is roughly 850 kilometers from Chicago.

My wife’s program involved a lot of traveling and it was impossible for her to stay with my daughter, who was four years old by then. The only choice left was for the little one to stay with me. I heroically rose to the occasion. Having been largely a part-time dad, I plunged into the role of a full-time father, while having to spend half of my day as a grad student.

She arrived when summer was in bloom and I remember reuniting with her at the airport as one of the best days in my life. The next day, I took her to campus and ate at Subway at the Student Center. I brought her to the campus lawn, and the photo I took of her dancing on top of that hill is the reason I am still a happy father.

But the summer was over soon and with fall came problems. I did not exactly live in Chicago, but in a small town far enough from the hipster-infested metropolis. It had one record store and the only Walmart was eight miles away from my apartment. Soon it would be winter and I could not rely on the city’s shabby bus service to go around. The only choice I had was buying a car and learned how to drive, but for this I had to pay a lot.

One time, I drove too fast to catch my train to Chicago for Obama’s victory speech. I also forgot to secure her in the back seat. I got my first ticket in America for speeding and failing to secure a minor. I was too cash-strapped to buy car insurance, and told the traffic police that I left the premium at home. For these offenses I was fined $600.

And then there was the matter of taking her to and from school, preparing her meal, bringing her to the playground, tying her shoes every morning, taking her to the Halloween party, tucking her to bed, going to the dentist, and getting her health insurance, none of which were easy and cheap, all being in America. It was the heaviest load I ever carried in my life. I could not say I was successful at being a father, but every night in our small apartment, I knew what life was for when I read her a bedtime story. On winter nights, I was at my happiest when she was asleep at the backseat to Big Star’s melancholic tune “Blue Moon.”

Looking back, I always shake my head and see that period of my life as one of those mysteries in life. How could I get through it all by myself? Being with her during this hard time taught me an important lesson in life. She forced me to be a responsible and sensible man—a father, instead of a dad and a husband, instead of the only man in the family. At the very least, I got my driver’s license because of her.

As for her, well, she got to see President Obama in person, she came to Stevie Wonder concert (her first concert by the way), and she now occasionally speaks English with a funny American accent. Recently she turned nine on the same week I turned 36, and she only wanted to blow the candles with me.

Taufiq currently edits political news for a Jakarta-based English daily, runs an independent record label and spends most of his meager salary on records. His wife is a very patient person.