During my first semester of college, I found myself in a therapist’s office being treated for depression after breaking up with my high school boyfriend.
I told the therapist I felt lost without him, even though I knew he was not the “right one.” She instructed me to write an essay describing “your ideal man, your prince charming.” After writing it, I was surprised how little my ex resembled the man I imagined marrying one day. I remember wondering why I was so heartbroken over what I knew was a bad relationship, and whether I would ever find my “Prince Charming.”
It was a question I would ask again when yet another failed relationship ended in depression. Later, I would learn that depression is common for children of divorce, and especially girls who grow up apart from their biological fathers.
From the time I was 14 to 24, my father was thousands of miles away in another country with my stepmother and their children. While my father kept in touch, I only saw him a few times after my parents’ split up. I knew how much I missed my him, but I did not connect my father’s absence to the mini-emotional breakdowns that seemed to result from the end of nearly every one of my relationships.
During my last year of grad school, another break-up combined with the academic pressures sent me into an emotional breakdown—and back into counseling.
“When he said goodbye, I felt such a complete sense of loss,” I told the therapist, adding, “just like I feel every time I say goodbye to my father.” It was the first time I had acknowledged the connection between my emotional attachments to the young men I dated and the loss of relationship with my father. Looking back, I see that I was trying to fill the hole created by his absence with the men I dated.
Things eventually improved with my father. Shortly after graduating, I traveled overseas to visit him, and that reunion began a healing process. He became more involved in my daily life, and I no longer worried that every goodbye was our last.
When I met my husband-to-be, Brian, at my best friend’s wedding, I wasn’t swept away. But nearly two years, hundreds of emails, phone calls, and frequent flier miles later, I was standing beside Brian at the altar saying our wedding vows. And my father was there to walk me down the aisle.
What changed my mind about Brian? When I saw him sitting in a roomful of wild two-year-olds at the church nursery, gently calming a screaming little boy. At that moment, I thought, “He will be a wonderful father.”
Years later, after I gave birth to our son, the nurse—who had watched Brian change every single diaper and comfort our son through the long night—whispered to me, “Your husband is one of the most hands-on fathers I’ve ever seen!”
It is no accident that Brian’s abilities as a father are one of the first things I noticed about him, and are now one of the things I love most. I freely admit I still have father-hunger issues—it is part of being a child of divorce that never really ends.
I think that acknowledging that hunger and working to restore my relationship with my father helped me to avoid looking to my husband to fill that role in my life. At the same time, it helped me to better appreciate my husband as father to our two children.
About a year into our marriage, I found that old “Prince Charming” essay during a move. Near the top of my list, I had written he should be “a wonderful father.” Reading it again, I thought, “This is the man I married,” even down to the “tall, dark and handsome” part.
Brian is here every day—in the good and the bad—parenting with me. And he is the ever-present father for our kids that I missed growing up. Whether he is wrestling on the floor with our three-year-old son or dancing with our tween daughter, watching him with our children warms my heart and reminds me that he is my “Prince Charming.”