My family celebrated a huge set of milestones this past year: the baby of the family started his first year of high school, my middle brother started his first year of college, and I started my first year of medical school. In so many ways, these benchmarks seemed like a natural progression--the culmination of long study hours, lots of soul-searching, and time convincing my youngest brother that maybe a professional soccer career would come if he also promised to focus on his schoolwork. We almost forgot the time in our lives when dreams like this were debatable, when we really had no idea what tomorrow would hold.
Almost 12 years ago, we lost our mother in a car accident and were forced to adjust to a whole new pattern of life. My father suddenly became the sole caretaker of a 12-year-old girl, and eight and four-year old boys. Dealing with the loss of a mother and a wife was enough, but we also faced the seemingly endless stream of "advice" from friends and family. I'll never be able to forget the comments from my dad's peers that left me sleepless on so many nights, wondering what would happen to the three of us. "Men didn't do this. Men raised money for their families. A single father raising three kids is entirely unfeasible." They pressed him to remarry immediately or even consider sending us to live with our grandmother overseas for awhile.
Perhaps it's hard to blame them. It's not like there's a plethora of role models or a go-to example when it comes to single fatherhood. While the rates are rising (the number of single fathers increased 60% in the last ten years), they still only make up 16% of single parents. Out of that total number, only 5% of those are widowed. Looking back, we hardly knew whether we would be able to do it.
My father quickly made it clear to everyone that he was to raise us on his own. He became both mother and father. Almost a year after my mother passed away, I confided in him that sometimes I still craved a mother's opinion or even the chance to talk about makeup or fashion trends. He joked that on even hours he was mom and on odd hours he was dad. He managed to possess a certain resilience that made us feel like, no matter what, we would be okay. When some felt the need to speculate on whether our loss would impact our future, he made sure we knew that any and all of our dreams were in reach.
Over the next decade, my father became a maestro chef, a master juggler of actual work and schoolwork, and resident expert on all pre-teen drama. I imagine he dreaded the mortifying moments of puberty as much as I did, but he hardly showed it. In fact, he managed to make so many elements in our life feel absolutely normal. We kept the same Eid holiday and birthday traditions that my mother had made up for us. He never missed a PTA conference (in fact, he was known to schedule extra), cheered my brother on at his soccer games, and was easily the proudest parent at any school event.
When I see articles like UNICEF's appeal to fathers to "do the right thing," the rarity of our situation sinks in and the blessing we've had in having such an amazing father is overwhelming. It's the realization that makes this kind of Father's Day much different and much more humbling. UNICEF, if you ever need a wonderful example of everything a child needs in a father, we have the secret right here.
So, to the father that was our foundation of faith and hope in our darkest times and brightest moments, our strongest advocate, the secret behind any of our success, and our ultimate reason for happiness, thank you from the bottom of my heart. To all single fathers who defy the traditional roles of fatherhood to raise their kids on their own and empower them to feel nothing less than loved and supported, thank you. You mean the world to us.