Reflections on a single-parent upbringing

My grandchildren have what seem like dozens of grandparents. When you count them all up, they total swarms, jillions, more grandparents than extras in Ben Hur. Both of my daughters have full complements of in-laws, and all of them bring as much adoration and enthusiasm to grandparenting as my husband and I do.

Now, I realize that where I see multitudes, most people see the usual handful. I had just one set of grandparents, and because my mother died when I was still in college, my daughters had just one set of grandparents, too. Now that those daughters have children of their own, grandparents are buzzing like honeybees around a hive and my own childhood has come into sudden sharp relief.

It's not the first time I've been startled by a rearview mirror glimpse of my early life. As a child, I assumed my family was as normal as any other, even though the neighborhood kids didn't see it that way. Having no father in my house was weird, they said.

I disagreed. “Who needs a father?” I often said. I continued to say it even as I grew older and more self-conscious. Father's Day school art projects were painful. Questions from curious friends (“So … why did your father leave?”) made me roll up like a pill bug. When Trinidad was mentioned in geography class, I thought everyone was looking at me. (Get it? Trinidad.) Children in the 21st century are likely to see around them all manner of strong, functioning family units; it was not so in my day. Still, my family went on breakfast picnics, sat down to candlelight dinners and kept a running list of family jokes. Who needs a father?

I came to understand who needed a father when my daughters were born. Their father was as integral a parent as I was. They could no more imagine life without him than they could imagine life without me. His advice was just as wise (or just as ludicrous, depending on his daughters' ages when he offered it). His bedtime routines—he was the “flinger” who tossed them gently into bed—were as cherished, and his driving lessons were better. For the first time, I entertained the idea that I had missed something, if only the perspective of a second parent.

Watching my daughters' children with us and their other grandparents set off another avalanche of belated understanding. “All the grandparents I might have had!” I thought. The ones I did have knocked themselves out for their daughter and granddaughters; it was a secondary, auxiliary epiphany to realize how much my grandparents did to help my mother survive the death of all her expectations.

But other grandparents could have offered other life stories. I might have compiled a more nuanced picture of my heritage. I could have gained fresh insights, more beloved relatives, different family jokes. Yes, thanks to my father's decision to leave two weeks after I was born, we never had to race from one side of the family to the other on holidays, never had to eat Thanksgiving dinner twice, never had to feel guilty about family members we weren't squeezing into our hectic schedule. But what struck me then as simple and uncomplicated strikes me now as narrow and limited. It couldn't be helped, but to say I lost nothing in the deal is to kid myself.

You always want your children to have what you never had. My daughters had a father, and their children in turn have grandparents out the wazoo. It's a new world to some of us, but I'm all in.

Margo Bartlett and her husband have two daughters, two sons-in-law, three grandchildren and two car seats. She also writes the Just Thinking column for ThisWeek Community News. You can reach her at margo.bartlett@gmail.com.