I have often told my wife and friends that I learned a lot about how to be a good father from my grandfather, and that I am thankful that I had him in my life when I was growing up (see What makes a man a real man? Lessons from my Grandpa for more on this).
Additionally, I realized as I was reaching adulthood that I learned an awful lot from my "bad dads" as well. I guess I could write an entire book on the things that my father and my first stepfather did wrong. Maybe I could have a book empire like Robert Kiyosaki, but mine would be called "Good Dad, Bad Dad".
My father was a serious alcoholic (well, actually he was a happy alcoholic, but who cares about the distinction here?), and he was unable to keep a job for very long when he was a young man. He was evicted, along with my mom, when they were relative newlyweds. The reason? He was drunk and jumping off of the roof into the apartment complex pool. He was an admitted adulterer, and he told me a bit too much detail about this long after he and my mom were divorced. My mom loved him, but he was too immature and irresponsible to be a dad, so she was forced to make him leave. I have a lot of terrible stories from that time (not from memory, but from hearing them), but one stands out to me:
My mom had refrained from eating pizza while she was pregnant, because she wanted to eat as healthy as possible. The afternoon that I was born, my dad left the hospital to go get some pizza for my mom AND DIDN"T RETURN THAT DAY. Instead, he went to a bar and spent the entire night drinking. He was also my grandmother's ride home, so she had to take a cab.
When I turned sixteen, my dad called me on my birthday from a pay phone somewhere in east Texas. He was slurring and unintelligible, and I was angry at him for putting me in the awkward and unenviable position of humoring him and trying to be respectful while he was in that condition. I wrote him a very long letter that night, urging him again to stop drinking and smoking because he was hurting himself. About two years ago, before he died of emphysema at age 62, he told me that he always remembered that letter, and kicked himself for not taking me seriously. Thankfully, we were finally reconciled and very close when he died. I count this as a blessing.
My first stepfather was also a real prize. He actually married my mom when I was four, then legally adopted me. So far, so good. A few years passed somewhat uneventfully, then he began to compete with me for my mom's attention, and he became exceptionally verbally abusive. I don't want to tell many stories about him here, but I will share a couple of tidbits:
He never liked to wear clothes, just underwear, even when I had friends over to my house. He was I believe the worst gift-giver that I have ever witnessed. One year (and I am NOT making this up) he gave my mom a Dallas Cowboys velour beach towel for Christmas, and then proceeded to hang it on the wall of our den. He would pick fights with me by picking at me until I erupted, then he would laugh. We had a couple of physical altercations as well. When we finally moved away after my mother divorced him, ALL of the doorframes in the house were cracked and messed up from repeated slammings, and a couple of doors had holes in them as well. I have no idea what ever happened to him.
At any rate, I guess what I resolved was that I would never be like these men, or at least not like their bad qualities. My father had a great sense of humor and an optimistic outlook despite his failings, and my stepfather was a very hard worker. These are admirable traits in anyone's book, so they are okay to emulate.
I have certainly seen glimpses of their bad qualities in my own character, but I am thankful to say that they are only glimpses, not defining traits. My family is incredibly important to me, and I have seen firsthand the damage that divorce can do to a person's psyche, even if only for awhile. My father was married and divorced FIVE times in his life. I feel that my relationship with my wife is sacred and we took vows in front of God and man to stay together no matter what. Thankfully, we are still very much in love, and January we will celebrate our 15th anniversary.
My children will not grow up with the spector of violence, divorce, or alcoholism. My children will know what unconditional love is. My children have a man in the house who cares deeply about them and their future. I am by no means perfect, but I am trying really hard to be a good dad.