Smile, Kern. Just fucking smile. Because guess what? Her mother isn’t coming. She’s not.
I told that to myself over and over again all evening. No matter how many times I looked over at the entrance to the banquet hall, my daughter’s mother wasn’t going to show.
Krystasia was on stage in a purple strapless dress I’d bought only a few days before this, her eighth-grade graduation. Names were being called in alphabetical order. By the time we got to J, I couldn’t stop thinking about what it would take for me to miss my daughter’s graduation. My own mother turned to look at me. She shook her head and rubbed my shoulder.
Krystasia was certainly smiling. I saw her braces shine when she chatted with a small group of friends at the end of the reception. I laughed to myself thinking about how she wanted to wear heels but was afraid she would fall on stage. Even without the extra height, she could look over her friends and see me watching her. She stuck out her tongue, and I rolled my eyes. How was she handling this so well? For one moment, I let my thoughts glide into the future. I saw Krystasia coming home from school and throwing her bag on the floor. I saw us eating tuna pasta for dinner and going for bike rides during the summer. Those images were so clear it finally added some peace of mind.
Then I snapped back to reality. I didn’t even know where we were going to live. I didn’t know where she was going to go to high school. I didn’t know if we’d eat tuna pasta every night or if I could cook any other dishes Krystasia would actually enjoy.
Did I have any idea how to raise a teenage daughter on my own?
Just two weeks earlier, Krystasia’s mom and I had been battling it out in the school parking lot. Her mom had grabbed my shirt collar and wouldn’t let go. Krystasia was holding my arm, pleading for us to stop, while parents and teachers and students looked on with their mouths open and hands over their hearts.
Krystasia’s tears covered her cheeks. Her mom yelled slurs that rang through the entire parking lot. This was not what I had in mind when the lawyer told me filing for custody would be a fight. But there we were, our failures as parents on full display.
“Please, Daddy,” Krystasia said. “Let’s go home.”
Kathy’s vitriol was getting worse. I had to make a decision.
“Take her,” I said. “Just take her.”
Krystasia’s head dropped and her eyes dimmed. She thought I’d given up. I just needed the fighting to stop.
My mom’s house was only a short car ride away, but it might as well have been hours. I replayed the confrontation with Kathy in my head over and over and over again. By the time I got to my mom’s, I had thought about every possible way I could’ve handled the situation differently. Something I could’ve said, or maybe I should’ve parked across the street, or what if I just hadn’t let Krystasia go? That last thought was the knife. It’s what made me pound my steering wheel and scream with the windows up and my head bent all the way back.
I let her go.
“You did the right thing,” my mom tried to reassure me. “Kathy wasn’t going to stop. You know that.”
And she was probably right, but the truth was no comfort. We were sitting on tall bamboo chairs in the center of her kitchen. It took the ring of my mom’s house phone to break me out of my trance.
“It’s Kathy,” my mom said. “What do you want to do?”
She handed me the phone. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and answered.
“Come get her,” Kathy said.
“I don’t want to be doing this anymore. Come get her. You can have custody.”
She’s fucking with me. That was my first thought. I looked at my mom, who was mouthing “what did she say?” I told Kathy “OK” and slowly hung up the phone.
My mom didn’t believe it either. As I grabbed the keys and hustled back outside, she told me to be careful.
I texted Krystasia when I got to the parking lot of Kathy’s townhome complex. Moments later, she and Kathy came walking out, side by side. Kathy was talking to her the entire time, but the only thing I heard when they got close enough to my car was, “You’ll never see this side of the family again.”
It was typical of Kathy to lean to the extreme. But when Krystasia’s graduation was over and she hadn’t shown, it was the first time I started to think that maybe she was serious.
A month after the graduation, we were back in court. In a small room on one of the upper floors, Kathy and I sat beside each other and across from a lawyer with file folders stacked up against half of his desk.
Kathy handed over Krystasia’s passport and long-form birth certificate. The lawyer sat a page in front of Kathy and me and explained all of the terms. The only line I cared about was the first:
“The applicant, Kern Carter, shall have final custody of the child, Krystasia Carter.”
Final custody. Not shared. Not temporary. Final.
It was a victory. But at the same time, I also felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. My daughter’s relationship with her mother was fractured, much more deeply than I realized even at that time. As relieved as I was for this battle to finally be over, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I’d done something terribly wrong. After nearly 14 years of defective coparenting, what I’d thought was the reason for those deficiencies was gone. In its place crept a slither of doubt. Could I actually be a better parent on my own?
In the elevator headed back to the lobby in family court, my mind wandered back to that moment 13 years earlier, sitting on the Greyhound.
Krystasia had just turned 1, and in that year alone, my life had spiked and flattened like a patient on a ventilator. Some days felt like intensive care, like when Kathy’s water broke and, because we had no money, we had to take the bus to the hospital. It’s almost funny thinking about it now: two teenagers on public transit, Kathy holding on to her stomach and me doing my best to ignore everyone staring at us. It wasn’t funny at the time.
When Krystasia came screaming into the world, we forgot for a moment, just one moment, that Kathy and I were two high school dropouts without either of our parents there to support us through the most magical and difficult time in our lives. We held our daughter and ignored the reality that she would be coming home to a single-room basement where the refrigerator didn’t always work and we needed three fans to keep us cool during Toronto’s scorching summer months.
I’m not sure if men experience post-partum depression. All I know is that in the months after Krystasia was born, I’d fill my days in a haze of weed smoke. My mind would wander to other realms and I’d think about what it would be like if I didn’t have to work overnight at a grocery store, if Kathy wasn’t on welfare, if I didn’t have to be a father.
I realized I had to do something different. This wasn’t working. So I registered for night school to get the final credit I needed to graduate. Then I started playing basketball again. Before Kathy and Krystasia came into the picture, I had been one of the best high school players in Canada and was recruited by dozens of Division I colleges across the United States.
I saw that as my ticket out of my situation. If I could rekindle my basketball career, then maybe I could get through college and put myself in a position to do something great for my daughter. In the spring after Krystasia was born, one university decided to take a chance and offer me a scholarship.
By August, I was on that Greyhound.
Leaving Kathy to take care of our child on her own, as an 18-year-old child herself, was a lot to ask. Leaving my daughter for the better part of four years was even more frightening. I feared that she’d forget me. That I would come back and she wouldn’t know who I was.
This is a mistake. I told myself that over and over. This was my chance to be a father, and I was running. And even though I knew I was running toward something greater, when I looked behind me, I feared the actual greatest thing to ever happen to me would be too far gone.
But I had to go. Staying would’ve been the bigger risk. Making $8 an hour wasn’t going to cut it. This was my only shot.
Sitting on that Greyhound, I let a tear slip down my cheek as I waved goodbye to my family.
When I came home from university, I needed to relearn what it meant to be a father. Krystasia wasn’t the same child I’d left years earlier. She ate with a spoon instead of her hands. She knew how to speak in full sentences. She was starting junior kindergarten. She said “bye, Daddy” when I dropped her off.
Kathy and I weren’t together, but we weren’t all the way broken yet. She’d still invite me upstairs for ackee and saltfish when I came to pick up Krystasia. We still called each other, even if it was just for her to complain about my being late to pick up Krystasia from school, or for me to complain about her stealing baby clothes while Krystasia was right beside her.
I struggled to find myself in those years after university. I lived with my mom and tried to build my writing career while working at the discount shoe store, or the bingo hall, or washing cars. I barely made enough to feed and clothe myself, much less take care of Krystasia.
The holidays were when my failures cut the deepest. Having my mother give me money to buy Krystasia a gift made me curl up on my bathroom floor in tears. I’ve never hated myself more.
By the time I got off the elevator at family court, I was a different person. My writing career had finally taken form, and I was making enough to feel at least a little bit secure. Now everything was about to change again. Kathy and I had been fighting for years, and battling for our daughter for months. But I never thought she would just walk away.
It was my chance to prove to myself that I could be a parent, and I became obsessed with getting everything right. I had to find the perfect apartment, the perfect high school.
I failed spectacularly at both.
Our first moment in our new apartment should’ve been a red flag. While my brother and best friend were helping me move the couch into the building, an older gentleman standing to the side gave me a warning.
“Everyone is trying to run away from this building. You don’t wanna be moving in.”
I laughed it off. What else could I do? I ignored the stench of cigarettes in the hallways. And the fact that two of the four elevators didn’t work.
One day during that first week, Krystasia walked into the bathroom to take a shower, then calmly walked out seconds later.
“There’s a cockroach on the shower curtain.”
She didn’t scream, didn’t show any emotion at all. She said it like she was reading a line out of a textbook on how not to freak out your father. I killed the roach and called the landlord to complain.
The next morning, Krystasia woke up with red marks on her arm. The morning after that, more red marks, this time on her thigh.
“Bedbugs,” the landlord said when I called for the second time that week. “We’ll have someone come spray, but you’ll have to remove anything that’s in a drawer or cupboard.”
The infestation was bad enough, but I hadn’t thought about all the smaller things that were changing in her life. Like learning a new bus route. The first time she took public transit home on her own, she jumped on the northbound bus instead of the southbound and ended up at a mall on the other side of town. I had to call my younger brother to go get her.
When she finally got back home, she just had one thing to tell me: “I’m staying at Grandma’s this weekend.”
Actually, she added one more thing: “I’m going to stay at Grandma’s every weekend.”
“Is something wrong with your apartment?” my mom asked when she called. “Krystasia says she doesn’t like it.”
That was it for me. We moved out within two months. Finding a mouse under my couch one day was the final straw.
I was able to sublease the apartment to someone else and we went back to my mother’s until I found a new, much better apartment. When Krystasia first walked in and I showed her the view from our 17th-floor balcony, she turned around and said, “This is our home.”
Krystasia got better at taking the bus, but not much better at making friends. I never heard her in her room giggling on the phone. She never asked me to stay after school or sleep over at a friend’s house.
One day, I borrowed my mom’s car to pick Krystasia up from school. I asked her where she ate lunch.
“At my locker.”
Half the school year passed and none of this changed. Something had to give, so I decided to transfer her for the next school year, from her academic-focused school to more of an arts school.
She was against it at first. The thought of starting over again was overwhelming.
“I’ll figure it out,” she told me one day in our living room. “I don’t want to go to a new school. Not again.”
I listened to her, let her speak her mind, but totally ignored what she had to say. It was one of my first “I’m the parent, you’re the child” moments. I had to show her that I knew what I was doing.
Inside though, the truth is I had no idea whether or not I was making the right decision. It’s not like a had a great track record. The apartment debacle was still fresh in my mind, and this school thing was the most significant decision since then. So while Krystasia complained to my mom about me messing up her life, I crossed my fingers and prayed. Literally. I really did pray to God that this would work.
A week or two into her new school, she was already texting away while we sat and ate on the couch. She joined the volleyball team, basketball team, and an after-school art program. I didn’t worry when she wasn’t home right after school, and I welcomed any friend she brought over.
Especially since we were living in our new apartment, which had started to feel like a real home. Our first home together. It’s where we watched Dave Chapelle and laughed at the most inappropriate jokes. It’s where Krystasia would be in the shower for half an hour listening to Snoh Aalegra and Biggie Smalls. It’s where we tried a different restaurant every week. One time, I tricked her into eating vegan food. The restaurant we went to listed their food like it was meat, and as Krystasia was licking her fingers from the “pork” sandwich, I burst out laughing.
We laughed that time I burned the turkey bacon in the morning and the fire alarm went off. Laughed harder when I had friends over for a wine-and-weed party and the next morning Krystasia told me all about everything she’d overheard from her bedroom. My friends were shocked that I was so liberal about smoking and having parties with her around. But I didn’t want to pretend for my daughter. I always wanted her to know the reality of every situation and deal with it however she chose. No secrets, no hiding, only the truth; whatever that looked like.
After the first year, our life together was finally starting to feel right. Then I got a text from Kathy.
It was the first time either Krystasia or I had heard anything from Kathy in a full year. No emails, no phone calls, no DMs — nothing. Immediately after the text, my phone rang. I was sitting at my desk in the office of a new freelance job I had started. I thought about ignoring the call. Instead, I stepped into the hallway to answer.
Kathy didn’t say hello or tell me anything about where she’d been the past year.
“What’s Krystasia’s phone number?”
That’s all she asked, which made no sense because Krystasia has had the same number since she was 10. But I played along and gave Kathy the number. It was summertime so Krystasia was at home. I immediately texted her to let her know that her mom was probably going to call her.
When I got home later, I asked Krystasia what her mom had said.
“Nothing,” she responded.
If you’ve ever raised a teenager, you know that “nothing” is the answer for everything. So I prodded a little harder.
“She just sent me a text,” Krystasia said. “I didn’t message her back.”
“Did she say what’s been going on the past year?” I asked. “Did she ask to see you? Did she say sorry?”
I knew by then how far I could push my daughter, and I could tell I was at that limit. Over the next few weeks, I watched her even more closely. She seemed OK. She still liked to play fight when I poked her belly. She still came home from school, dropped her bag at the side of the couch and said, “I’m hungry,” before opening the fridge and asking, “What’s for dinner?”
But I still wasn’t sure.
Kathy didn’t text again, and Krystasia kept growing up. By 11th grade, she was doing well in school, but she started waking up late every morning. I’d bang on her bedroom door and sometimes even push it open.
“Don’t get lazy,” I’d tell her. “School is easy for you now, but you don’t want to start forming bad habits. Those will be harder to break when you actually feel challenged again.”
It was her turn to ignore me. When she brought home a 90 in her first-period class, that was the end of that battle.
She was becoming a real teenager. She went to her first concert (Billie Eilish). She began to obsess over her skin.
“I’m using your honey.” Krystasia declared when I walked into the kitchen one day and saw her adding various ingredients to a bowl on the counter.
“What’s it for this time?” By then, I didn’t have to ask what she was doing. I knew she’d probably watched some YouTube video and was trying some new potion to manage her breakouts.
“It’s supposed to get rid of the scars.”
“They’re not scars, Krystasia, they’re blemishes. Scars don’t go away.”
“Well it feels like this will never go away, so until they do I’ll call them scars.”
One evening, I came home and saw her sitting on the couch. She had all her homework spread across the table and a hoodie over her head.
“I need a picture of us for my Instagram,” I said.
“No.” She didn’t even look up when she said this. I thought she was joking, which she did a lot. I’d ask her to take a pic for my IG and she’d pretend to be upset.
“Stop using me to get likes. That’s cheating.”
We’d chuckle and then she’d take my phone and start snapping. I was only allowed to post the ones she liked, but on this day, she wasn’t smiling when she said no.
“Wait, are you serious?”
“Yes, I’m serious. Look at my face. I’m not taking any pictures.”
She looked up for the first time since I came in. I did see another pimple on her forehead.
“You know this is normal, right? Especially at your age. Kids … ”
“I don’t care if it’s normal. I don’t like how I look so I’m not taking any pictures.”
It’s a shocking moment to hear your 16-year-old daughter say that she doesn’t like how she looks. I thought about my high school days, when my friends and I would talk about which girls were pretty and which were ugly. It wasn’t until staring at my daughter on that couch with her head down that I felt the pain of every young girl who wants nothing more than to feel pretty, and I understood the anxiety that I and so many teenage boys have caused.
Fortunately, the pimple situation only lasted for about four months. Those four months were the moodiest I’ve ever seen her. I’d poke her in her stomach and she’d tell me to leave her alone. She’d turn down my invitations to try a new restaurant instead of eagerly picking one out herself. The fact that it lasted less than half a year was a blessing.
But then there was her “grown up” summer. That’s the summer she turned 17 and spent most of it at her cousin’s house. It wasn’t really planned. She went over there one weekend and just ended up staying. Her cousin was one year older and into fashion like Krystasia, and they’d always had a strong connection growing up.
I didn’t have any problem with Krystasia staying away for weeks at a time. She needed to be around friends and experience the world far away from my gaze.
That was the summer she smoked weed and got drunk. I knew this because she told me. Even though I really didn’t want her smoking, I set some ground rules and left it alone. “No smoking every day. No smoking at school. Only get weed from people you trust.” Krystasia agreed and I gave her that rope.
We went on a family trip to a cottage that summer, and she was supposed to come home the day before to pack. By late that night she was still out with her cousin.
“Where are you?” I texted. It was already close to 10 p.m. “You still have to pack. You should be home by now.”
“Can I just come home in the morning, Daddy?” She texted back. “I drank a little too much and won’t be able to make it tonight.”
Perhaps I should’ve freaked out, driven down to her cousin’s and pulled her outside. And in my mind, I was freaking out. But I took a deep breath — like I actually inhaled and closed my eyes, then I typed “OK.” I stared out the window. My teenage daughter just basically told me she was drunk. The longer I sat there and thought about it, the more it made me smile. How many kids would actually feel comfortable enough to share that with their parents? It’s strange, but that moment when I probably should’ve been the most concerned was the moment that I realized my daughter would be OK. Actually, she would be more than OK.
I slept well that night and woke up to Krystasia pushing her keys in the door early in the morning.
More than four full years had passed with Kathy out of our lives. For more than four years since that one text, neither of us had heard from her at all. Krystasia had grown so much in that time. It’s difficult to explain the kind of connection we now shared. It’s not a stretch to say that we’d grown up together. She respected me as a parent, but she’d also seen nearly every part of my struggle as an adult. She’d witnessed me trying to find myself, fail, fall down, make horrible mistakes, and finally build myself into a person capable of caring for myself and her.
Then this February, Krystasia’s mom actually called her. My first thought was fear. Krystasia and I had created a bubble for ourselves. A bubble that wasn’t easily penetrable. Inside this bubble, it was OK for Krystasia to get lost on the bus on her first day coming home from school. It was OK for us to laugh together at Dave Chapelle and recite gangster rap lyrics. That phone call was like a drone getting in position to drop a bomb on our world. I knew our bubble was strong, but it wasn’t indestructible.
But I had to make the decision to continue trusting Krystasia. “Set your boundaries,” is what I told her. “You figure out what you’re ready for. If you want to talk to her, do that. If texting is all you can manage, then start there.”
Kathy called and texted several days in a row. She posted Instagram pictures of Krystasia. Clearly, she was trying to get her daughter’s attention, but Krystasia was still deciding. She would respond to Kathy’s texts but ignored her phone calls. Sometimes she wouldn’t even respond to the texts.
“She’s ruining my energy,” Krystasia admitted to me. “I don’t know what to do.”
Forget about her.
It’s just me and you. That’s what we wanted.
You don’t need her.
She abandoned you for years.
Instead, I told my daughter that there’s no rush. That just because Kathy might be ready to heal the fracture of the last four years doesn’t mean she has to be.
“You’re in control,” I said. “This is all about you, not her. Go at your pace.”
The next day, she showed me a text she’d written to her mother; a letter really — if it were a Word doc it would have been two full pages.
“This is how I feel,” she told me. “I know you would never say something like this to my mom, so I’m going to do this for the both of us.”
In Krystasia’s letter, she outlined every reason she didn’t want her mother in her life. She spoke about the relationship she and I had built over the last four and a half years, and how it hasn’t been perfect but it’s helped her become the person she’s always wanted to be.
I read it with a mix of pride and sadness. Proud that she was courageous enough to stand up for us and sad that it had come to this point.
I still worry about what not having a mother will do to her. I think about the feeling of abandonment that is coursing through some part of her soul. Maybe she’ll be completely OK. Maybe one day she won’t be. What I do know now is that whenever that time comes, if ever that time comes, we’ll be in it together.
Storyteller Spotlight: Kern Carter on Being a Single Father and Writing Candidly About Parenthood