I am not the best father in the world – I’ve always tried very hard, but I’ve failed more times than I care to admit. I am also sure that I wouldn’t be a very good husband, since I’ve never come close to convincing anyone to walk down the aisle with me – it’s not easy being married to a workaholic who loves his job. But through the years, I’ve learned that our most costly mistakes grant our most valuable lessons, and that’s how I’ve hopefully pieced together a life that might be worth living.
While I married my work years ago, with no regrets, I’ve found that beyond anything we do professionally, life is truly a journey of love. When we reflect on the few short decades we have on earth before bumping into the Grim Reaper, it will be the ones we loved along the way who take up space in our memory banks.
So, on this Father’s Day (as I sit on yet another airplane headed to nowhere in particular), I’ve taken a second to reflect on the lessons I’ve learned about love, life and fatherhood. I sincerely hope these lessons can help someone else, especially those who expect to become parents one day in the future. Fatherhood is, among other things, represented by the following:
1) Fatherhood is one of the greatest challenges you’ll ever experience
When my girlfriend became pregnant at the age of 18, I was petrified. My daughter was courteous enough to be born during my college break after finals week, so I took the bus to be with her mother during the delivery. I stayed in the hospital on a small cot for three days waiting for my daughter to come into this world, spending my time reading the academic bulletin and dreaming about things I wanted to do with my future. Having a baby on the way motivated me to get an education and do good things with my life, overcoming the confusion I’d had in the past. When my daughter was finally born (she stayed in her mother’s stomach for an extra two weeks – not seeming to want to leave), I remember how long her hair was when she came out of the womb. I never thought I’d be a teen father, and I had no clue of what to expect over the next two decades of my life.
While I got my daughter to adulthood in one piece, the road wasn’t one without a long list of bumps. I’d envisioned a future in which I’d replicate the life of my mother and stepfather, where I’d get married young, raise our kids, and have a few more along the way. But the reality was one that was more reflective of the many broken down families within the African American community. It took a lot of bricks to rebuild the bridge to reconnect me with my daughter, and I thank God that we never gave up. I’ve studied some of the most difficult mathematical theories in the world on my way to earning a PhD. But there is no equation I’ve confronted yet that matches the complexity of a teenage girl. It was very difficult to find space in the life of my own child, and I gained a great deal of compassion for the other fathers who’ve also spent years fighting in court to get time with their own kids. I’ll never go through that again.
2) Fatherhood is incredibly rewarding
When I couldn’t quite find a way to get the time I wanted with my own daughter, I filled the holes in my heart by “adopting” some God children along the way. Because I never ended up in a situation that was conducive to marriage and children, I decided to use my desire to be a dad as an avenue to make up for the fathers who’d chosen not to be involved with their kids. Over the last decade, I was able to experience the joy of watching a young person adopt my values, copy my decisions and recite the lessons I’d taught to them over the years. I’ve also found that there is something in a man’s nature that allows him to feel complete when he’s been given the opportunity to protect and provide for another person. So, while some felt that I was being generous by taking care of children who were not my own, I honestly owe these children my gratitude for giving me an opportunity to fulfill my desire to be a dad. When my own daughter came back around, that made the experience even better.
3) Fatherhood is a situation where you never know all the right answers
As I hit my 40th birthday, I am finding that there are no blueprints on how to live your life, and each stage takes you into unchartered territory. Most of your decisions have long-term implications, but there is no way of knowing if you are making the right choice for the right person at the right time. You then simply do your best, and deep down, wonder if you’re the worst human being to have ever been allowed to reproduce.
My belief is that doing your best and being conscious of your decisions is the best insurance against critical mistakes. At the same time, I fully expect that no matter how hard you try, there is going to be some tiny decision, comment or action from the past that threatens to put your child into a psychiatrist’s chair 20 years later. At that point, you can simply apologize and hope that your child has embraced a policy of forgiveness.
4) Fatherhood is the most important job you’ll ever do
One of the reasons I have such little tolerance for those who harm or abandon children is because children literally are (as Curtis Blow used to say) “born with no state of mind.” They trust without proof of trustworthiness. They give without expecting anything in return. They love unconditionally, even when we feel that we are unworthy of their love. Therefore, those of us who are given the opportunity to influence young children must realize the gravity that our words and actions have on the development of that child’s psyche.
Telling a child that she is smart, beautiful and kind at an early age will likely cause her to carry these self-perceptions well into her twenties and thirties. A child’s mind must be shaped in a manner that acknowledges the enormity of the task and opportunity at hand. They are hanging on your every word, so we must make sure those words are full of health, love, and empowerment.
5) Fatherhood is something that must be taught and ruthlessly enforced by all of us
As I wondered which weapon I might consider using to chase down the irresponsible men who made babies with one of my god kids (yes, I was ready to issue a beat-down), I began to think about all the men who have no problem creating children, but no interest in taking care of them. I thought about how many of these men likely didn’t have a father around during their own childhood, growing up in an environment where being a responsible father is an optional endeavor.
I then thought about the mothers, sisters and girlfriends who watch these men have one baby after another without ever confronting the man on his behavior, laughing off the fact that unemployed, uneducated, Paquan has six kids with five different women, while waiting to do time in prison. That is when I realized that almost none of us are doing a very good job when it comes to teaching young men how to be fathers and reminding them of the importance of doing their job.
Unlike motherhood, being a father is not nearly as instinctual to men, some of whom are wired to roam free without responsibility. Mothers have a chemical called Oxytocin that is released in their brains during pregnancy, child birth and breast feeding that makes it nearly impossible for any normal mom to leave the side of her child. The father, on the other hand, must be given a chance to bond with the child. So, if the relationship ends before the child is born, the father may only see this faceless human being as another daunting economic responsibility in a world where it’s already hard enough to pay the bills.
This is why three things should happen: First, mothers must ensure that the fathers of their children have a chance to bond with them, so that he feels connected to the child in the same way as the mother. Secondly, we must instill a value system in young men that lets them know that taking care of your family is not an option. Men who don’t make an effort to be with their children need to be chastised by all of us. Third, mothers who engage in parental imperialism and alienate the father from his own kids by dictating every aspect of the father-child relationship must learn the value of respecting the father’s role in the life of his kids. No, he doesn’t have to do everything the way you would do it or give you veto power over every parental decision he makes. You have no right to decide if he is or is not an adequate parent, you made that baby together.
6) Fatherhood is far more expensive than you think
One of the reasons I feel sorry for brothers who turn themselves into baby-making machines at an early age is because I don’t think they realize how expensive it can be to raise children. Whether you are paying for daily needs or simply paying child support, kids raid your bank account and leave you (as my friend would say) “broker than the ten commandments.” The reason I went to college and studied hard was because I wanted to be able to provide for my daughter and other children who didn’t yet exist. So, for anyone who expects to be a parent in the future, I advise you to start making plans today. There is nothing more disappointing and stressful than not being able to provide for your own kids. If you’re not paying your child support on time, it can even jeopardize your freedom.
These are my thoughts on this Father’s day, as I pay homage to the step father who raised me when he had better things to do with his time. I also thank my daughter and God children for being able to forgive me when I made mistakes. The black father is an eternally important cornerstone in the African American community, and we must engage in critical dialog to find ways to invite the father back into the home (or demand that he return to protect his seed). Our babies are suffering irreparable damage from fatherhood problems in our community, and we must make things right immediately.