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Finding fatherhood: how to be a father in my fatherless world

in Family & Parenthood by

After years of grappling with an almost non-existent relationship with my father, I stare fatherhood in the face with daily struggles and questions. I fight to find clarity, balance and guidance while navigating the waters of fatherhood and masculinity.

Two years ago, I celebrated my fourth Father’s Day. I woke up to well wishes from friends, family, and colleagues from around the country. Then I logged into Facebook – a site I typically avoid on this holiday.

I suffered through the annual disdain for fathers, peppered with a few positive posts about good dads. Before logging out of Facebook, I saw an unfamiliar face in the “Suggested Friends” category: my father’s.

I clicked on the picture, not sure what to expect—it was a scanned tattered photo of him from decades ago.

He stared at me, and I stared back, perhaps in a futile attempt to get closer to him. Growing up, he lived around the corner from us but I saw him infrequently. When he visited, he kept staring at his watch, clocking his time with us so he can return to his other family.

A few distinct memories came flooding back as I searched the younger version of his face: the first computer he bought me twenty years ago, the Christmas he gave me a gold chain, the time he took me to the movies with another woman and her daughter, his failure to attend my college graduation because he did not want to miss work, and his fear that I would grow up “gay.”

I logged out of Facebook thinking “how could he appear as one of my Facebook ‘friends,’ when he’s not even a good father?”

He believed that showing off my intellect to his friends, and giving infrequent expensive gifts was the only way to be a father, hence the computer and chain from years ago. Yet he never provided consistent financial or emotional support.

His children by his wife had it made though: my younger sister attended private school her entire life, and my older brother often received money for school. Whereas my mom was forced to raise me in a one bedroom apartment in the hood, my other siblings grew up carefree in a house, under his watchful eye.

Bittersweet Memories

As bell hooks reminds us in We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, “while material support is one way to demonstrate care, it can never take the place of emotional bonding, of care and loving interaction.” Chris Rock puts it more bluntly: “you’re supposed to take care of your kids!” My dad certainly took care of his kids — just not the unplanned one.

After the surprise Facebook suggestion, I thought about him for a few hours, then decided to call and wish him a happy Father’s Day. As always, the conversation was the same: “DOCTAAAAAAAAA I’m so proud of you…I couldn’t ask for a better son…You made it out the hood and can inspire others” and more empty platitudes that I ignored as I prepared my fancy Father’s Day meal.

Though he doesn’t have this language, he essentially sees me as a part of the “Talented Tenth,” an elite group of black folk; however, he did not contribute to any of my success.

He ended our conversation with “I love you,” and I just said “thanks” in return. How do you love someone who hasn’t shown you much love in thirty years?

I did what black men have done for centuries: I turned to the written word for solace. I picked up the card my son made for me in daycare, and cried.

I cried because as I get older, I am growing more ambivalent about sustaining a relationship with him, a relationship based solely on infrequent and superficial phone conversations. I cried because as I held my son’s card, I realized I have no blueprint for being a father. I cried because I fear that I will let my son down.

My only model for black fatherhood is an absence, as I strive to be everything that my father was not.

Whereas he lived around the corner from me and barely saw me, I often flew across the country to see my son when his mother relocated with him. These brief visits were bittersweet: I went into debt buying clothing, books, and toys for my son, knowing that I would eventually have to head back home. I guess I wanted him to have some tangible evidence of me while I was gone.

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Fatherhood and Masculinity

Finally, when my son turned four two years ago, I relocated over seven hundred miles to be closer to him. Though I see him more regularly, it still does not feel like enough. I wish I could see my son each day, pick him up from school, toss a football around, help him with homework, and do all the things that I think fathers and sons are supposed to do. Yet he’s so attached to his mother and grand aunt that he hates being away from them for too long.

I thought about this all day on Father’s Day, realizing that by trying to be unlike my father, I am subconsciously becoming like him. I try to cover up my pain by buying my son anything he wants, but lately, I have found myself becoming frustrated when he cries about being away from his female dominated household too long.

Shifting back to my father’s main concern when I was growing up, he worried that I would be “gay” in part because I was surrounded by women. For me, I am more concerned that my own son will grow up without positive male exposure, especially given his complexion.

My role as a father includes exposing my son to the world around him, including what it takes to be a black man in America. This is proving to be a Herculean task, given my own lack of models and sheltering by his relatives. Yet I cannot let my father’s absence continue to hinder my presence as a father.

Of course, my father is hardly the first man to neglect his child. In a recent interview with the Breakfast Club in New York City, Styles P and his wife Adjua pondered the reasons behind her daughter’s suicide. He and his wife wondered if the absence of the girl’s biological father contributed to her death.

According to Styles P, too many men want to have unprotected sex without taking responsibility. They then leave behind children who suffer in pain because “everyone wants a biological connection.” This was especially painful for his step-daughter, who had to see her father on Facebook enjoying life with his other family.

Styles P admits that although his step-father was an active presence, he yearned for his biological father as well. Similarly, in a podcast entitled “Fatherhood: The Importance of Just Being There,” Anthony Berrios asks “how can you sit there and create a baby and NOT be there? It is not fair to the mom or the baby.

The Shift

Like me, his father’s absence motivated him to be a doting father; like me, he fears that he will not do it right.

Even Barack Obama openly discussed his struggles with fatherhood. In his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, he mentions the importance of reading. He read Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Malcolm X, and Ralph Ellison, to learn what it means to be a black man in America, since his own missing father did not tell him.

I grew up in the era of hip-hop hypermasculinity in Harlem; though it was popular for all the guys my age to chase after girls, I chased after books instead, in a search for solace in the experiences of the black men I read in my youth and today, much like Obama.

Unlike Obama, I hesitate to criticize black fathers en masse. Beginning with his first speech as a presidential candidate in 2008 and continuing throughout his presidency, Obama has lectured absent black fathers by citing statistics about the higher likelihood of their kids living in poverty, committing crimes, and enduring behavioral problems.

Not everyone agrees with Obama of course. The father of an acquaintance of mine questioned why I was relocating to be closer to my son, especially considering his own father was not around and he “turned out ok.” Though I was disgusted by his myopic thinking, I am unaware of the reasoning behind his father’s absence (though as a black father, he could have at least appreciated another black father not running away from responsibility).

Writer, Mychal Denzel Smith, provided some broader contexts and clarity for me. According to him, the problem is not just absent fatherhood, but also the institutionalized oppression that hinders black fathers, such as mass incarceration, educational inequality, and discriminatory hiring practices, among others.

He argues that the overall feeling of abandonment supersedes the specific problem of absent black fathers:

Though I do not believe in untethering the two, I am learning that defining myself against a lack is counterproductive to my parental growth.

After sitting with all this on Father’s Day, I realized that my role as a father is not simply to place myself in contradistinction to dominant narratives of black fatherhood. By doing so, I will only reaffirm these notions by using their failures as the impetus for how not to parent.

I will limit myself if I continue to hold my father up as the example of how not to be, because positioning myself in relation to an absence only allows me to define myself against that lack, instead of defining fatherhood on my own positive terms.

Photo credit: Sebastian Leon Prado

My goal as a father is to actively redefine what it means to be a MAN. This means creating a space for my son to read books and know that he can still be a man; he can be open about his pain, frustrations, and triumphs, and not feel emasculated; he can endure failures as he grows and not let them define who he is; and he can be vulnerable and honest and be fearless in asking for help.

In short, I intend to provide a multidimensional view of manhood in order for my son to grow into the version that he sees fit. I do not want him to look back on my Facebook picture in thirty years, searching it for the answers I can provide now. For my biggest fear is not that I will be like my father, but that my son will be like me.

Dr. Donavan Ramon is a professor at Kentucky State University. A scholar of African American literature, he focuses on fatherhood.

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