Last summer, while I was messing around with my soccer ball at FDR park, on the lower east side of manhattan, I saw a youngish black dad trying to teach his son how to fly a kite. The dad looked to be about 25/26 and the son between 4-6 years old. The son was old enough to comprehend what he needed to do, but young enough that he couldn’t quite run fast enough to get the kite up in flight. The dad eventually picked up his son, and ran, kite-handle in one hand, son in the other, until the kite
was soaring into the sky. He then put his kid down, handed him the handle, to which his son gave the most natural little kid reaction, “It’s flying, it’s actually flying.” His son was ecstatic.
After 5 or 10 more minutes the son lost interest in his kite and fixated on my soccer ball. I noticed this, so I kicked it over towards them so he could play with it. I walked over, as if to talk to them/play soccer with the kid, when his dad’s phone rang. The dad turned to me as he hung up the phone, I was now playing soccer with his son, and said with a humorous but tired grin, “his mother”, as he held up the phone. He turned to his son and said, we’ve gotta go. Mom’s home from work and daddy’s gotta get to work. The son began to cry, wanting to stay playing with his father for longer, but it was clear that the dad had to leave – “5 more minutes,” he said.
As I kicked the ball back and forth with his son, I curiously asked a few questions about what the father did, and about their family. We briefly talked about how he never knew his father, and how important it was to be a part of his son’s life. He told me about how, even though he and his girl were never together and aren’t together, they are trying their best to make it work. He is a security guard working two jobs, while his son’s mother also worked full time and took care of their son full time. They don’t live together, but he tries to be there whenever he has a free hour or two. I may be making too much of an assumption, but you could just tell that this dad really loved his son, and wanted to do whatever it took to be a good father. In turn, you could also tell how much the child loved his father.
While I know nothing else about their family beyond that 5 minute conversation, as the dad and his son walked back across the Houston St. footbridge, I thought to myself – that’s how a father-son relationship should be. It’s probably not perfect, and it’s definitely not always as happy as flying a kite in the park – but it’s about the willingness to find the time and energy to spend with one another. That encounter has stuck with me.
For as long as I can remember, on or around the anniversary of his suicide, I write about my father and/or the impact that it has had on my life. My posts tend to be rather introspective, seemingly searching for positives in a situation that is and was rather tragic. I’ve written about how his suicide has motivated me to achieve where he failed, and I’ve written about how his disloyalty and cowardliness has molded me into a person who I hope is the complete opposite of him. However, I’ve always avoided discussing what it meant to really grow up without a father. In fact, I almost never mention that I didn’t have just one failed paternal relationship, but I also experienced a second failed relationship. I had 5+ years with a highly abusive step-father who, only when I was strong enough, I was forced to remove from our home with a hockey stick held to his face. In a weird way though, neither the act of my father’s suicide, nor the acts of abuse I suffered from my step father, impacted me nearly as much as the single notion of not having a father who wanted me to be their son.
The older I’ve gotten the more that I’ve realized that it is an impossibly difficult impact to quantify; how much a boy is affected by being scorned by their father. I imagine the effect of losing a maternal relationship is similarly devastating, but as I didn’t go through that, I can only speak to my own condition. It’s not just the physical lack of a male role model, which I believe is an essential but surmountable challenge, but it’s also about the feeling of not being wanted. It’s about knowing that there’s some man who decided you weren’t worth caring for. It has a huge impact on how you carry yourself, how engage with other people, how you learn to love, and most obviously on your self-worth. Not having a father, but more than that, knowing that no one wanted to be my father, impacted me in all of those ways.
I got lucky, however, for the most part I was able to channel the negatives of both my father figures into positive characteristics. I also had a small circle of friends and my grandparents on mother’s side who helped give me the real support I needed to mature and develop into a successful person. Unlike my father or step father, I have grown to become highly loyal, motivated, trust-worthy, and for the most part caring man. However, now at 33, I’m highly aware that it’s a real and everyday battle to overcome that effects of my childhood. I mean, ask any girl I’ve dated, and they’ll tell you I either push them away or try to hard to win them over – that’s no coincidence – it’s classic abandonment issues. But, for the most part, I’ve been lucky to become the man I am, despite these issues. Which brings me back to that story above.
As a society, especially in our lower-income communities, fathers have done a rather poor job of owning their paternal responsibilities. So many kids today are raised by single moms with no real father figure or positive male role model around. It’s sad, and it’s tragic, and it’s having a real impact on the way our young men grow-up and treat their women. But not every dad is that way. Not every dad is running from being a father. There are dads like that one at FDR park, who are working two jobs and still trying to be there to raise their kid. There are dads like my good friends Mo and Loren, who are trying to make up for the pain they suffered as children, by being the best fathers’ they know how to be. They aren’t perfect fathers, and they don’t do everything right, but they are really trying and succeeding at having the relationships with their sons that they never truly had with their own biological fathers. I think we need to celebrate this more, throughout our society. We celebrate the single mom, and rightfully so, but we need to do a better job of highlighting to our children – to our young men – what a real father looks like; because they don’t know. They didn’t have one. I didn’t have one.
One day, I’ll meet the right girl, settle down and have a few kids. When that happens I
hope that I can will be the type of father to be proud of. I will be the type of father that my friends are. I will be the type of father that that guy in the park is. I will be the type of father I never had. I will do that by always letting my kids know the one thing that I never really knew as a little kid – that their dad truly wanted them.
26 years and counting.
I just wanted to add one small note to this story. There is an important reason that, in my initial story, I referenced the skin color of the young father. I thought that it was important to make mention of a young black man genuinely caring for his young son. While there is a ton of “statistical” evidence to show how many young black males in the US grow up without a father, I still feel bad that our society seems to blanket all young black as absentee or irresponsible fathers. There is much more data to support the problem of absentee fatherhood being a class issue much more than it’s a race issue – additionally, it’s a problem that’s cyclical. These kids, white or black, who grow up from extremely young ages without having a father are massively emotionally affected and it manifests itself in the way they themselves approach relationships with females and their children. We can pretend all we want that they should just “know” that it’s their responsibility to be a father to their children – but child development psychologists will tell you that their parental instincts were stunted in development by their lack of learning how to really be a father.
It is for this reason that I feel so strongly that we need to make less news about the fathers who are leaving their children and find a way to promote and celebrate the fathers who are genuinely trying to do the best for their children. We need to show our young children of single parent families what it means to be a parent. We need to show them role models they can identify with, and that it’s in their control to not make the same mistakes their father made. We need to, at times, even in the face of massive information to the contrary, find the silver lining of hope to promote to these children.
Again, I say that I was lucky. Despite the alcoholism, abuse, and suicide I experienced from my fathers, I had my grandfather to help show me how to be a man, and the type of sacrifice and devotion and love it truly takes to be a father. But, even with him in my life, I still have my issues that I deal with every day. A lot of kids in lower income communities don’t have a grandfather like I did. They often don’t even have friends with fathers whom they can identify with and learn from. They are surrounded by strong single women (who by no means am I trying to belittle their importance our country is built on the backs of strong single moms), but without any positive identifiable male role models, how is the cycle supposed to change? That’s why I included the race of the young father in the story I told above. I want to start helping to break the cycle, by building up positive role models. I want to start showing kids that there are people who look just like them, who came from backgrounds just like them, who have grown into good fathers. I want to show myself that I can grow to become a good father one day as well.