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You wonder if growing up without a father will make you less of one to your daughter.
These are your fears during Christmas, when you watch her not watching the tree or the gifts, but the lights. She always watches the lights. She watches them when she’s breastfeeding, or when she starts cooing when you’re staring at the brownness that is her tummy and her momma’s cheeks and that nose that we think looks like she has my mother floating about her.You tell yourself she watches the light because she knows she came from it.
When Dr. Harmon told you she had the sickle cell trait, you secretly smiled on your insides because you have the trait in you too, and even though you knew that your blood coursed through her in the same fashion those naps your pops tried to comb and brush out of your scalp do, and now are showing up in the curly little balls of fire on her head, that trait is a symbol of your genes. So, you’ll be up at night with your knees on the floor looking towards the stars and the skies and the God in them, asking and hoping and wanting and praying that she gets all of your good. And you hope that your good will be good enough to sustain her.
Folks who were dads will give you pointers. Folks who think what fatherhood should be, or what they missed out on with their fathers, will chime in too. Mothers of children, sisters with nieces, friends who babysit, strangers who will walk by all will have something to add to your journey of fatherhood. And their love and their words of encouragement and support, along with their advice and opinions on the pitfalls of co-parenting, even when your co-parent — she hates that word — is awesome and a wonderful example of motherhood, still won’t mean squat diddly shit because frankly, they are not you.
They know not of the nights and days crying in the corner of your office away from the glass so staff can’t see you, or your bed when it’s really late and the moon is quiet and your pillow eats the sobs, wondering if you’re setting up your child for failure with the decisions you’ve made and are making as an adult. You ask if pursuing your dreams will alienate the ones you hold dear to you, and will your daughter resent you for not sacrificing more, for not giving up more, to keep the family together.
You buy the long-distance parenting book and read the articles and search the interwebs and talk to other dads and download Skype because technology allows you to see her sleep or cry (which is what a 6-week-old baby primarily does) when you are not around. You beat yourself up because you’re supposed to, because only selfish men allow things like this to happen. You compensate by changing her diaper every single time you have the opportunity to, and while her mother sleeps, you rock your symbiote and tell her about your day, explain who Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk and Fela Kuti are, and ask her questions about the sky and who she wants to be when she grows up.
I question my manhood and choices and the decisions made and every single action feels like a setback or advancement.
There are the nights you look on message boards, digging for other fathers who know your plight or struggle.
You want to know how they coped, what they did to create thriving and nurturing relationships with their children who are plane tickets away sometimes. You wonder what Future or Wiz Khalifa do — do they have their kids on the weekends? When do they see them? Do they Skype every night or every other night, or at all (you hope they do)? How often do they visit, and vice versa? You’re also slightly ashamed because you never thought you’d be the guy wondering what guys named Future and Wiz Khalifa do in their positions as fathers.
So, you work harder. You apply for more jobs, and the dream shifts — maybe it’s not just being an actor or a writer or musician, but maybe it’s a teacher or a creative consultant; whatever it will take to feed her, to help her grow, whatever will create room for you to be around as often as she needs you to be.
Money is a funny thing, no?
I used to think money was dirty. And then I had a daughter and realized that money can get her into places I never could. And if money is made from trees, and trees give life, money can’t be that bad, right? So, you apply for jobs. 30 jobs. 40 jobs. 50 jobs. Creative consultation, brand management, social media management, creative direction. You don’t have a degree and you wonder, are you doing everything you can for your princess?
So, you work harder. You order more acting headshots, send out more e-mails, try and take more meetings. You plan more, or buy an overly expensive plane ticket and don’t regret it because the night before you left to head back to your home away from her she cooed at you in a way that let you know she knew — she knew who you were and what you prayed for and that all those times you walked in St. Mary’s Park and nicknamed those trees and rubbed their trunks with your palms and placed those palms on your heart while she was still floating in that water, that you were calling to her.
I have always been calling to my daughter.
You are not choosing dreams over your family, but you are choosing dreams for your family.
I think I was calling to her in rap songs before I even had an idea of what she would sound like, who she would be like. She cries when she’s hungry, she cries when she has gas, she cries when you bathe her, or take too long to change her diaper, and she cries when she’s sleepy. In hindsight, I think I cry during all of those times for myself, because I can be a real Estelle Getty when I haven’t gotten my daily nap in. I think I write for her and to her because I believe that maybe that energy in the words and actions will save her; that my work and love will right the ship. Even now as I write this, she is in another state being loved and comforted by her other family, and it makes me happy, and depressed.
I question my manhood and choices and the decisions made and every single action feels like a setback or advancement. You walk in the airport in Charlotte and you see the parents together with their children and feel like you dropped the ball somewhere. But then again, then again you think about the other day at the skating rink or the night at Jon’s and how you held her at the dinner table while she slept and you ate with one hand and how you did that all as a unit and that maybe family is what you make it; that family is what you allow it and decide it can be, that you are not choosing dreams over your family, but you are choosing dreams for your family.
So, to the countless other men who are working at being better fathers to their children, and better support systems to the mothers of said children, I say keep being a beacon and keep working. Circumstance does not have to dictate how you can be a father to your child. I’m writing this because I needed to heal and I still do, because it gets sharp in your bed when you think of the little person who has your corazon and sometimes looks like you when you sleep, but is further away than you’d like her to be. The road is tough, and the work is hard and the journey long, but worth it. Know yourself and your heart, and don’t bleed when you don’t need to, or rather, as Dave Chappelle’s father once said, “Know your price.”
The pressure of and within our society will attempt to dictate what and who you should be in order to appease others. Be compassionate, do compromise, do listen, do shift and adjust, do apologize when wrong, and yes bend, but do not break. People will say things of you, about you, to you and away from you, but do the work. Folks will toss deadbeat dad or negligent father titles around, blanket statements that are not always indicative of the delicate situation that is co-parenting.
Language matters when you choose to label people, and those labels are not fitting or accurate for the people they are ascribed to. The holidays can sometimes serve as reminders of where we are lacking or where we have faltered, but I ask that you take into account the beauty of being a father and cherish and relish in the wonder of it all. The best part of my entire Christmas vacation was not the food (even though that dirty rice was hittin’) or the gifts or the jokes and smiles, but that 1 AM diaper change when I looked at my munchkin and she knew that I knew that everything was going to be alright, because it always is, because I wouldn’t let it be any other way for her.
Joel Leon is an actor, writer, rapper, father, and story-teller. You can follow him on Twitter (@JoelakaMaG). Read more from Those People below: