What Fatherhood Looks Like

_-6A few months ago, I had one of those colds that left my head completely clogged to the point where I stopped speaking to others because I couldn’t hear myself. I was miserable, and though I am well over the age of needing my mommy or daddy, there is that want, as a child still living alone, to reach out to someone who cares to say: “Look. I’m going to die now, and here is what I’d like for you to do with my cat.” One evening after a sneeze attack, I received a call from my father asking me to come up to watch football. I told him I didn’t want to do anything except to be in my bed, and that perhaps he could stop by to say his final goodbyes. He made a few suggestions of what to do with my epic cold (it turned out to be a sinus infection and bronchitis, and — spoiler alert — I didn’t die!) and told me to call him back later in the week for an update. Meanwhile, I hardly spoke with my mother, who had moved out of the area. We played phone tag, and I wound up going to my father during my illness because he was the closer, more available parent. He was nearby, bringing me soup, checking on me, and making sure I was taking my antibiotics. My father was the parent to make me feel better when I was sick.

My father was good to me while I suffered, and this is the most banal of stories. Yet it’s 2014, and to hear of a male being a caregiver and a nurturer is still met with surprise. Like, oh really, this person to whom you owe half of your DNA is going to take care of you? Tell us more. The reality continues to be that seeing a male alone with a child at Target or the grocery store will elicit a response of, “Are you babysitting?” from passersby. I must tell you that I really, REALLY, cannot stand when people refer to a father as a babysitter. As well-meaning as they might be, such a response relegates fatherhood to some sort of second-class status. And with African-American males? Forget it. I watched in awe as a photo of a black man brushing his daughter’s hair was reduced to shrieks of shock and awe and unfiltered racism. My parents parted ways the day before I started kindergarten. No relationship with any parent is perfect, but I wouldn’t dare tell my father that he plays second fiddle to my mother or that he has never been caring, helpful, and genuinely loving. They parent differently of course, but I go to him for things that I don’t normally go to my mother to. How frequently? Oh, about 50% of the time, as that is what parenting is. As normal as my childhood may have been, there continues to be the myth of the black male as a sperm donor as opposed to what I’ve lived, which is that of a black male putting his children through college and law school and semesters abroad and golf lessons. I remember a trip to Canada with just my father and younger brother. With no female in sight, the customs agent wanted to be sure that my father was allowed to have me and my brother with him. Twenty years later, I have to wonder if the same would have occurred if it were my brother and I alone with our mother.

Anyway, I was worried about attending the Dad 2.0 Summit this past weekend in New Orleans. I mean, what could I, a single non-parent stand to gain from a social media conference for fathers? How about a new appreciation for parenting? Or men who feel that parenting is the purest form of partnership? Or fathers who do the ‘I can’t wait to get back to my kid(s) thing’ just as mothers do? Ideas that are obvious but radical based on our antiquated notions of what men should be doing as opposed to what men AND women are doing. Never mind that women being supported by men means that we women do better and go further in our careers, which is good for the economy. Basically without supportive men, we’d all be screwed. In one session I learned that the traits of motherhood are pretty well defined and consistent, but “fathering has a whole set of dimensions.” Dimensions. We have to quantify fatherhood and measure participation based on praise and affection, support of the mother, and attentiveness. There is a notion that fathers aren’t smart enough or that spending time alone with a father after the divorce should be the progression of things. We seek to put fathers as caregivers as the new definition of the American family, and while it’s great that we are having these conversations (Did you know that men can iron, too? Because they can!), I still find the idea of treating men as the inferior, less-capable parent to be jarring.

One of the founders of the Dad 2.0 Summit happens to be a friend of mine, and for the first several years of my friendship with Doug, I only ever saw him with his children. It wasn’t that interesting, just a dad with his kids. On the last evening of the conference, Doug asked what I thought, but unfortunately our conversation was interrupted. Here is what I should have said: I was nervous about attending, that is true but to be surrounded by men who have formed this community around their mutual deep, visceral, uninhibited love for their children is a beautiful thing. I wish that more men and women knew of how amazing fatherhood can be and could be if we all supported one another. We all must continue to push for women to be equal in the workplace and for men to be seen as equals at home. A notion so simple but would make an impact. As a single woman, I can only hope that I find a partner who is invested in our children as the men I found myself with over the weekend. My hope for the dad community is that they continue to build one another up — as I saw this weekend. Men are amazing. They can fight like hell and then get over it. How do they not hold a grudge for things that happened seven years ago? Because they will go much further as one.

When I finally arrived home last night, I had a voicemail from my father about Peyton Manning. My father LOATHES the Mannings. He has said that if their mother played football, he would hate her as well. We spoke about the game, and I really had to thank him. Like, I almost got all choked up before hanging up and saying “I love you.”  It’s amazing how spending time with other people’s fathers can make you appreciate your own. Which reminds me, another thing my father can do? He can make the better breakfast. Don’t tell my mother.

Photo Credit: Heather Barmore

Keep the conversation going with Heather Barmore at Poliogue: The Art of Political DialogueYou can also find her on Twitter and Facebook.

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