Talking About the Tough Stuff: How being a dad made me accountableBabble Editors
Parenting has taught me a lot about dealing with things I’d rather not deal with. I’ve been forced to breathe deeply and make the call to the doctor at three in the morning: Um, my daughter won’t stop crying, and when the doctor asks why she’s crying, I’ve had to confess, Well I kinda dropped her on her head today.
That never feels good to admit to.
Or I’ve had to clench my mouth shut tightly and just let my daughter have her feelings and be disappointed. I’ve had to resist the urge to placate her, to try to “make” her feel better by saying something inane like, Well your little ten-year-old friend who won’t share with you is a jerk.
Definitely not good parental role-modeling.
I’ve also learned to deal with larger, seemingly inhuman bureaucratic systems, such as institutionalized schooling, with all its rules and policies that seem to believe learning only takes place in a classroom. No, I don’t think it’s fair that my seventh-grader gets an F in classes because I took her on a trip to see a sick relative. I’ve learned to face a police and justice system that views children, and particularly teenaged men, as criminals first and foremost.
Parenting, however, has also demonstrated that there are the choices we need to make between letting some things slide while focusing on others.
My daughter, arriving home ten minutes later than she said she would, might be OK now and then. I can raise an eyebrow and shrug off her What? The bus was late! exasperated remark when I ask why she’s not on time. Because when she’s out at night and forgets to call when I explicitly explained that I expected her to, that ain’t something you can let slide. It’s something you have to address, and it’s difficult to hold her to the agreed upon consequences. It’s painful to hear her anger, her frustration, to be the target of her unmitigated teenage rage. And that is scary.
However, this is not an essay about my children. Let me stop stalling.
“I did, however, acknowledge that I had no answers, only questions.”
A friend of mine was arrested for domestic violence. There’s a story there. There are reasons for his anger and even empathy around the whole situation: towards him, towards his partner. The whole affair is sad. In the end, perhaps it will all be for the best for both of them and their kids.
But there is no excuse for violence in a relationship. None. Ever.
The crisis is over. The mother of the kids has moved out of their home. They have a routine set up. Things are almost back to normal. People in my circle of friends are even joking about it.
And that is what bothers me.
I started to ask around: what is my role in all this now? How do I address this with my daughters and son? How to be a true friend to my buddy, who still needs a friend even and perhaps especially after something like this?
I don’t want to be the one to constantly bring it up every time I see him, but I also don’t want a “business as usual”-type friendship, a “don’t ask, don’t tell” relationship, which is presumably so much easier: pretend it never happened.
I remember when the Chris Brown and Rihanna incident occurred. I immediately talked to my kids about it, especially my youngest daughter who was very into both of them. I asked how they felt about hearing the news. I didn’t want to let this opportunity slip: a chance to address the unacceptability of domestic violence, to establish a clear “zero-tolerance” policy. Some things can slide; physical and emotional abuse can’t.
But what to do with my friend? Why did this feel so much more difficult?
Soon after all this happened, I spoke with another friend of mine. She had been in an abusive relationship in the past, and she gave me some advice I hold dearly now. My friend said when she was going through it, that she wished people would have done something — anything. She looked at me and said: Sometimes doing the wrong thing is better than doing nothing.
I understood immediately that that was why I was so uncomfortable. I could see how easy doing nothing could have been. Denial is powerful. But as parenting has taught me, some things can slide, but sometimes you have to face it.
I knew I needed to talk to my friend before he moved off the block, so one night when he came over to borrow something, I did.
We stood out on my stoop, and I expressed my anger and disappointment. I told him I knew it would be work, but that I wanted to be the kind of friend who is willing to both stand up for someone and to hold them accountable. I expressed my concerns about how he was taking responsibility for his actions.
I did, however, acknowledge that I had no answers, only questions. But I told him I’m willing to struggle to find those answers with him, together.
We hugged, and he left.
A few days later, I raised the subject again with my daughters and my twenty-year-old son, who was visiting. He heard all about it from his mom and his sisters. Everyone was arguing over it. Gossiping about it. In fact, my youngest daughter and I saw the cop cars in front of their house when it happened and I said to her almost in jest, I hope that’s not what I think it is. I cringe now thinking about how uncritical a statement that is in regards to domestic abuse.
So we were all sitting around the table, my two daughters and my son eating dinner. I confessed: “I am angry that I don’t know what to do or say. I feel like a hypocrite ridiculing Chris Brown, and yet when it happens on my street I’m at a loss as to what I should do. Just because I’m friends with someone doesn’t mean they’re not accountable, you know.”
My youngest daughter shook her head and said finally, “You know it’s not your fault, Dad,” as if I was acting foolish.
Getting chastised by your kids is another thing you learn how to deal with from parenting. However, it was then that I realized I was looking at my son was sitting across from me. He was looking at me. It dawned on me that I haven’t had a conversation like this with him in a long time. As a man. As a person who might disagree with me, who might not see it the way I do. I was terrified.
My son remained silent for a moment, looked at his sisters and then back at me, and finally said, “I know, Dad, I know,” and he looked me in the eye. “That shit is totally fucked up.”
Not the most eloquent response, but it was clear that he meant it. It was one of the most reassuring moments in my life.
It’s strange to love this young person so much, and for years feeling like I could control, or at least strongly influence, his actions. Now he stands taller than me, muscular, lean, a man, and I have no control over anything anymore in his life and yet I still have such expectations of him. And I know he will let me down in the future, will make mistakes in relationships and in life, but hearing him say that with such conviction, without equivocation, in front of his sisters was a profound moment for me.
As the weeks pass, I still bring it up with my daughters now and then. In fact, my middle child has a boyfriend now. I see how quickly I will have little control in her life as well. It’s hard to let go. But I’m gonna do it — with love and with encouragement and with trust.
They taught me that. — Tomas Moniz
Excerpted from RAD DAD: Dispatches from the frontiers of fatherhood by Tomas Moniz, 2011. Copyright PM Press.
Tomas Moniz is the founder, editor, and a writer for the award-winning zine and book Rad Dad: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Fatherhood and he teaches at Berkeley City College. He is helping to raise three children and lives witha menagerie of animals in Berkeley, California.
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