My father was a typical bad boy. The old photographs always show him in a leather jacket, t-shirt, and sunglasses. He had piercings before it was cool and enjoyed fast cars, booze, and cigarettes. He was the African-American version of James Dean.
My mother admitted that she was drawn to his rakish appeal. The fact that her father hated him and told her that he was bad news only made her attraction stronger. Despite the warnings, my mother married him anyway. She’d never admit that marrying him was a mistake, but I’m sure that she has some regrets.
During their five year marriage, my father continued his bad behavior. He had skirmishes with the law and added marijuana to his list of vices. I never asked my mother if my dad was unfaithful because I didn’t want to know the truth.
My father left when I was five years old. I missed him and longed for his presence. I wanted my daddy to come back and be a part of my life. But he didn’t come back or call or send letters, and my memories of him started to fade. When he showed up at our door seven years later, I didn’t recognize him. In fact, my mother had to tell me who he was.
He revealed that he had settled down, remarried, and had two kids. That revelation hit my mom and me like a ton of bricks. While we were struggling to make ends meet in the inner city, he got a “do-over” and was living a happy life in the suburbs. At first I was angry and refused to talk to him. I was upset at how easily we were replaced in his life. My mother didn’t want my bitterness to consume me and insisted that I work on restoring my relationship with my father.
I spent weekends at his new house with his new family and I observed his behavior. He was an involved dad who played with his kids, cooked dinner for them, and taught them new skills. I tried to mask my resentment, but I couldn’t. I lashed out at my siblings because they were getting the best of my father and I longed for what they had.
But it was all an illusion. Five years into his new life, he disappeared again leaving behind four children and two ex-wives. Over the next few years, my father reappeared and vanished several times. Although he was absent for the majority of my life, he managed to show up for the milestones: high school graduation, college graduation, wedding. I guess a part-time father was better than none.
I was finally able to reconcile with my father after I became a dad. I was on a business trip and I decided to call him while I was in town. Surprised to hear from me, he invited me to dinner. When I entered his house, I felt as if I had stepped into a Norman Rockwell painting. My father was wearing a cardigan and his latest wife was in the in the kitchen cooking dinner. Various family members of all ages congregated in the living room.
My father introduced me to his step-children and grandchildren. I was cordial to everyone and took a seat next to my father’s recliner. We sat silently for a few minutes until he said, “Come with me. I want to show you something.” He led me to his bedroom where he pulled out a photo album. Inside were photos of my sister and me and various mementos from my childhood and young adult life. As I looked around his bedroom, I noticed photos of my children posted in various places.
“I’ve always been proud of you,” he said. “I love you.”
I was taken aback by his words and unsure of how to respond. I heard the words, “I love you too,” escape my lips as if by accident. That moment changed the dynamic of our relationship. I wish I could say that after that experience, my father and I forged a great father/son relationship, but I can’t. However, I’ve decided to work on getting to know him better and give him the chance to be involved in my children’s lives.
Although I don’t agree with my father’s previous actions, I can understand them. As a father and a husband, I know how difficult family life can be. My father was 20 years old when he married my mother and he admits that he was too immature to handle the responsibility. His shortcomings motivated me to do better.
I’m glad to see that he is also doing better. He’s been married for nearly 15 years now and is a more involved father and grandparent. Forty-five years later, that bad boy who married my mother has finally turned into a good man.
We’re celebrating Father’s Day by celebrating leaning into fatherhood and by recognizing the extraordinary men that are our own fathers. We hope that it will inspire you to thank your own dad or the dad who most inspires you. Find more letters and stories about leaning into parenthood here. And, of course, find your own Lean In inspiration at LeanIn.org.
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