If you’ve read anything I’ve wrote in the past, then you know that I have spent time on this medium hashing out for myself my own issues with the complex men who raised me—or didn’t, and the even more complex ways I’ve had to navigate those experiences as they replay in my own adult life.
I happen to know that God healed me there first; I couldn’t not call my God my father when I had so many weird, unresolved feelings about my own: the one that raised me, the one that made me, and the ones who picked up the cross of my personal need.
As that emotional wound finally has healed into a simple dark skinned scar, I’ve watched the flood gates open as the children I teach share their deepest, most secret baggage about their fathers—gone; in jail; never known; stepfathers they do not trust; mama’s boyfriends they cannot stand; those who are bisexual or gay; those who are transgender; those who have died violently or of illnesses that their children cannot name.
It has become a theme of my career as an educator, to sit and listen to wave after wave of stories that (though not always matching my own still) carry the pattern of what it means to have complicated relationships with the one whom they call “daddy.” Their friends make space for the grief these children wallow in, careful not to extol their own good fortune of having a father around. For children whose pastime involves the most cutting of jokes, to breach the insult of not having a father remains hallowed ground. And it amazes me how the most callous joners steer clear of people’s feelings in that regard.
This year, I have had the unexpected opportunity to teach children for whom daddy is the only parent they know. Phone calls and conferences stop at the waiting voices of fathers who have raised their daughters and sons from infants. I never hear about the missing mothers the way that I do about dads who aren’t around; no, these children rally fiercely about their dads and fanatically refuse any conversations about the moms who are no more. I have felt a strange affinity for these, a feeling that (while it takes into account their motherlessness) seems almost like assurance. There is something stabilizing in their experience for me, a kind of affirmation that sometimes fathers don’t leave—that sometimes fathers take on the weight and battle it out like most single mothers do. The presence, the thereness, soothes me. It softens me up. I get all “black fathers matter” in a way that I cannot otherwise.
And then there are the fathers who show up, make their presence known despite their relationships with the mothers of their children. Who come some other time to keep the peace, hugging budding bodies back into little girl and little boy form. I see the relaxing shoulders of children who carry too much weight, smiles that are genuine and happy—happy that he did come to see what I’m doing. He does care. I have watched the most hardened faces ease a bit under the booming voices of “what’s up, man” and “there’s my favorite daughter.” I have witnessed the pride almost breaking skin when I testify to a father of the steady improvement, the good student I see every day. Pride and joy as dad flings an arm around a child and grins, “You better be a good student.”
In case you didn’t know, you matter.
I remember as a child how much glee I felt to take home a report card with all As and zero absences, to push into my father’s hands and say, “Look!” How each time he would tell me “good job” and smile then ask, “How much is that gone set me back this time?” How I would meticulously mail a copy to the father whom I didn’t know because I wanted him to see my “good job” too. How I would thrust that piece of paper at my grandfather even though he could not read and he would peel off $7 for 7 As because he just trusted that I’d managed to do it again. I loved the money; but please understand, it was the attention that I sought more than the folded bills I wasted on candy and toys that I don’t even remember. It was this unbridled need to be blessed by the approval of those who fathered me.
In case you didn’t realize it, you matter more than the money.
A good father recognizes that the best gift he can give is his time and attention. Clothes grow old, money comes and goes, but it is your eye that your children crave, to sit in the center of it as the apple. I have friends who deny every man who approaches because they demand to be the center of the new eye and would rather bet on the sure thing—their daddy—than waste a minute trying to figure out if you will be the same. And while I think it is safe to say that no man should be forced into another man’s measure, I also think it says so much about what fathers bring to the table. The lessons. The lifting. The love.
Anyway, as a complicated woman with a complicated heart in this matter, I just want you fathers to know that you are very much loved. We may complain about you, side eye you, pause in the wake of your presence, but stick around for the children. They need you and all the things you offer. They want you around. Your love is holy and essential regardless of what has happened.
I pray for you all—if you cannot be there, that you get there. If you are there and struggling, that your struggle eases. If you are there doing the damn thing, that you are strengthened to keep on keeping on. May your children bless you and bring acclaim to your name. And may you bless them into the legacy that they are to be for you.