Sunday, July 27, 2008

Dad Again, Part 1

Black fathers have gotten some attention in the mainstream media recently, most of it negative. The latest round began with Senator Barack Obama’s Father’s Day speech to the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago. The media seized upon his comments about “absent black fathers,” which was only part of the speech. (See it here). The TV talking heads began channeling Bill Cosby, and the news magazines gave editorial space to people like Michael Eric Dyson. One CNN commenter conjured up the old Booker T. Washington/W. E. B. DuBois schism, although he mistakenly referred to George Washington Carver instead of Washington.

For weeks, CNN promoted its “Black in America” series. I had high hopes for the show. I remember reading a series of articles in Life magazine from the 60s which focused on the “Negro” in America. Did you see the CNN program? I admit I did not. I was turned off by the panel discussion a few days before, “Recovering the Dream.” The panel consisted of the usual suspects: Cornell West, Julianne Malveaux, other celebrities-who-don't speak-for-me. CNN reporter Soledad O’Brien fed them one Tragic Truth about Blacks in America after another, and they chewed on these like hungry dogs: out-of wedlock birth rates, absent fathers, AIDS, gang violence, poor education, poor health, poor housing.

What little I did see of the “Black in America” series seemed to be more of the same. First of all, it was divided into two segments: Part I. The Black Woman &Family. Part II: The Black Man. See the problem already?

It left me wondering: where are the stories about Black fathers like the ones I’ve known in my life, the ones who are WITH their families, struggling and surviving, doing the right thing most of the time, working, paying the bills, loving their children and their wife. You know who you are. If I start naming you, I will run out of space and time. Where are your stories?

I want to give some space to one Black man who is not only a PRESENT BLACK FATHER, but also a Dad Again—my husband (BD—for Big Daddy).

BD grew up without his father in the home. His parents divorced when he was a toddler. Although his father was in his life, they did not have a close relationship. What BD had, what many Black children had in the 50s and 60s, was a great mother and role-models in the neighborhood: coaches, teachers, business owners, ministers, extended family and friends. Still, BD grew into manhood without the day-to-day experience of having a father in his home.

When he found himself a father, he struggled with some of the same issues because he and his son’s mother lived in separate homes, sometimes in separate states. He wanted very much not to be an “absent Black father,” so he maintained a relationship with his son, who is now a father himself. Furthermore, BD took on the responsibility of helping to raise my two children when we married. My children split their time between two households, so even then, BD was not a full-time father in the traditional sense. And now, here he is in his 50s, a Dad Again.

How are you doing, being a full-time Dad? How are you?

BD: As far as I know, I’m okay.

What has been the most surprising thing about being a Dad again in your 50s?

BD: What’s surprising is how little things have changed. The other day, I was blowing bubbles and Sun was chasing them. I have a picture of my son (now 26) doing the same thing. It’s fascinating to me because I didn’t see the everyday growth before. It’s great. It’s so much fun.

Tell us about your relationship with your son and his family.

BD: We have two grandsons around the same age as [Sun and Raine]. They live in North Carolina. We have pictures and use a webcam, but I hate that I can’t seem them more often. Talking to my son about potty training, who is walking and talking, comparing notes with my son, trying not to be competitive (laughs). That’s a surprise.

Really, this is my first time being a full time dad. From the time my son was two, I had him with me a lot, but not full time. Now, he and his wife are Sun and Raine’s godparents. So it’s enjoyable having the kind of relationship we have now.

Do you have any fears about being a Dad again?

BD: No fears. What will happen will happen. I just want them all to be healthy, smart, and decent people.

Come on, BD. No fears?

BD: Well, I think about Tim Russert dying at 58 of a heart attack. Of course, I want to be around to see them grow.

Raine presents some issues because I don’t have experience raising little girls. She’s so small, you don’t want to be rough, but you don’t want to be condescending. I don’t know “girl” activities. I would do with her the same things I do with Sun. That may or may not be appropriate. I don’t treat them any differently, but maybe I should. It’s challenging to figure out how that goes.

I worry about “over disciplining” them. I spend a lot of time on discipline, setting limits. It’s who I am. You do things, and you don’t know how things will come out.

We’re living in a brave new world. We’re Baby Boomers. They will teach me. But there are some basics that transcend generation. Methodology may be different. It’s most important to me that they have good social skills, be respectful to others.

What is the hardest part?

I don’t find any of it hard. Challenging. Sometimes, I’m really tired. Sometimes, I need some down time, some quiet while I’m still awake. I miss not having my personal time. That’s a struggle sometimes. I need time to regenerate. I would like to read more (other than children’s books). I would like to ride my bike.

How has being parents again affected your relationship with your wife?

BD: It’s helped us focus. We still have a lot of stuff to figure out and plan for. I’m more willing to speak up when I feel strongly, not just go along to get along. In the past, I’ve let things go by regarding the children.

(Under my breath) Hmmmm.

BD: I’m also more patient now, more family oriented, not trying to build a career. We have a lot to figure out. Am I their dad, or their granddad? How do we handle that? How do we explain it to them? When they start interacting with other kids and see younger parents, how do we explain, “I’m your grandfather, not your father, but I’m the only father you know.”

Maybe, I’m struggling with this because my dad was my dad on paper, but not much of a dad. My dad didn’t teach me how to be a dad. We had no role models in our neighborhood. Mostly single mothers. A few dads.

What do you want most for your grandchildren that you didn’t have?

BD: Two parents. Still, I learned a lot of things from my mother, for instance, diversity of activities. She exposed me at a young age to things that weren’t expensive but were fun to do. She spent time with us and the other kids in our neighborhood. She took me out with her when she went out. I want Sun and Raine to have that kind of diversity of experiences. It helped me to be more open-minded about a whole lot of things. If you have limited experiences, your thinking will be limited, you will limit the kind of people you associate with.

I would love for them to be home schooled. We’re the best people to give them the kind of diversity they may not get in a school. Schools have taken away arts programs, phys ed., field trips. I’m not saying it has to be one or the other, but there are things that we will do better than a school.

What kind of religious instruction do you give the children?

BD: We pray together, but we don’t go to church regularly. Again, I want them to be firm in a faith, but also have the knowledge of other faiths and be respectful. So, we go to different churches when we go.

Do you have any advice you would offer to other 50+ fathers?

BD: Enjoy it. I would say that to any father.

Thank you, BD, for this interview.

BD: You’re welcome, honey.

Sun (from the backseat): You’re welcome honey!

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