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Girl Talk: On Redemption In Fatherhood

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black father and daughter

I’ve written candidly about Mother’s Day and all the ways I think the commercialization of it fucks up our relationships with our moms. My own relationship with my mom has been easy because … well, she’s awesome. But my complex relationship to fatherhood makes both talking and writing about it difficult.

There are two people in my life that I call Dad – my biological father and my stepfather. I have very different relationships with each of them and writing about one without mentioning the other feels like a weird act of disloyalty. But this Father’s Day, I’m letting go of that and writing about redemption and it’s relationship to fatherhood.

My biological father has a colorful past; he talks openly and nostalgically about his time as a drug dealer and his stint in prison. I remember bits and pieces of it. One time when I was small, my mother took my sister and me and my brother to the prison to see him. We pressed our dirty, little hands against the impassable glass partition that separated us and talked over a black phone that connected the two sides of the glass. When my dad was released, my parents were separated and we were shuffled back and forth between them every other weekend. My parents were young when they had my twin sister and me — just 21 and 22. Now, having a brother who is 25 and a father, it puts into perspective what it must have been like for my dad to have kids at that age.

My mom got remarried to my stepfather and we moved away. We saw my dad during the summer and sometimes at Christmas. My brother eventually ended up living with him full-time while my sister and me stayed with our mom. As you can imagine, there was a lot of tension between my two sets of parents. It is a little like what you see on TV where Mom thinks Dad should contribute more and the back-and-forth is fought through the kids.

For years I didn’t know how to talk about my relationship with my Dad. I loved him dearly, but the narrative, as I understood it, was that he didn’t do his part. It wasn’t ever really clear to me what that meant until I was older. The financial burdens of raising children was lost on me until I became a taxpayer. Although I am not a parent, both of my siblings are and we talk openly about the costs of childrearing. But what I knew at the time was that my dad loved us very much and other things didn’t really matter.

Fast forward 18 years: I’m 28 and my dad is going to be 51 soon. Over the last two decades we’ve become close. We talk a lot and about everything. In addition to our familial tie, we’re dear friends. But I’ve also watched something interesting happen to my dad: how he’s embraced his chance to become a parent again. Ten years ago he had another child with his second wife. Her name is Jayden. She’s a phenomenal kid who plays piano and loves nail art. There’s 19 years between us. Since she’s was born, I’ve watched my dad raise her with so much passion and intensity. There isn’t anything that she needs or wants that he won’t give her; they’re best friends. It’s actually really cool to watch (especially as an adult) my dad father my little sister. But of course, there was a brief moment when I thought of what my life would have been like if he parented me like that. It was a curious thought.

What I learned from this is that, like any relationship, fatherhood is a continuum. We all become better at what we do with age, whether it’s write, teach, love or parent. It isn’t my belief that young parents are not good parents, but I think we all agree that, for the most, with age comes experience and with experience comes some wisdom. My dad raising my sister in his 40s and 50s delivers some redemption to his absence when I was a kid. Often the narratives that we create around parenting — especially fatherhood — are never revised. I can make a lot of assumptions about why this is, but in my experience, especially when it comes to black fathers, it is easier for folks to leave well enough alone. The narrative that black fathers are absent and irresponsible has been prevalent for decades. Even though things have changed, giving black dads redemption just isn’t a priority for people and that sucks. I hope telling my story helps people understand that we’re all worthy of having our stories revised. None of us deserve to be held to the same standard at 50 as when we were 25.

I was lucky enough to have two dads and two different kinds of experiences. To me, having my little sister is one of the best things that happened to me. This Father’s Day, I am celebrating all the ways that fathering shows up in our lives and the many complexities that color the way we nurture and care for the people we love.

Read more from the author at ShanelleMatthews.com. Follow me on Twitter.

[Image of father and daughter via Shutterstock]

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