It’s the week before Father’s Day and my mind has turned to the men in my life. I hope to write all week about what manhood means to me, as a woman who must filter and distill it and teach it to my sons. Of course, teaching the concept of “manhood” to my sons is not my primary responsibility–they have a wonderful father who will be able to do that far better than I can. However, I have to teach them what “manhood” means in relation to “womanhood” and that requires quite a bit of reflection and thought on my part.
Today, I’m thinking about my Father. A man who I actually, to this day, call “Father.” He wanted me to call him “daddy” when I was younger, but after watching Mary Poppins a few too many times, I started calling him “Father” and the name sort of stuck. He said that it made him sound “superior” so he didn’t mind it.
That story gives you a pretty good window into who my father is. He’s an asshole, when you come right down to it. I appreciate that I have the opportunity to know that my father is an asshole. There are a lot of little boys and girls of color who do not have that honor and privilege. My mother and father separated for six years sometime around my fourth birthday, they got back together for a gloomy three years, then they finally divorced when I started high school. One month after the ink was dry on the divorce papers, my father got on a plane to China where he married a young woman nine years my senior. She recently gave birth to their second son. My father just turned 57.
I spent a long time being angry at my father. I’m sure that you understand my anger, just based on that little paragraph, but there is more to the story: My father divorced my mother because she refused to try for another baby. Having lost his only brother to gun violence and eventually losing his own father, he desperately wanted to have a boy. He wanted to make sure that there was someone out there to carry on our (very common) last name. Having two daughters, a career, and a budget that probably couldn’t support much more (not to mention that whole 50/50 chance thing), my mother refused and so they ended their marriage. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned more about the dysfunction of my parent’s marriage, the lack of partnership, especially, and the lack of presence my father had in his marriage and his parenting.
Father always told us that he didn’t fight for custody of us because “little girls should be with their mothers.” I know that this is half true. He didn’t seek any sort of custody for us because he didn’t want us. We didn’t serve his purpose. In a patriarchal society, a penis is the ticket to legacy.
that is why I spent a lot of time being angry at my father.
And yet, I cannot discard my father. I look like him, I laugh like he does. He’s a huge hawk and I like to call him and spar with him about current events. My father has a philosopher’s mind and he loves thinking about the state of man and the relationships between government and people. He loves music– He majored in music in college and then he sang for three presidents in the Army Chorus–and I can never say a disparaging word about Reagan in his presence because he “funded [my] childhood.” My father is an original Black nerd: He loves comic books (still) and Star Wars, we used to watch Star Trek together when I was a kid. He used to tell me, on rainy days, not to be upset about going outside. “There are planets in the universe where it doesn’t rain,” he said. When he gave me a copy of Dune on my 13th birthday, I read the whole series and he was so crazy happy about it. He made me love football, and learn how to swim. I had the internet in my home before anyone knew what the internet was because he is a computer scientist. I love chess and other strategy games (and I’m fairly good at them, though I’m pretty rusty) thanks to hours of training with my father. My father is handsome, charming and dynamic. He is, to my mind, kind of the Ultimate Black Man. Though I know that is a romanticism to the extreme.
How can you discard that? How can you discard a major part of the fabric of your personhood? His sins are many and great. They are key parts of my narrative. But indeed, without his sins, I wouldn’t view the world the way that I do.
Freud and others have speculated that we choose our spouses based on the characteristics of our parents. Boys marry their mothers. Girls marry their fathers. When I read this in college psych, I really couldn’t believe it: It’s very true.
In early high school I dated an asshole. The biggest asshole in the world. Sharp but not overly so, but wity and interesting and funny–and an asshole and not a partner and a person who stifled my trajectory and didn’t honor my intellectualism (very much what my father did to my mother).
Upon looking back, I realize that when I met my husband during our senior year of high school, I’d found my father’s intellectualism (and nerdyness) but had discarded the rest of him.
I think that, for a lot of women, when they think about their fathers in relation to manhood, they think about feats of strength or engineering. Tinkering in the basement or the garage, building tree houses, killing spiders and whatnot. Arguments over short skirts, staring up at the stars and talking about life. They probably think of work and briefcases. Fathers, to many women, evoke images of authority and yet warmth.
My father wasn’t much of a builder or a tinkerer (except when it came to computers). My father was a chess player and a thinker, and my greatest moments with him were the moments when we were talking and daring and dreaming and arguing. The moments when he was screaming at me about the power of education (especially in middle school an high school when I was bored out of my skull and underperforming). The moments driving along the Potomac River, looking at Washington D.C. and discussing what made our country amazing (or not so).
My father always told me “I don’t care who you bring home, but they can’t be stupid.”
And they haven’t been. I’ve only been attracted to men who I have deemed to be significantly smarter than I am. That’s a small set of men because it’s a hard standard to hit. My husband was the first to respond in kind, unafraid to step out of his own comfort zone to meet me on a brave and interesting journey. I have Father to thank for that–for setting the standard impossibly high and for giving me the courage to think outside of the box. Father never once said a discouraging word about the White boys that I had crushes on nor the White boy I brought home and married. My mother, on the other hand, always had something to say (and probably does, still, but chooses not to).
All of this is the reason why I give my Father access to my sons. Boys who are impressionable, boys who will learn about how to live with women through watching the behavior of the men in their lives. Their access to my father will be limited, with many caveats and conversations. I cannot allow my sons to grow into men who are not encouraging of their partners and their achievements. It is the greatest contradiction of my father’s life that he would encourage my sister and I to seek every and all achievements we desired, but he belittled and covered up my mother’s career achievements. As a grandfather, I know that his role in their identity development will be significantly diminished in the face of my husband’s influence, but still, I want to make sure that my father’s world view does not seep into their own.
I’ll write about my husband on Friday, about what makes him the perfect example of manhood for my sons: How is combines the sharp mind that I require with the “traditional” manly things that make a girl happy.
I write as a grateful daughter. Being able to know my father, to love him fully for who he is, to appreciate the honest of our relationship and his influence on my life narrative are incredibly powerful to me.
I hope that you’ll consider your own fathers this week. That they’ll be on your mind in their fullness, not just in the romantic lens of childhood. We don’t often recognize the influence of men and manhood on our individual narratives. How has your father (or even his absence) impacted your life’s trajectory?