Father, but not a Dad

Dad’s Day

(Originally Published on the Conversant Life Blog [site doesn’t exist anymore] on 6.29.2010)

Father’s Day is an interesting day. It is a day to remember the fathers of the world—at least in this society here in the West. Father’s Day is a day to recognize the influence, presence, and significance of the male in a family unit—however one would define a “family unit.” This day is also a time of clever marketing to get dad that special “hammer” or lawnmower he has been wanting, or to treat him to a nice meal at his favorite burger joint—all with special “incentives” like 50% off this and or “no tax” on that. Father’s Day presents itself with a myriad of choices on what to do for dad. But, the deeper issue is, what is a dad? What does a dad really look like in today’s public sphere? Is dad someone who is relegated and minimized to tools, beer, food, and ties? Or is dad someone bigger than that? Is dad a male or a female?

Let’s take a closer look. As many of you know, I have only ever met my father twice in my life, once in July of 1980 and once in July of 1982, after which, I never saw him again in my life. I’m sure he’s out there somewhere, but I never knew a male authoritative figure in my life to which I called “father.” Moreover, the only memories I have of “dad” from 1982 is that he bought me pepperoni pizza, protected me from some deranged individual holding a bat, and a picture that is now too dark to even make out who he really is. Thus, my life was “dad” was not much. I remember early 1983 receiving a big box with a bunch of toys, which I still have to this day. Other than those interactions, I have never really had a “father” in my life.

Now, I’ve had male role models who performed fatherly duties ranging from good, bad, ugly, so-so— always older males who have shown an interest in me over the years and have been a wide assortment of characters. I remember the first male I looked at as a “role model” came in the 4th grade. There were 5 young men held back in ages between 12-14 years of age—yes, in Texas at that time you could get held back indefinitely. At that point I was being picked on by many of the older White kids who disliked Blacks, these group of older Mexican males, protected me—particularly Rene. Rene was the oldest and one of the toughest. He showed me how to fight back and how stand up for myself in real time—meaning beyond the sticks and stones crap you’re taught by people who don’t have a clue of what you’re going through. Rene was it for me. Was he a “good” “father” for me all the time? No, but then again, no father ever is. But, he helped me through rough times, paid attention to me, communed with me, and loved on me as a dad would. Growing up in Menard Texas, I was one of the only kids without a father, but when I got to high school, I fit right in. Vince, the new “dad” in my life, helped me my freshman year in high school and served as one of those males who showed me the “ropes,” so to speak, and kept me out of trouble. Vince was a young man who helped me transition from small town culture to big city culture. Vince also possessed many of the qualities that Rene had.

Throughout my high school years there were different dads, which took on that role model for me. They all had some of the same qualities: caring, love, community, a genuine care and interest for my life, and helped shape formative times in my life—just like a dad should. Again, were all these men “the best?” Yes, at each interval, yes, they were; they were not perfect, but had an important role. They had deeper qualities than just wanting a tie or a good meal on a societal assigned holiday, they wanted to get to know me better and help a younger boy find his way.

My mom was also a father to me when it was needed. There is a slew of single mothers out there who raise boys that turn into great young men—we tend to overlook many of the women who do this everyday. Moreover, stale definitions of the family picture a husband and a wife raising kids—while that is optimal for social, cognitive, and psychological development it is not always the “best” and life doesn’t always work out with June and Ward Cleaver. My mom stepped in often as a dad figure and taught me how to shave, ride my first bike, listen to me when I kissed my first girl, and there to help me through life’s struggles as a young male.

For me, there are two major distinctions in fatherdom: a father—which fulfills the basic role of a being a father (being a figure to look at as a parent, providing, protecting, and basic interactions); then there is the dad, who has all those qualities of the father, but also is there emotionally, has worked through (or begun to work through) their issues, someone who teaches and educates, someone who is able to let their children grown and mature, someone who is solid and admits their mistakes, and someone who is spiritually available for their children. These two differences are key in understanding how to find a good dad.

As I now have the great role of being a dad for my biological child, I know that I want to give her something I never had; I know I want to give her a future that is vastly different than my past; I know I want to educate and train her that life is not fair and that as an ethnic minority and a woman she will not be given anything in life; I want to teach her that God is more than just a “father” God is a dad and a mom and within that God head exists an abundance of love beyond what I could ever give.

This dad’s day I reflect on all those men and women who influenced me and shaped me into the man I am today. I reflect back on a father who was never really there—but thankfully I never had to wait on the corner for a father who would never show up; I never had to listen to failed promises; I never had to witness my mom being beat; I never had to deal with a father who didn’t emotionally support me; not that my father was or did all those things, but as I’ve worked with young people over the last 16 years one of the most destructive forces in a young persons life is an absent parent—I never had to experience that. Am I angry at my father? No. I never knew him. Moreover, he never really knew me. I’m not the same 8-year-old gazing at him with awe back in 1982. I’ve had plenty of examples of what a good dad should be in my life. And I’m passing those on to my little girl and the young men I mentor.

Once we move beyond the stereotypes of Father’s Day, we find that there are many young men who have only been taught to be just a father. My hope is that we will be able to break through that stereotype and move into being better dads. I know that’s my mission.

As a side note, the picture you see here is the only picture I ever had of my father. Notice any resemblance?

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