He was certain that his approach to parenting differed greatly from his father's, but they were more alike than he knew.
Posted in , Jun 18, 2020
When I got married, I thought I was ready to be a husband and father. My wife, Soroya, and I were in our twenties then, enjoying life together and starting our careers. She was a kindergarten teacher. I was a supervisor at a call center.
Four years into our marriage, we found ourselves with two boys. Marriage and fatherhood felt as natural as breathing.
Then I lost my job.
The experience rattled me to the core. All of a sudden, I wasn’t sure being a dad would be so easy. My father had held a job for 20 years, and here I was unemployed after a mere seven.
Eventually I found new work, but by then we had had two more kids and life had become a blur of laundry, grocery shopping, diaper changes, commuting and ferrying our children from one activity to another.
I wanted to be a loving, involved father, a mentor to my kids. When our oldest was little and an only child, fatherhood pretty much meant hanging out with him. Now everything seemed so complicated, so…hectic. Could I keep up with being a father?
I had no example to draw on. Growing up, my family was pretty much the opposite of how Soroya and I ran our house. Mom stayed home. My dad worked and supported the family. He was gone a lot on business trips. I never saw him wash a dish or do a load of laundry. He worked hard and came home tired.
He loved my sisters and me, but he expressed his love not in words or hugs but in time spent with us on weekends. He showed me how to use the tools he kept neatly arranged in his workshop in the garage. One time, he helped me build a pinewood derby car. He set high standards and tolerated no nonsense. I loved him. But I can’t say I felt as if I knew him.
Still, I always assumed I’d grow up to be like him—loving, a little stern, supporting my family by working hard and spending time with my kids on the important stuff. But that style of fatherhood just wouldn’t work now. I felt as if I was making things up as I went along.
One weekend, needing to fix a leak in the kitchen sink, I called Dad. That was one thing I did know—he knew how to fix stuff. Dad, now retired, offered to come over and show me what to do. After he walked me through the repair, I blurted out a question.
“How did you do it, Dad?”
He looked at me quizzically. “Do what?” he said.
“Be a father. Did you find it hard? I do sometimes.”
I had no idea how he would reply. We’d never had such a conversation. What I really wanted to ask him was: I can’t be like you, so what should I do? But I couldn’t say that.
Dad thought a moment. “This sounds like a longer conversation,” he said. “Want to grab some coffee?”
Soon we were sitting at a café, hands wrapped around mugs of coffee. I felt a little self-conscious. This was uncharted territory for us.
“What you really want to know is why I stuck around, right?” Dad said. I nodded. Many fathers of other kids I’d known growing up were absentee at best. Dad was pretty much my only model for fatherhood.
“That’s easy,” Dad said. “You kids kept filling me up. In a deep way.”
I worked up my courage. “Then why were you gone so much? You worked all the time. Soroya and I aren’t like you and Mom. We share household stuff. I don’t know how to juggle it all.”
Dad smiled. “We’re not as different as you might think. Let me tell you a few things about me. Then maybe you’ll understand.”
Dad had never talked like this. He got a thoughtful look and said, “If you think I was a traditional father, you should have met my dad. He worked as a courier for a bank, a job that had him on the move all day. He came home and went straight to his recliner, where he read the paper and smoked his pipe.
“We owned a rental property, and on weekends Dad made me go with him to do repairs. I hated it at the time, but you know what? That was the only time I really got to talk to him. He was very organized and conscientious, and he taught me to be the same.
“My mother supplied the love. She had the kindest eyes and the warmest smile. ‘Wake up, son, and give God the glory,’ she’d say each morning. I always felt as if everything was all right when she was there.
“Then, all of a sudden, when I was nine, Mama had a heart attack and died.
“In black churches, children wear red flowers on Mother’s Day to symbolize life. After Mama died, I had to wear white flowers on Mother’s Day because we had lost our mother. It made me feel like an outcast.
“Dad did the best he could and made sure we had everything we needed. My older sister was a teacher, so she helped us with schoolwork. I grew up equipped to succeed. But there was a hole in my heart after Mama died. I sort of didn’t know who I was.
“For a long time, I tried to base my identity on work. I became a marketing manager for a tool manufacturing company, overseeing trade shows in many different parts of the country. That’s why I traveled so much. I felt guilty being away from you kids. Here I was staying in five-star hotels with sunken bathtubs while you guys were at home eating beans and weenies.”
He stopped and looked as if he were working himself up to say something. “In 1992, I traveled to a convention in St. Louis. A Caucasian businessman from Arkansas approached me. He started speaking to me in the contemporary street vernacular.” That’s how Dad talked, always very precise in his diction.
“‘Yo, my brother, what’s with the B2B?’ this guy said to me. He went on like that. Finally I asked him what he was doing.
“‘Just keeping you honest,’ he said with a laugh.
“‘I know who I am, and I don’t need you to tell me,’ I responded.
“That wasn’t the only time things like that happened to me. You want to know one of the reasons why I worked so hard? Because of the discrimination I faced. I had to work twice as hard to get as far ahead as other guys did.
“But I’ll tell you something. Even after I overcame all that and succeeded in my profession, I discovered work wasn’t the solid foundation I thought it would be. It brought me no great joy. My joy, and my strength, came from God and my family. I worked as much as I had to—but not one iota more. I had to learn to find that balance.”
His expression softened. “I see you striving for that balance too, Nyon. Here’s my advice. Pour everything you can into your family. Make God your number-one priority, your family second, and everything else will fall into place. Follow those principles, and you and Soroya and the kids will be okay.”
I’ve told Dad’s story all at once here, but in fact it came out slowly over many cups of coffee. Our conversations became a standing date. Dad never said exactly why he opened up to me like that, but I think maybe it was because I had opened up to him, asking him to tell me about himself.
The more we talked, the more I realized Dad was exactly the mentor I needed. He was right. We were more alike than I knew. And his advice, born of struggles I hope I never have to face, is timeless.
These days, I put God first, family second. So far everything else is falling into place.
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