Fatherhood Series: When Your Child Asks, Where Is My Father?
I avoided the word ‘dad’ with my daughter for a long time. Shit, I still do. To y'all, I call him ‘Sperm Donor.' The reason why I call him that is because ‘dad’ and ‘father’ hold a certain weight. It means something. It is a title that is earned not through biology, but through presence.
Almost one month after Zi’s seventh earth day, she says, “Andre is not my dad. He is my grandpa! Who is my dad?”
My mouth open. I never told her that Andre was her father. She assumed he was. I just never corrected the assumption.
I anticipated and nervously hoped that this moment would never come. I imagined the conversation countless times before. Now, the moment was here. What was I going to tell my daughter with three plaited pony tails hanging over her wide eyes?
“Ma, who is my father?”… “Where is he?”… “I want to meet him”
I remember my own father through my mother's voice. I never knew him, personally. I will never recognize his voice. Or how his arms feels wrapped elbow to elbow with mine. I will never know how he sounds when he laughs. Or the smell of his farts.
It wasn’t until I went to the Dominican Republic through the first A Love Adventure Project that I got to meet my paternal side of my family. I met my father outside of my mother’s voice. They told me stories that made me realize how much I am my father’s daughter.
So, now as my daughter stands there, demanding to know about her other half. Tears lined my irises, I tell her his name.
“Where is he?” she asks.
“I don’t know.” I honestly don’t know the details.
“Why are YOU crying, Mom?”
“Because you aren’t the only person he left, Zi. He made a choice to leave and that is his choice. I will always be here for you. I will be your mom and dad if you need me to.”
At this point, Zi is tearing. She yells out and grabs a diary I bought her from the 99 cents store. When I saw the black locked journal, with neon colored peace signs, I knew I should cop it. Perhaps it was divine intervention that I went in there to buy my weekly candles for my altar and so happened to buy the journal on the same day she happens to asked me a crucial question. She cracks it open and writes:
May 13 2014
My Grandpa is not my dad he is my Grandpa My real dad is a boy he in jale Now I’m sad I will oways remember him He will oways will be my dad I will love him the way he is Because I love him I cry and I will oways oways oways oways love him….
She reads it out loud without me asking. I sit there speechless as she reads it. Where did this brave heart of a child come from? Why is this moment not as tragic as I imagined? I have some possible ideas as to why:
1. Zi is allowed to tell me exactly how she feels
With Zi, I set the tone that all emotions are acceptable, even hate. I hear so many parents say, "Don't say hate. Hate is a strong word." I think that is one of the most damaging things you can say to a person—to not let them say exactly what they think they feel. It is also ignorant. We all have felt hate before. We've even felt it towards people we love deeply. There are a lot of strong words out there. Love is a strong word and you will never hear people say to their children to not use the word love. So, why not hate?
Zi is allowed to say that she hates me. She is allowed to correct me when she thinks I could do better. There is a fine line though. The line is that she cannot yell at me. The point is that I need to always know where I stand in this relationship with Zi, and a part of knowing that means that I have to accept her full honesty. I know so many 'old school' folks who cannot understand this notion of letting my daughter say what she feels. That is just their little ego, telling them that someone 'below' them must respect them.
Above all, my daughter needs to know how to communicate, without violence, when her feelings are uncomfortable. She needs to learn how to lose her cool at home, so when she grows up, she knows how to deal with her feelings effectively. Telling her to repress them will not create a sound human. She needs to learn to express all aspects of herself, so that she doesn't traumatize/dehumanize herself or others.
In my mother's house, we yelled and put each other down when we were mad. Or I was told that there were things I was allowed to say, which meant that I wasn't allowed to be me fully. That will not be my child. My daughter will understand choice. Choice means you will make mistakes, even with language. The point, with me, is to let that crap out. No healthy body holds on to their shit.
2. I never talk shit about her father (around Zi)
The 'Sperm Donor' met Zi when she was a toddler. After that initial meeting, we argued all the time. Not only was it hard emotionally because we still had mixed feelings for each other, but it just sucked to try and co-parent with an inconsistent person. He would make promises to spend time with Zi and not show up. He would promise to go half on daycare and not do it. We would argue because he wanted to have access to me, while he had another woman. All in all, it was a headache. So, when I was feeling like shit, Zi sensed it.
I would tell her that it had nothing to do with her. I innocently explained to her that mami was stressed because she had an argument with a friend. That was that. I dealt with my problems without involving Zi. I paid my bills and reminded myself that this was a choice I made wholeheartedly. I had my mother and close friends to rely on. Thank God. Why should I stress someone who couldn't take his role as a father seriously?
But, above that, I want Zi and him to have a clean slate in creating their own narrative. Or I want her to have a chance to create one with someone else without losing hope.
3. He didn't want you
This one is crucial. It deals with language. I will never slip my lip and say that Zi was abandoned. My daughter is not a castaway, she was not deserted, or isolated.
Zi understands that people make choices. Sometimes those choices suck. We do not need to judge them. He left. That was his choice. As fucked up as it seems, he has the right and autonomy to make that choice.
He isolated himself because of the choices he made. He drowned in these streets when he created an island for himself and was snatched off of it.
I told his mother that it might be a blessing in disguise. At least now he is safe from himself and others.
The only thing that matters to me is a well-adjusted child. Maybe this initial discussion is ideal. Maybe it will get worse. Maybe it will get better. All in all, I am here for all aspects of her journey. I am so thankful for Zi's independence. I will not skew her away from the way she feels. EVER. I will navigate it with her while I have the honor of being a part of her boat. Because one day, I will set her out to sea completely complete.