For the first time in 11 years, I read the novel, Things Fall Apart. As an English teacher, I honestly feel that each time you read a book, you see different things. Although it has always been a challenging read due to the spousal abuse, this time, I read this book in the mindset of a parent and husband.
The protagonist Okonkwo is not the most liked of characters and a poor father at best. This is due in large part to his being influenced by his relationship with his father. In addition, his father is not much of a role model. Everything Okonkwo does is in response to how little he thought of his father. His father’s failure and ineptitude motivated Okonkwo.
I understand this motivation all too well.
My father was pretty much out of my life by age 5. I spoke with him on the phone at age 12, then reconnected with him a few years ago after 25 years. Although we have been working on creating a relationship, that’s a long time without talking to a parent. Honestly, I didn’t know what he sounded like or looked like. Most of my life, I viewed my absentee father as a deadbeat. The guy who left me. My only memories of him were negative. He gave me cheap toys for Christmas that would break before New Year’s. He would pick me up to spend time with me and leave me with family members or random people so he could do something else. He set the bar pretty low for fathers.
Fill-ins for an absentee father
Who are the fathers that had a parenting style I could model? Maybe Heathcliff Huxtable, who those of us of a certain generation idolized or wished was our father. Who wouldn’t have enjoyed his zerberts or winter time BBQ’s? Maybe Chris Gardner of The Pursuit of Happyness, whose sole motivation was the survival of his son at all costs.
This is not to say that I lacked for male role models. There were certainly some in my middle school, where I connected with one of the few men of color that have ever taught me. I remember talking with him often and knowing he truly was looking out for me. He knew I was challenged by being one of only a handful of black folks at the school. He even took me to purchase my first pair of track shoes, when he knew they were pricey. As close as I was to my mother, it was meaningful to have this connection with a black male. For that, I thank my old coach and advisor, Bill McBride.
Thankfully, my mother was beyond competent. Through her influence and my utter disgust for my father, I began to behave and perform in ways that would not only make my mother proud, but would also make my father jealous and sad. My academic success in independent schools and degrees from two great universities, my sports prowess, my career in education, the pride I take in being a sensitive and thoughtful man. All of these things are connected to my wanting to not be my father. What I wanted was to show him what he missed. I wanted him to know that I was able to thrive. I wanted him to regret his decision to leave. I wanted to distance myself so far from him that I wanted desperately to change my middle name, which is his first name.
I recently came to the conclusion that I am the man I am today because of my father and despite my father. My father unwittingly motivated me. His “parenting” also inspired me to be a strong parent. The second my daughter was born, when I was able to hold her and her existence became so much more real, it became impossible to imagine not being in her life. No way would I be unreliable. Or not present. Or a negative influence in her life. My “relationship” with my father is certainly a reason why I am a stay at home dad. I want my daughter to have a lasting and strong bond with her father. So, thank you, Dad, for being an absentee father and allowing me to create my own model of fatherhood, one that works for my family. You know what? I am straight killin’ this fatherhood thing.
But when it comes down to it, my mother’s efforts need to be commended. If she wasn’t so strong, smart, and thoughtful, I would not have been able to understand the magnitude of my successes. For that, and so much else, I am happy to call her Mom, and give her my sincere thanks.
A version of this absentee father tale first appeared on The Brown Gothamite.