Black Lives Matter / The End of My White Fatherhood

As I am challenged to keep improving and become a better parent to my mixed-race son, I’ve had to face the death of a very, very large part of my parenting: the White Parent. Let me explain:

All parents have worries and concerns about sending their children out into the world. White Parents don’t have to worry about their child being bullied, hurt, or killed because of their skin color.

All parents want their children to succeed in school. White Parents don’t have to worry about their child being passed over for opportunities or being labeled a “troublemaker” because of implicit racial bias.

All parents want their child to get a great job. White Parents don’t have to worry about their child being passed over for a great job opportunity or being paid substantially lower because of implicit racial bias.

All parents want their children to be safe. White Parents don’t have to worry about their child being killed by police at an alarming rate.

These are not things I worried about growing up and going through school. And as far as I know my parents didn’t worry about them either. The advice given to me was standard for white suburban America: “Work hard and you can achieve anything”; “Stay out of trouble and you’ll be fine”. And while my experiences (and those of my family) have proven that advice sound, I know enough now to worry that the same advice will not hold true for my son.

I must admit I was warned. Family members of mine expressed concern and urged me not to marry interracially because they didn’t want to see me go through hardships or have a child of mine (and theirs) endure them as well. But the heart wants what it wants, and to reject love out of fear of hardship is poor advice at best. So here I am, a white father but no longer a White Parent. Worrying and just shaking my head are not the examples I wish to set for my son.

What’s important is that my child knows not only that his life matters to me, but that the lives of children and adults like him matter to me as well. That I am not content to turn a blind eye to injustice and “hope” that he is spared because sometimes he can “pass as white”. That I, in the group of the oppressor, will use my advantages to systematically dismantle the barriers of inequality for him and for everyone like him. That I will defend him and reaffirm his and his mother’s worth even when my family members do not. That I will not accept “that’s just the way he/she is” as an excuse for people not doing the work to change. That Black Lives Matter to me, to his mother, and to anyone else we choose to accept as family and friends.

The path forward for my son will be neither straight nor easy. But at least he will know I am there with him in much different ways than I had previously imagined. Onward and upward.

 

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Fire Suppression.

“Don’t cry, you’re not a baby, are you?” These words, possibly not verbatim, were uttered to my child on his second day of preschool/day care here in Eindhoven. BY. A. TEACHER. He revealed this to me on our walk to the park after work today as he mentioned he was sad because mommy and daddy weren’t at preschool with him.

What was supposed to be a casual and exciting conversation about how his day went turned into a counterbalance lesson and comfort and support talk. About how everyone feels sad and sometimes people cry when they’re sad and that’s okay. About how mommy and daddy will always come back for him after preschool. About how sometimes thinking of happy thoughts (like being with mommy and daddy) helps us feel better. About how if a teacher tells him this again that he should say that “daddy said it’s okay to cry.”

It took me a few hours, a bike ride, and a generous slice of cake to get past the anguish and sadness I felt for him. As I mentioned in my last post, the kid is doing heroic things all while trying to evolve and mature. Feelings are powerful, overwhelming, and scary, and being in a completely foreign environment with your primary sources of comfort and security removed only amplifies those feelings. Not that I need to validate what he was feeling in any way, but holy shit of course there would be tears!!

As for the teacher, I’m still livid. If we were back at home I’d be camped out in front of the office overnight, primed for a Wolverine-style discussion with the staff as soon as the clock ticked 8:01. But I’m not at home. I’m in a foreign country where I don’t completely understand the culture, language, teaching methods, or societal norms. So unfortunately I have to settle for damage control which, ultimately, will probably happen more often than being able to change the system. And I know the teacher was trying to comfort a scared and upset child who doesn’t know him/her, doesn’t speak the language, and hasn’t adapted to this new environment. But still, I’m livid.

How many times is this exact same message carried to our children? Suck it up, buttercup. Boys don’t cry. It’s not that bad. It could be worse. Quit being a baby. You’re a big boy now. I’ll give you something to cry about. All of these, all of these are creating unhealthy expectations of emotional control and suppression. Everyone has a right to their own feelings sans judgement from others, especially when they are only three years old. And if there’s one thing I know for a fact, it’s that emotional suppression causes scars and dysfunction that are extremely difficult to overcome and heal.

We can do better. We will do better. And we’ll cry if we want to.

Good Hair

Dip the cup into the water and fill it up. Gently place my palm against his forehead to avoid spilling into his eyes. Slowly pour over his head. Repeat until completely saturated. Add conditioner. Rinse. Add leave-in conditioner. Then, with Dave Wyndorf of Monster Magnet, Joe Duplantier of Gojira, or Devin Townsend of Strapping Young Lad punctuating the background, the ritual starts.

Slowly, methodically, my fingers snake through his curls, catching on knots and tangles. There’s much work to be done tonight since bicycle helmets have their own unique way of adding to the nest of tangle-opolis. And sometimes he’s not as amenable to this 10-minute exercise in patience, so in some ways it feels like the clock is ticking here. Yet I find myself enjoying it. My hands move in seemingly random yet fully intentional patterns. Extract the curls with my fingers, find the knot, slowly yet precisely unwrap the strands. After doing this nearly every bath for at least the past 2 years I no longer need to focus; I can meld the movements and the music into one.

I love everything about his hair. The curious intersection of tight ringlets and loose waves. The thick, gentle knot he’s weaved just behind his left ear from constantly twirling his finger through. That it can turn into this beautiful, voluminous afro when it’s both wet and dry, curls falling gently over his ears and down his forehead. I can only hope he loves his hair as much as I do.

But then it hits me. As much as I want him to take pride in his hair, there are millions of people who haven’t or don’t. People have been scorned, shamed, bullied, beaten, and even killed because of this hair, the roots of its culture, and the illogical and unfounded threat it supposedly represents. Generations of children, women, and men have seen this hair as “unnatural”, as something broken to be “fixed” in order to look pretty, to look human in the eyes of others. Billions of dollars are spent every year on products designed to make this hair – a natural gift – look like “white hair” to avoid being seen as the other, a reject, an outcast.

This is something I’ve never had to live through and not something I want my son to experience. And yet I need to accept that he most probably will, especially if we stay in this little town where we live much longer. This is one of many lessons we will have to teach him about acceptance, being accepted, and loving who you are and from where you come. These lessons may be difficult as I acknowledge the world we live in but above all else he can look to me and his mother for wisdom, guidance, and support.

But even then isn’t it much easier for me to lead by example when I, as a cis white man, am the least likely to be oppressed? Even as his advocate, defender, and protector, will he not eventually turn to me and say, “Dad, you can never understand what it’s like to be me”? And for me to then have to painfully admit that I can’t??? Can I ever be more than a parent, an educator, a safe harbor, and a comforter?

Then a literal splash of water hits my face, preventing me from exploring these real-yet-philosophical depths further. This water is cold which signals the end of bath time. I open the drain, slowly lift my son out of the tub, and wrap a towel around him.

I watch the tiny droplets of water bead up and dangle at the end of his corkscrew curls, unaware neither of the safe space from whence they came nor the cold reality of the hard bathroom floor they will meet when they fall. I pull my son in close and hug him tightly; this is a metaphor for everything.

Navigate.

Picture the scene. I arrive home from work, unlock the front door, and step inside. Immediately I hear the frustrated cry of my 2-1/2 year old son as I see him running toward me with sadness on his face and tears in his eyes. Mom isn’t home and Grandpa looks on, despairingly, from a distance. “He just woke up from a nap and started crying, not sure what’s wrong,” he says.

It’s clear that all the usual remedies have failed, and I know Grandpa has tried his hardest. My son isn’t crying hard, but certainly crying enough for us to not understand what he’s trying to say. I pick him up and offer the usuals: Snack? Water? Toys? How’s the diaper doing? It needs to be changed but I know he’ll have none of it right now. The last thing we both need is a dirty diaper battle on top of this.

We retreat upstairs to his room, one of his comfort spaces. I still can’t understand what he’s saying but I see that look of desperation and in his eyes. “Help me,” his eyes tell me, fighting back panic. “Please figure out what’s wrong and fix it.” I’ve seen this look before, and briefly my mind flashes back to the times when he was just an infant and all I could do was meet his eyes with panic of my own. I certainly had no idea what to do back then so we both learned together the hard way.

But this time is different. I’ve learned and grown as a parent. “Do you want a hug?” I ask softly. I hear a murmur through the sniffling that sounds like a yes. So standing there in the center of his room, with him still in my arms, I hold him close, his cheek to my chest. With one frail arm wrapped around my neck and one around my side, I start slowly rocking back and forth, just like bedtime when he was younger. No words, no songs, just the gentle rocking he’s known his entire life.

Slowly, I feel him relax, his breathing calmer, tears no more. He woke up with some pretty big and scary emotions for his little self. Being a toddler is hard enough when things are going well, let alone when these giant invisible forces take over your mind and body. Did he want his usual snack and water after waking up from a nap? Absolutely. But his mood jammed him up with a vengeance, and he didn’t know how to navigate those dark waters.

He knows now that I can be his boat, gently rocking in the waves, soft warm blanket around him, guiding him to shore with a calm yet bright light showing the way.

Grief and Love

We had to euthanize Sandy, our sweet, beautiful, 8-year-old family dog this week. She had cancer. It probably started in her abdomen or bladder and rapidly spread to her lungs. When she was diagnosed the vet said she had 6-8 weeks to live. She made it a little over 2 before we did the right thing and said our goodbyes. She was a wonderful companion and friend, not only to my wife and I but to our son as well. She loved him dearly and they grew on each other. Lately, “I love Sandy” would spring forth from my son’s mouth along with some gentle hugs. A Boy and His Dog indeed.

Trenton & Sandy

Photo Dec 26, 3 17 29 PM

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo May 25, 5 17 50 PM

As hard as it was for us to go through this, my wife and I made a conscious effort to guide my 2-1/2 year old son through it as well. This required much more strength than I ever thought I had, but I wanted my son to understand what was happening and know that we were here for him. Here’s what else I wanted him to know:

The truth. We tried very hard to explain to him exactly what was happening so he wouldn’t feel blindsided later. I also wanted him “Sandy is very sick and in pain. Mommy and Daddy are going to take her to the vet and say goodbye. She is going to be euthanized and die so she won’t hurt anymore. She won’t be coming back home.”

It’s OK to be sad and cry.Mommy and Daddy are sad,” was the observation repeated quite a bit over the past 2 weeks. “Yes, we are.”

Emotions are scary. It’s OK to work through them however you need to. We will be patient, loving, and understanding as you work through your feelings and realize what’s happening.

We help each other through the bad times. As a family we’re all in this together and we need each other to get through it.

Our pets are family. When they hurt, we hurt. We love them like we love each other.

We must do the right thing for our loved ones even if it hurts us. Euthanasia is a gift we can give the animals we love. We surely will experience pain, grief, and loss, but this is the right thing to do when our pets are faced with suffering.

We will cherish the memories. All the photos, videos, and experiences of the happy times. We will celebrate Sandy’s life in all the happiness and love that it was.

Goodbye my sweet Sandy. We love you.

Photo May 24, 4 37 42 PM

 

 

 

 

Unimaginable

Parenting an infant is hard. There’s no way around it. It may be harder for some than others, but it’s still f0cking hard. So when I read stories like (**TRIGGER WARNING**)this(**TRIGGER WARNING**), I’m flooded with multiple, sometimes conflicting emotions. Grief, horror, anger, sadness, possibly all at the same time. But yet, on some level, also empathy. At 20 years old, this father was basically still a child himself. And obviously a 4-month-old infant’s only communication mechanism is crying. But prolonged crying takes a toll on a new parent, especially if your efforts to soothe and console are all for naught (as was often the case with me). That type of stress – usually combined with fatigue – can send the brain into some really dark places. Look, I don’t condone what this father did at all. It’s horrible beyond imagination, and even in my darkest of moments I never considered something like that. But there’s a reason why playing recordings of babies crying inconsolably is an effective military torture techniques. There’s a reason why so much effort has been put into stopping Shaken Baby Syndrome.

So what should we do? We should offer as much support as we absolutely, possibly can to new parents. I’ve discussed on this blog at length how difficult it is to parent alone. Sometimes it’s necessary even if it’s not desired. So we should offer family support, community support, education, relief, anything to help. Because sometimes even the littlest of help can save lives.

Failure.

My Dearest Son,

I love you dearly. I love you more than I ever thought I could love another human being, including myself. And for that reason, I have to say with meaning and feeling as deep as the universe, I am sorry. I’m trying as hard as I can, and in the end it isn’t enough. Most likely because I’m just not capable and have too much pride to admit it. It certainly isn’t for lack of want or lack of love, please know that.

The biggest piece of advice I will ever be able to give you is this: Don’t become like me. Because if you become like me, this is the life you will lead, and as you can tell, other than your presence it’s not turned out all that well for me. Realize my flaws for what they are. Get angry with me because I haven’t prepared you for the world. Get angry that I can’t teach you patience, empathy, communication, selflessness, listening, remembering, or any of the skills that I lack to develop and maintain healthy relationships. Get furious at me for not doing my job as a parent. Resent me for having to look elsewhere for these lessons. God knows you’re entitled to feel that way.

What’s happening now is not normal, not the way I want it to be. It’s in my power to stop it and turn it all around, yet I struggle mightily with how to do that, failing at every turn. And as long as I struggle and fail, you and Mom both suffer. And neither of you deserve that.

I don’t know what the future holds, but please, please take my advice as soon as you can. It may turn out to be the best thing I can do for you.

I’m sorry.