Bringing Up Daddy
Wednesday, September 5, 2007.
By Mark Anthony Neal
I have been quite open about the fact that father-hood has fundementally changed my life and the work that I do. My oldest daughter--the "baby girl diva"--turned 9 years-old recently and I thought I'd take a moment to acknowledge how much she means to me. The expanded version of this essay appears as chapter 4 of New Black Man.
We were heartbroken. I was at a conference in Houston when my wife finally got through to me by cell phone to tell me the news that all potential adoptive parents dread.
Folks privy to the adoption process are all too familiar with the possibility that at the last hour, a woman, who months earlier agreed to give her unborn child up for adoption, will take one look at her newborn baby and change her mind about giving the child up for adoption.
My wife and I kept our impending adoption a secret to just about everyone including parents, close friends and even our four-year-old daughter, for that very reason. So here I was alone, on the brink of tears, walking through a FAO Schwarz toy store in Houston, looking at the toys and stuffed animals I wasn’t going to buy for our newborn daughter.
I was also relieved. Camille Monet, as we had planned to name the newborn girl, was to be our second adopted child. My wife and I had talked for some time about adopting a second child, but the reality was that I wasn’t looking forward to having another baby in the house. The often prohibitive cost of adoption conspired to keep Misha Gabrielle our only child, as I looked forwarded to giving her all of the love and support that come with being an only-child (as I was). My ambivalence about adopting a second child caused me to revisit my hesitancy to adopt four years earlier.
My wife and I spent five years or so trying to conceive, including numerous consultations about in vitro fertilization. Adoption was always a last resort and one that I was prepared to be just that, as we waited for the research around in vitro fertilization to improve to the point that it was a viable option for us. In our early thirties at the time my wife was unwilling to wait and in one tear-filled episode finally convinced me that adoption was our only option.
At the time I was like so many black men, who viewed the process of getting a women pregnant as an affirmation of our masculinity—think of how many black men describe their kids as their seeds—particularly in a society that has historically denied us the fullest expression of our masculinity. Thus the idea that I couldn’t produce “seed”, somehow meant that something was wrong with me—that I was less than a man. As long as we didn’t adopt, I could always say that our childlessness was a “lifestyle choice.”
My visions of fatherhood and manhood, for that matter, were naturally influenced by the black man I called “daddy.” Old-school in every since of the word, from his Georgia-bred slowness and assortment of Old Spice bottles to the way he counted his money—in the dark—while my mother and I slept, I can’t say that my father taught me anything about fatherhood other than the fact that a good father—a good man—put in a days work and provided for his family.
Save Friday nights in the summer when he allowed me to walk with him to the bodega to get beer, cigarettes and pork rinds and the Sunday mornings when I shared the sounds of the Mighty Clouds of Joy, The Dixie Hummingbirds, B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland with him, I can’t say that I remember my father as parenting presence. Certainly he was of a generation of men who accepted that things like changing diapers, boiling bottles and making formula was considered women’s work.
Because adoption caused me to reassess my ideas of what black manhood meant—give serious thought to the very rigid ways that we define black masculinity in America—I was also forced reconsider what roles fathers play in the parenting process. Though I had considered myself a feminist long before I became a father, it was the birth and adoption of my daughter that forced me to understand that a shared parenting process was as important as notions that women should get equal pay for equal work.
It certainly wasn’t easy. I’ve never been dutiful about picking up after myself and my wife has always had to prod me (sometimes under threats of violence) to do things like mop the kitchen floor or even take out the trash. And I guess that somewhere in my upbringing I accepted that housework, including childcare, was the kind of domestic work that was naturally assigned to the women in the house. Virtually every family-oriented television show I’ve watched in the last 37 years had confirmed that fact to me.
In steps the brown-skinned shortie, who we affectionately referred to as the “baby-girl diva” when she was a baby. Misha Gabrielle was born pre-mature (a premie!), coming into the world three weeks before she was supposed to be here. She was indeed our miracle baby, as we brought her home with us less than a month after we first walked into the adoption agency to get information about the process (nobody ever believes us when we tell them this).
It’s like she knew we were the adoptive parents she was supposed to be with and willed herself into the world before scheduled just so we would be the ones to adopt her. I can honestly say that she has fundamentally changed my life. The very spirit that brought her into the world early she brought to her role as my daughter as if it was her ordained duty to make me an engaged father and a better man.
The demands of my wife’s professional career often meant that I couldn’t simply see myself as a part-time baby-sitter, as one brother once described spending time with his kids. Neither as the one who just picked up our daughter from school, but as a co-nurturer, who for most of my daughter’s life has prepared the family dinner, done the grocery shopping (that’s an article unto itself), given my daughter her nightly baths and put her down to sleep at night—things I can rarely remember my own father doing.
Granted my dad worked a 60-hour week (ten hours a day, six days a week), but even if his schedule had been less rigid, there was never an expectation that he would be more engaged parent.
Both my parents were the product of a generation of blacks who really believed that black men were incapable of playing such a role, so even when those women felt imposed upon at time, there was little drama when say the baby was crying and homie sat there motionless in the living room drinking a beer and watching the baseball game, while mom was in the kitchen cooking Sunday dinner. I’m not saying that all black families function this way thirty years ago, but it was clearly an accepted trend.
Because of my flexible work hours as a college professor and writer, I was often the one charged with daycare duty and sick days and it was during those many, many hours riding around in the car listening to Veggie Tales tapes and Lenny Kravitz, sitting in Starbucks reading Faith Ringhold picture books, walking across my campus and playing tackle in the living room that we formed the ultimate father-daughter bond.
I began to refer to her as my “Soul Sister”. She literally helped save my life as the demands of parenting forced me to get treatment for a debilitating case of Sleep Apnea that was threatening to deprive me of my energy, spirit and ultimately a healthy future.
Ironically, I’ve found myself offended on those occasions that folk assume that the time I put in with and for my daughter is somehow an aberration—like when I go into children’s clothing stores to buy a cute pair of shoes or a sweater for my daughter and the salesperson ask me if I want a gift-box as if the only reason why a man would be in a store like that was because he was buying a gift.
Even worse, those folks who see just how attentive I am to my daughter and want to bestow the Nobel Peace Prize of parenting on me simply they’ve never seen a black man in that light. And I admit there are times that I have to resist patting myself on the back for doing the kinds of things, that society would have us believe, black man were genetically incapable of. What I do is not exceptional—it come with the territory of being a parent in the 21st century.
When I talk with so many of my friends and colleagues who are fathers or see the number of public figures like Chicago Cubs manager Dusty Baker or New Jersey Net star Jason Kidd alter their lifestyles so that their children can be part of their professional life, I realize that there are many black men, who are dramatically trying change how black men view the parenting process. I swear I nearly break out in tears every time I hear Talib Kweli’s “Joy” where he shares the details of the birth of his two children.
Four-year-old Misha Gabrielle was with my wife and I the day after Thanksgiving as we sat in a local restaurant. It was our first time “out” since we heard that we would not be adopting a second child. Symbolically, the day out was an acknowledgement that we were finally moving on from a very painful and disappointing situation.
It was while sitting there, as we thought about using the money we set aside for the adoption to plan a trip to Disney World, that we got the call on my cell phone from our lawyer, letting us know that the birth-mother had again changed her mind and decided to go ahead with the adoption. Camille Monet has been with us since December of last year, a day before my birthday.
These days, my notions about my masculinity are firmly tied to how good of a parent I am to my two daughters. Despite my hang-ups initially having the new baby in the house has been a breeze and I’m more confident than ever in my skills as a father and co-nurturer.
It is me who is now asking my wife, when are we going to adopt the next one. I’m in a house full of women -included the two female cats - and I’m thinking it’s time to bring a boy into them mix, if only so that they’ll be another black boy in the world, who will grow up to become an engaged father.
Mark Anthony Neal is the author of four books, including New Black Man. Neal is currently working on a study of black popular culture and black masculinity titled The TNI-Mixtape (NYU Press). He is Professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University. “Bringing Up Daddy” was originally published at Africana.com in 2003.
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