“My father didn’t tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it”
–Clarence Budington Kelland
Ask any one of my six siblings what they wished they had more of from their relationship with their father, and you’ll get the same answers. More affection. More love. Growing up, I learned very early on how fatherhood was portrayed and accepted in my household. That was my introduction to not only what it meant to be a father, but also a man–a black man. And this did not come without strict rules and expectations, which I learned from not so much what my father told me, but what he showed me.
For instance, I knew that when I came home from school, I could expect affection communicated differently by my father and mother. While I’d be greeted with a hug or kiss from our mother, my father preferred a different welcome. I’d have less than a half hour to sit down at the dining room table to complete my homework. The house rule was I could not leave the table until my homework was error-free. That was mandatory. And this homework came with the help of my father, who offered the type of affection that some of us know as “tough love.” It was nothing like what my mother offered, such as I love you or I care about you or You’re smart. No. It was always a blend of grabbing and pointing at the homework with less than a dozen words of frustration and anger towards the silly mistakes that I made from rushing. My dad knew exactly how to pay no mind to my feelings. I think tears were signs of forward progress for him.
This type of affection, one of tough love, was consistent throughout the course of my relationship with my father. Whether he was quarterbacking the neighborhood football game, organizing a weekend neighborhood cleanup, or watching me walk across the stage (and there were multiple stages), I learned that hugs, kisses or even the phrase “I love you–even after small wins or victories–did not exist. While most of my siblings were okay with this type of love, for some of us (i.e., all of my sisters)–myself included–wanted more.
As I grew older, I made a commitment that my son would never have to count how many times he hears the phrase “I love you” or receive outward affection and love. I made a commitment that I will not be limited by my upbringing and what I saw as fatherhood. Just because I didn’t receive outward love and affection from my father does not mean I can’t give it to my son.
When my fiancee and I received the news that we were having a boy, I remember being kind of in awe. It was a blessing to be able to intentionally break the cycle that I saw in my household. I was committed to dismantling the gender stereotypes around what it meant to be a father and what it meant to raise a boy. And I really felt like I was part of something special–something that was much bigger than me. Knowing other friends who had wished they had a more affectionate and loving father was inspiring to me as, now, a father. I’ll never forget this feeling.
And there’s nothing I would change about my relationship with my son. No changes at all. Nothing. I’m very proud of the countless hugs, kisses, and outwardly verbal expressions of love and affection that we share throughout each day. I’m proud to know that, even at seven months old, he appreciates and smiles at these gestures. And although he may not understand why my love and affection towards him is at an all-time high during every moment that we share (even when he is sound asleep), I’m pleased knowing that his definition of what it means to be a father and what it means to raise a boy is much more open and nurturing than mine could ever be at his age. That’s a win!
And I owe everything that I’ve become and everything I’ve learned to my wonderful parents, Tracy and Leoncio, Mom and Dad. Those two taught me everything about love and affection, whether good, bad, or in-between. But most importantly, they taught me how to love unconditionally, based on where you are and what you know.
That’s the greatest gift that I carry with me throughout this journey of fatherhood. As I continue to evolve as a father, as a man, and as a Black man, my relationship with my son will do the same. I love you, JT.