When my daughter was born, I didn’t experience the love at first sight that so many parents talk about. In fact, I felt nothing. As I cut her cord, I descended into thinking that it was this absence of feeling that caused my father to leave me when I was less than a day old. As I held her swaddled nine-pound body, I descended further into wondering if there was going to be something wrong with me. Did I have an anti-child gene? Was I an absent father sleeper agent—as soon as the baby arrived, I’d activate and get as far away from it as I possibly could? Would I stay around?
It took about four hours for the wave of love to damn near knock me off my feet. It was so all-consuming that I couldn’t imagine a time that I was not her father, and she not my daughter. The love I had for her was absolute. But this isn’t the case for so many of our children. Their fathers leave, some never to be seen or heard from again.
Fathers were a myth where I grew up; a legend, kind of like the boogeyman. Some folks swore they saw some, but I could never verify their accounts. Believe me, I looked. And looked. And looked.
There are so many reasons provided why men leave their children fatherless, but it’s really time to stop making excuses for this abhorrent behavior. We don’t make excuses for cancer, so we need to stop explaining away why men refuse to be fathers to the kids they help create. I would argue that fatherlessness is just as much a health crisis as anything else affecting the Black community.
What kills me are the many conversations I’ve had that spring from “White men leave their kids, too.” So, not being a father to your child is a yardstick by which we are measuring equality? Or the other one: “You know how men are.” This is just as poisonous.
Let me put it plainly: If you choose to have vaginal intercourse, you are consenting to possibly getting your partner pregnant and having a baby. The old 1970s excuse (“I thought you were on the Pill”) no longer flies, if it ever did. You are responsible for your own contraception. If you do not want a kid, you need to wear a condom.
I don’t care if you wind up hating the woman you impregnate, you are responsible for and to the child the two of you produce. This shouldn’t be so hard to understand, but we’ve been complicit in allowing this behavior.
We need to stop promoting (and excusing) male privilege. Just because we’re men doesn’t mean we’re allowed to operate by a different set of social rules, especially when it comes to being a committed and involved parent. We need to be held accountable for our actions.
In the past, I’ve gone completely out of my way to intellectualize the reasons for Black men acting beneath themselves. I’d point to systemic racism, inter- and intra-generational trauma, poverty and a whole host of social ills affecting Black men. But this is the worst kind of paternalism, as it disallows for male privilege or personal responsibility. By absolving so many of us men from leaving our children, the behavior gets endorsed and then becomes accepted and acceptable. This isn’t to say that the system isn’t stacked against us; it is in so many ways. But we don’t have to succumb to the jagged paths that certain societal forces are attempting to trick us into following.
Children need their fathers. Single mothers have been holding it down for the longest, but they shouldn’t have to. The father should be there. I have looked into the eyes of too many young brothers and sisters starving for the love and attention of a father. And when they don’t get it from their own, there are way too many men who are all too willing to take advantage and do harm to them.
There needs to be a change in regards to what is expected from Black men. Compassion, love and responsibility shouldn’t be traits we assign to a few outliers, but qualities that are demanded from us all. But most importantly, we need to demand these of ourselves. Our children are depending on us.
Shawn Taylor is the author of Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity, and People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and daughter, and can be found sporadically on Twitter @reallovepunk.