For most of my life, I have kept to myself. While many of my friends and family would paint me as “popular” growing up, it was purely a defensive strategy. I grew up in a hard household, in a hard family, in an even harder community. Giving too much of yourself was like handing your enemies weapons to use against you. I worked to become popular so I could control the situation—any social situation—to make sure things went the way I wanted them to. Being the loudest, or the funniest, or the smartest person in a given room worked to deflect attention from me and put all of the focus on what I was saying or doing.
I almost lost my wife because the front I was putting up was so unquestionably artificial that my wife didn’t know the boundaries of the “public me” and the “intimate me.” Bless her for sticking it through and for giving me the space to leave behind my manufactured masculinity and sit (sometimes uncomfortably) in vulnerability. If my wife was, say, instrumental in bringing me up to at least a high school level of self-awareness and humility, our daughter ushered me through both undergrad and graduate school.
Aside from using popularity to insulate myself from others, I also used aloofness. I was so good at pretending to be so above it all, that all my friends came to me when they were struggling with that heart stuff. They figured (and I played the part) that I was so unaffected by anything that I’d be able to provide them with dispassionate, logical responses to all their questions.
I was so good at occupying my funny, cool guy/sage on the mountaintop spaces that I was never aware enough to even realize just how damaged I was—and that a significant amount of that damage was self-inflicted. Our daughter was the mirror I needed to truly see myself and to see just how much of a sham my life was.
Before the baby was born, my wife and I were engaged in breakup talks (happened a few times after the baby was born, but those are stories are best left for another time). I was ready to be single again, with the opportunity to not have to be emotionally vulnerable, to retreat to the comfort and utility of my disconnection. It was inviting.
But when we were told my wife was pregnant, something in me shifted… and it was painful. Me, the unloved son of two unlovable parents was going to be a dad. Me, the brotha who spent most waking moments protesting why he’d never want to father a child in this cold, cruel world—when in reality I didn’t think I was worthy enough to be a parent—was going to be someone’s daddy. Me, the guy who didn’t always keep his wife first in his mind and heart… How in the hell was I going to remotely be a good daddy?
It was like getting punched in the face by pure truth.
From the moment she was born, I thought of myself differently. No longer could I hide in books, small talk, or being the life of the party. I had to be her book, her conversation partner. I had to be the life of her party. I had to help raise a person worthy of this life we’re all blessed to live. And for this to happen, I had to transform. I had to retool my (self) image to reflect the man I wanted to be.
Everything I did was aspirational. I treated my life like a garden. I pruned and weeded and tilled and added new soil, so that only healthy things would grow there. I started to formulate connections, expectations, and considerations that linked my fatherhood to my broader masculine identity. I forced myself to ask hard questions of myself: Why kind of man was I? What kind of man did I need to be for my daughter, my wife, and for the world we shared? I’m still asking and answering those questions.
My parenting is a parallel process with my self-development. Every lesson I learn from parenting, I immediately see how the area of growth and knowledge can be applied to my life outside of being a parent (and a husband). And by far the biggest lesson I’ve learned and have implemented on the daily is that the kinder, more trusting, and more vulnerable I am to and with myself, the better off everyone around me will be.
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.