My grandfather (R.I.P.) did not talk much. But when he did, I made sure I listened—even if I had to eavesdrop. To this day, his words about finding a woman and being a father are my foundation. His language and delivery were simple, but like twin icebergs: a little on top, a whole lot more beneath the surface.
On finding the right woman: “She should make your insides smile. The nice hair, bosom, hips and legs are great… until they aren’t. If your penis smiles before your heart does, you won’t be together for long. If you are together for a long time, it won’t be quality. You have to look at her and the heat starts in your chest and moves through the rest of your body. Not lustfully, but you want to lay with her and watch her sleep.”
And on parenting: “You cannot be around each other all the time. If you’re up under each other every day, what are you going to talk about? How are you going to surprise each other? You even need to be away from your kids. The time we spend together should make sense. I want it to mean something. The only way for this to happen is if I get the hell away from all of you, just for a little while. Then, when we are together, we can be interesting to each other. Why do you think I fish so much?”
This second point was appropriate and useful years ago when I met a young couple about to have their first child.
The way this young brother looked toward his very pregnant girlfriend was beautiful. As she waddled into a restaurant, his eyes followed her, a smile on his face. It was easy to imagine he was trying to will his love into her and the baby she carried. He turned to look at my daughter and I as we giggled and drank hot chocolate, and his smile got even bigger. He asked, “Anything I need to know before mine comes? Any rules?”
When most parents speak to new (or soon-to-be) parents, they always point out the negatives. “You’ll lose sleep,” or “You won’t believe how much money you’ll spend.” These things can be true, but there’s so much more to being a parent than the minor discomforts that so many magnify into gigantic problems.
I shared with him what my grandfather told me, then explained that there were very few rules for being both a good partner and a good father:
Be honest. Be attentive. Be curious. Be faithful. Be loving.
But the one “be” that’s never emphasized enough (in the way I feel it should be) is, “Be yourself.”
You are never just a father, just a partner or just a husband, I told him. It is always you “and.” You and your baby, you and your wife. You and your job, you and the 1,000,001 daily responsibilities you have to attend to. In the midst of all of this, it’s remarkably easy to lose the core of yourself, the reason why your wife/partner fell in love with you in the first place.
When I saw his smile creep southward, I clarified what I meant.
Whatever you did before starting a family, find a way to continue doing it. If you wrote, you have to continue writing. If you played an instrument, keep playing. It may seem that the time is not there, but it is. You just have to make some sacrifices. And the primary sacrifice you have to make is time with your family. This may seem antithetical to family life, but it is the very thing that will make you a more effective parent and partner.
I acknowledged what I was saying was contradictory, but necessary. So much of the anti-Black-male propaganda routinely disparages our abilities to raise children or be effective partners. So to combat this, many of us overcompensate by being around all the time. We allow no space between our families and us, and then we begin resenting our families for not allowing us to “do us.” The problem is that we’re holding ourselves back. We are the only barriers to engaging in activities we enjoyed before our lives changed in this monumental way.
You have to steal the time to keep that special part of you alive. Whether you get up earlier or stay up later, you have to continue to do you (as long as it doesn’t reflect negatively on your family). If not, as my grandfather said, time with your family won’t mean anything.
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.