As I write this, my eldest daughter Lilah, a precocious, loving, curious and energetic five year old, sits beside me at our living room table playing on her tablet, while my 16 month old West, a strong-willed and even more curious toddler, sits on my lap. This would be a normal day for most parents of children, except Lilah is spending the summer here with us in Brooklyn—she moved to Houston with her mother early last year, right before the pandemic went into full-swing here in the U.S. West was born only a week after Lilah’s departure. Between suffering through postpartum following West’s birth, battling through high-functioning depression for the better part of Lilah’s early years while dealing with the grief of her no longer living in the same city as me, and a pandemic no average person could have predicted would have communities under lockdown for over a year, fathering and fatherhood has been anything but a linear experience for myself. Coupled with being a Black man and father in a world that would rather use my life as a data point and fodder for morning show debates. Lilah is here for the summer, and I’ve been long-distance parenting for more than a year.
Having to transition to Facetime bedtime stories and daily chats while watching two siblings develop a rapport and relationship via modern technology has been beautifully interesting, somewhat endearing, and at times, difficult. Having Lilah physically here for the summer has reminded me of not only how fragile time and our existence on this planet actually is, but also puts into perspective just how much being a father has changed my life, for the better.
I first found out I was going to be a father while sitting in my office in the Bronx, working at a non-profit in service of those returning home from bids. I was not ready. I was scared. I was suicidal. I was not in love. But I knew how to be responsible. I had only a high school diploma and some college under my belt, was still very much active in the nightlife/performance world, booking late night gigs, and enjoying the frills that came with being a somewhat known writer and poet in NYC. Fatherhood forced me to look proactively at who I was, and who I wanted to be.
I had demons, trauma that had yet to be fully engaged with, and knew I didn’t want any of my past hurts to show up in any way while raising my yet to be born child. I had to regroup and learn fast, in order to prepare myself for the road ahead, a road uncharted and a road that, quite frankly, no one could tell me how to walk. No other fathers—not my older brothers, my friends or even my own father—were me or had walked in my shoes. My father and I never really had much of a relationship. His struggles with PTSD, Bipolar Disorder, alcohol abuse and a host of other issues, kept him distant at best, and emotionally and physically abusive at times. The learning curve to being a father was a steep one.
Today, I realize that all the lives I lived and led prior to my children were preparing for this role, one of the greatest roles I’ve had the luxury and honor to be chosen for. My children are both independent of each other, vastly differently, but loved with all the fibers I have. Fatherhood will change you, if you let it. I’ve learned to be more fluid, more open, as my children see the world with new eyes; eyes that I too wish to learn from and through as I grow older. Fathers, be patient with your children—girls, boys, nonbinary children—no matter. Listen to them, let them teach you. We offer them boundaries, tools, love, kindness. They offer us wisdom, guidance, warmth, lessons.
Fathers, don’t let the past dictate how you parent; don’t let fear of what might be, of what happened or didn’t happen to you, tell you what is right or wrong for your children. Every child is different. How I parent Lilah is not how I can parent West—their needs and wants differ greatly. Fathers, please understand that co parenting means we share responsibilities and roles within our respective households. Fathers, please do show up for each other. Create and foster healthy community and conversations. The more we talk about what troubles us, what hurts us, what bothers us, the better the likelihood we heal from those same things.
Fathers, be good to yourselves. And be good to each other.
Joél Leon is a father, dreamer and storyteller. Follow him @joelleon.