I decided to talk to my mother about my dad for the first time in my adult life. I think we managed to talk about him only twice in my teen years, aside from the random “your father left” talk. Thankfully, there weren’t many “your father’s an asshole” speeches like I see in the movies. But when I spoke with her, I asked her all these questions I never had before, like: What’s his last name? What was his personality like? What were his hobbies? What did he do for a living? She tried her best to answer them for me, but given it’s been 30-something years, she couldn’t remember every little detail. But for the first time, I had an impression of who he is. And soon after, when Jessie came over and we decided to Google him for the first time in my life, that impression turned into an actual image. It was pretty surreal.
The fact is, this absent person, my biological dad, left me with a huge void. Many of my successes and my mistakes alike have been the result of distracting myself from that void. When you have no blueprint and no formula for manhood, you look for external figures to guide you. You’re forced to figure it all out without a map, through trial and error, through an array of poor and good decisions. Oftentimes, I’ve felt like I’ve been walking the path of life with a blindfold over my eyes.
While my mentors couldn't teach me how to shave, as my absent father might have, they gave me the tools I needed to gain confidence.
As a young boy I was in constant search for an identity, always looking to fill the shoes of my absent father with a pro athlete, a rockstar, or a rapper that I admired. My heroes were characters like Ferris Bueller, 2Pac, NWA and heavy metal bands, and I reveled at the idea of pulling a fast one on somebody with authority. When I was a kid, my mother let me watch Eddie Murphy’s standup comedy, and movies like Rambo and Cheech and Chong. When I was 8 years old, I could recite all of Eddie Murphy's “Raw.” That may sound troubling to some, but it really allowed me to connect to a pain that I couldn’t yet understand. I liked how you could hide beyond your faults by actually exposing yourself and making fun of them. Comedy seemed therapeutic to me, and these people didn't seem bothered by their shortcomings.
I eventually found a handful of mentors in my life—my old boss Dave from Cleveland, my former teacher Mrs. Freedman, or my friends John and Brian—that I’ve followed and picked up character traits from. While they couldn't teach me how to shave, as my absent father might have, they gave me the tools I needed to gain confidence in my life.
Growing up, this old guy on the street would call me a “dead-end kid,” which was a group of teenagers who smoked cigarettes and made films in the 1930s. I was sort of a 1990s version of that. I always think about the great jazz journalist, Stanley Crouch, who said the black musicians in Duke Ellington’s band in the 1930s, who faced segregation every day, would act out because they wanted to prove their existence. For further reading: Jazz by Ken Burns on PBS Stanely's Wikipedia That makes a ton of sense to me, because I was always looking for validation and acceptance. I think part of the reason why I’m audacious, and why I can be a bit confrontational, is because I continually feel like I need to prove my existence to someone. I simultaneously feel like I don't deserve anything I have, and at the same time, I feel like I'm owed everything for my hard work.
I’ve done some research into fatherlessness, and it turns out that my story is a lot like that of many other fatherless kids. As a teenager, instead of studying and preparing for my future, I hung out with a rougher crowd and acted out a lot. I lost interest in school, abused drugs and alcohol, got in trouble with the law, and became disrespectful to my loved ones and to my community. I sought approval from my friends, from society, and most importantly, from myself. I searched for anything that could remove the emptiness I lugged around.
Right now, 41% of children are born to single mothers in the US, according to CDC. For women under 30, that rate is 53%. As Dr. Daniel Amneus explains in his book, The Garbage Generation, children who grow up in single-parent households are four times more likely to smoke cigarettes, five times more likely to commit suicide, eight times more likely to go to prison, nine times more likely to drop out of school, ten times more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, 20 times more likely to become rapists, and 32 times more likely to run away from home. There are also significant increases in teenage pregnancy, behavioral problems, and displaced anger, and males seem especially affected by this. How could growing up in a single-parent home have such drastic and wide-ranging, long-lasting effects? For further reading: NY Times: How Single Motherhood Hurts Kids The Atlantic: The Real, Complex Connection Between Single-Parent Families And Crime Elite Daily: The US Is Leading The Way In Fatherlessness And It’s Hurting Our Kids
What follows is something I am deeply proud of, something that has taught me an enormous amount about myself, and something that has enabled me to slowly become a stronger, more self-aware person. Despite growing up without a father, I’ve still managed to learn and grow from a wealth of positive templates and positive life experiences. But one of the most profound experiences I’ve had in my life is flying to Arizona to finally meet my biological father. After wavering back and forth about whether or not I would do this, I knew when I got off the phone with my mother that I had to do it. I had to do it for myself, to finally answer the question that has haunted me for my entire life. I also needed to do it for my future children, to be an example of forgiveness and understanding, and show them that they can change any story and be the hero of their own lives. The feeling was so alive inside of me, and the urge was so present in my stomach. In Sam Keen’s amazing book on manhood, Fire in The Belly, he writes, “Trust what moves you most deeply.” When I got off the phone with my mother, I knew I had to walk into that fire.
As Jessie and I traveled to Arizona, I started thinking about what exactly a father is. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a father as “one who institutes, calls into being: a constructor, a contriver, designer, framer, originator. Also one who gives the first conspicuous or influential example of.” Yes, “one who gives influential example of.” Exactly. And luckily, as I’ve already mentioned, I’ve had plenty of wonderful mentors in my life. I don't think looking for my dad now is about trying to fill some void I still carry. This is more about answering major questions I still have: Who is he? Where's he been? Will he meet me? How will I feel?
After being in Arizona for two days, I didn't have much luck meeting him quite yet. I called many different numbers that didn't reach him, and finally, with Jessie's conviction, we Facebook-messaged him. The morning of the day we were actually set to leave Arizona, he wrote me back. I called him that morning, and we talked for five minutes. Then he invited me to his house. I’ll never forget what he said: “I don't want the first time you meet me to be just some guy walking into a restaurant. I want you to see where I live, I want you to have an impression of who I am and what my life is like by meeting me at my house.”
My nerves were a wreck, I kept fidgeting between the radio and silence and repeating what I would say to him.
Meeting my biological father wasn't like any of the scenarios I had worried about. What happened that afternoon still feels incredibly personal, and I’m not going to go into all the details of who he is and what he remembers. He did tell me that he cheated on my mom, and that’s the real reason she left. Interestingly enough, my mother never told me that. Maybe she was protecting him? I learned that I am his only child and that he's divorced. He said that his decision not to try and find me stemmed from concerns about interfering with my life as a young boy. He didn't know what my mom had told me. I understand his logic, to a point, but I’ve also been a legal adult for a long time. He did say he knew he’d hear from me at some point in his life.
By the time we were ready to leave Arizona, I felt dizzy. We stopped off at the Phoenix Mountain Preserve while the sun was coming down, and everything felt so damn profound. You know that feeling, when everything just feels different: your conversations have a different taste, time feels more ephemeral, things you thought were important just don't feel that way anymore? That's how I felt all evening. We grabbed some food, took the rental car back and waited for our redeye flight back to NYC. I don’t know what my future with my dad will be, but I do feel very fortunate to have gone through this experience with my friend, Jessie.
I do believe that my biological father is wounded. A week after we met, he called and left me a message while I was overseas for work. Then he wrote me a Facebook message. He told me that he really wants to be in my life now, and that he has many regrets. However, I’m hesitant to let him in. He’s like so many others that have abandoned a child and only many years later live in a state of confusion and loneliness because of the decisions he made in his past, trying to grasp on to something that was never his to begin with. Just because you got someone pregnant does not make you a father, and it’s up to me if I want him in my life or not. I know I don’t owe him anything.
That being said, I know I must forgive him. I must forgive him for cheating on my mom, for treating her in ways that no one deserves, for getting her pregnant, for not being there for me (no matter how much she pushed him away), for not staying in my life regardless, for leaving her and moving to one of the only two states that coincidentally don’t make you pay child support. I must forgive him for only facing the music once I decided to go and meet him. I must forgive him because I would want forgiveness. I have no idea what it’s like to be in your early 20s and find out that your girlfriend is pregnant. It’s easy to sit here and say what I would and wouldn't do, but if I can't offer forgiveness and compassion then I’m not human.
For the first time, I looked in the mirror and could see both his features and my mom in my face. That was an extraordinary experience to have. But I realized that I’ve always sort of liked that mystery. I liked not knowing where my features come from.
The truth is, I’m glad I reached out to him. Was it completely and utterly selfish? Maybe. Did I consider what it could do to him? Yes, and I still decided to meet him and take that chance. For all I know, he could have abandoned me all over again. It was a risk either way you slice it. Truth is, if it wasn’t for this experiment I would have never had mustered up the courage to do this; I never would have had something to hold me accountable. He said something along the lines of, “I don’t want to be used for a YouTube video,” but I never would have met him, and that is something he undoubtedly needs to get over. I wasn’t the one who left my child. But, I am grateful to him for meeting me. He’s charming, and he made the whole experience very easy. I’m thankful to him for that. I just don't know if I want anything else. As it is right now, it takes me about a month to even respond to a message of his. It still feels like too much. It still feels like something I'm not sure I want.
For the first time, I looked in the mirror and could see both his features and my mom in my face. That was an extraordinary experience to have. But I realized that I’ve always sort of liked that mystery. I liked not knowing where my features come from, of not being able to see him in me, of ONLY being able to see my mother in myself. I didn’t want to see a deadbeat, or what I thought a deadbeat to be, and I didn't want to see someone who ran away. But now I see him. I see his round face, I see his thinning hair, I see his smile and his broad shoulders. I see him and that scares the shit out of me because I still don't really know who that person is.
My mom told me that she’s worried that I could like my biological dad, and then he’ll reap the benefits of all the years she spent making me who I am today. All the nights she was up with me when I was sick, all the times she made my lunch for school, all the times she spent the little money she had to get me a gift. It was understandable and touching of her to think that way, but this whole situation has only made me respect my relationship with her even more. Growing up without a traditional foundation for manhood has actually led me to become who I am today, and I love who I am, ugly mistakes and all. To gain humility and understand forgiveness are not easy tasks, and this experiment has given me that opportunity.
As I mentioned in my step 3, my own journey has led me to become a mentor at Big Brothers Big Sisters years ago because I feel it’s important to be a strong template for a young man just as my mentors have for me. We all come from different family structures; some of us grew up with both a loving mom and dad in the house, some of us grew up in single-parent homes, some of us have two moms or two dads, some of us were raised by our grandparents, and some of us are orphans. At the end of the day, we all need strong people in our life, whoever they are. For further reading: Psychology Today: Mentoring Youth Matters President Obama's Fatherhood and Mentorship Initiative
Based on my personal experience and my involvement with BBBS, I feel the need to open up a dialogue about father figures and how they effect us. This inspired me to create a website that collects people’s stories, called My Dad Is. Now that you know my experience, I'm interested to hear what your experience is.
Using this simple prompt, we can take a wide survey about fatherhood. It seems everyone I know in my life has an interesting story to tell about his or her father: A lot of the stories are funny, weird, or eccentric, many of them are sweet and heartfelt, and some of them are heartbreaking. Any way you slice it, most of these stories and relationships are highly complex. I hope you will participate and share your experience on the website. You can even leave it anonymous. It can be as short or long as you want, good or bad, just as long as you are honest.
We'd love for you to participate in this 12-step journey with us. Can you forgive someone that hurt you in the past? Psychologists say in order to become more compassionate, we have to let go of this anger and pain. Comment below or tag #12kindsofkindness on social media and let us know your stories. We'd love to hear them!
Feel free to use the artwork / quotes above to share your story on social, you can download them all on the 12 Kinds of Kindness Tumblr.