I have three dads. But I have a biological dad, whom I met over eight years ago. Then there’s my adoptive dad, whose last name I share. And then I have my stepdad, who came into my life when I was about 9 years old. My relationship with each one varies, and accordingly, every year on Father’s Day, I find myself reflecting on each of my relationships (or absence thereof) with my fathers. There’s much to reflect on, but mostly, a list of unanswered questions and stories that don’t ever need to be spoken of outside our families.
When I think about a pair of holidays, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, I can’t help noting the difference in how we talk and write about motherhood and fatherhood. There is usually a barrage of articles about mothers (including my own), primarily written by women, that run the gamut of emotions from celebration and inspiration to grief to sorrow and frustration. Whether they want to or not, mothers get a full range of emotions. Those about fathers, however—particularly pieces written about black fathers—are usually about one of two things: He was absent or he’s the greatest man to ever walk this earth.
This dichotomy doesn’t allow for much complexity or exploration across gender. These articles about fatherhood are primarily written by men looking to heal from abandonment or answer how they can measure up to the superman their dad seems to have been. Cross-gender reflections, which can reveal the complexity of gender identity, get lost in the shuffle. I rarely see articles that reflect the ways in which my stepdad not only helped inform my gender identity but also encouraged me to ultimately become his biggest critic.
I am a reformed “daddy’s girl.” My stepdad was everything to me growing up. In my mind, there was nothing this man could not do. He was an only child raised by a single mother in the hood. He’s a high school graduate who has owned businesses, who deejayed at the only black radio station (at the time) in Indianapolis, has been a firefighter and started the Indianapolis Black Firefighters Association.
He did all this in his late teens to mid-20s while facing racism head-on in his job and in local politics. To this day, he’s not afraid to speak his mind, and he’s damn good at it. He consumes news and media so he can (and does) talk to anybody—from politicians to the janitor. I learned how to be a friendly person from his gregariousness.
And yet, as with everything, when I got “woke,” much of what I spent years emulating and admiring suddenly felt regressive and problematic. There’s nothing like going from putting Dad on a pedestal to knocking that pedestal down.
In an earlier article, I discussed the lessons about women that I received from my father. While growing up, I was taught that women were naive, stupid, vulnerable prey. That men were smarter because they could manipulate women. As a young girl, I internalized these ideas and came to understand that he saw me the same way he saw all other women, so he was über-strict to the point where boys were nearly out of the question. The language of “I don’t trust them” translated into “I don’t trust you to take care of yourself.”
The stories my father told me about his single life laid the groundwork for the type of masculine-of-center lesbian I would become. His warnings about the ways men behaved toward women—the ways he behaved toward women—informed my behavior and perception of women for years.
How I imagined myself was based on that tutelage as well. He was manipulative and charming and ruthless. His stories were a constant reminder that women are easily manipulated into bed, and that I should not be one of those women. I think he breathed a sigh of relief when I finally told him that I was a lesbian. He could relate to that. He understood why I liked women. But I remember him saying that he wouldn’t know what to do if either of my brothers were gay. He just wouldn’t be able to “get it.” I wasn’t “woke” then. If we had a conversation about that now, I’d undoubtedly push back on some of his comments.
There were a few years when my dad and I stopped talking. He, of the “tough love” school of parenting, put us at odds with each other. By the time we began speaking again, I’d been in my own intense relationship for a couple of years. I began to realize that the ways my dad educated me about women—with all of his faults and troubling ideas—were manifesting in the way I behaved in my relationship. I was my father’s daughter, and I wasn’t being the best partner I could be because I was living up to what he believed about women.
It took a devastating series of events in my relationships with both my partner and father to knock him completely off his pedestal. I realized that he was mortal. First, I realized that I had to change my behavior or lose the woman I loved; and second, I realized that I could correct and interrupt his problematic language and behavior. From that moment forward, I vowed not to stay quiet, not for a single moment.
When people tell me they can’t “correct” their family members when they say something homophobic, sexist, transphobic, racist, etc., I look at them sideways. There is no man bigger than my dad. His charismatic personality is huge, and his presence fills a room. Our whole lives, we were taught to respect him, at times to fear him and always to listen to him. He encouraged us to challenge him—but only on his terms. This is a man who is firm in what he says and what he believes.
There is no one harder to convince that he is wrong than my father. And yet, now I don’t let him get away with his problematic behavior. I challenge him whenever I can. I know that my nieces and nephews are watching and listening. I don’t want them to ever be afraid of being who they are or worry that our family isn’t accepting. More important, the more I learn about who I am, it’s crucial that my dad understands that his jokes and problematic language are damaging to our relationship. Respect goes both ways. And if I can challenge my dad, y’all can challenge your family.
If my dad were to read this, I’m sure he’d object to my “selective memory.” He’d talk about how he raised three kids to be good citizens and that I’ve talked about the worst of who he is without expanding on his best qualities. It’s true: My brothers and I turned out to be pretty decent human beings. And my brothers have turned out to be amazing fathers, despite some of the lessons of our childhoods. But we had to find out who we were outside of my dad’s eyesight and sometimes oppressive parenting.
My dad is a good man, but he’s a good man with flaws. He’s a good man who had sometimes unrealistic expectations of his children. And he’s a good man who continues to be hella problematic. And while I love him in spite of all his flaws, it’s still no less important that we never stop pushing him to move past regressive ideas, beliefs and language. I might actually still be a daddy’s girl, but I bet even he’d tell you that I’m his biggest critic. I don’t know if I would want it any other way.