Tom Matlack sits down with three fatherless teenagers—two of whom will soon be dads.
Fourteen years ago, I was saved by the realization that—despite a painful divorce—I wanted to be a father to my two baby children. That moment of recognition has defined me as something other, something better, than the man I was before I fed my baby son a bottle in my bachelor pad as he fell asleep in my arms.
I don’t often question how or why I had that awakening. To me, it was some kind of miracle. An act of God. A coming home to my true self in a way that is beyond my ability to describe in words.
But with Father’s Day this past weekend, I spent some time thinking about what it would have been like if I hadn’t had a father in my life. Was it the high standard of fathering in my extended family that had caused me to feel deep shame at my single-minded pursuit of my career over my family? What if I had been born poor, with no father or grandfather? Would I have had the same awakening? Would I have been able to turn my life around?
A few weeks ago, I sat down with three fatherless African American teenagers who are a part of Street Potential in Roxbury, Massachusetts, a program to help boys committed to the creation of visual art and hip hop. (The DYS wouldn’t allow me to identify them by name.) Two of the three teens had girlfriends who were pregnant.
Who taught you how to be a man?
– I learned about manhood in the projects.
– [I learned] just manly stuff—how to beat people up, like… get money to bring home any way you have to. Because honestly, when my father left, I said, I’m always going to be looking for a father figure. He didn’t leave all my life, but when he left, he moved farther away… and when I seen him, it was… like once a week, and then it’d turn into once a month, and then… until this day, still like once a month.
– I learned from personal experiences… and that doesn’t make you a man because you’re going to end up being locked up. And I want to be there for my son, and if I’m in jail, he ain’t going to look at me like a man.
Does becoming a dad make you a man?
– A lot of fathers are boys. They’re not—there’s not a lot of men. There’s a lot of boys.
– I wanted to have a kid, but not now. So it was an accident, but I don’t regret it.
– I didn’t want it with her. But I don’t regret it, so that’s life. It is what it is.
What kind of dad are you going to be?
– I’m going to be a strict father.
– Yeah, I am, too. I know I’m going to be strict. (Laughter.) Reasonable, but strict.
– You can’t be loose with kids. Then they grow up to be, like, bad people. They could just turn crazy on you, then Lord knows what might happen after that.
How did your dad impact you?
– I don’t think not having had a father affected me.
– I think without a father, the kid’s always going to be looking for somebody like a father figure. It’s human nature to look for a father figure and a mother figure. Like you’re always going to try to look for it somewhere. Sometimes kids go to the wrong person, and the wrong person teaches the wrong things.
– The baby is due in October.
– I’m going to have one in a couple weeks. I’m having a boy. I want a girl though. That’s a chick digger. You got a girl—you’re a father, you got a little girl, they’re going to be like, yeah.
Are you going to marry the mom?
– Marriage is… not something that you do just because you have a kid.
– Yeah. It’s not something that you have to do. Just something legal… that’s what I think. I’ll do it if the female wants to do it, but I don’t really care about it.
– You know how the Bible… like you’re not supposed to have sex until you get married? I think it’s just trying to play people.
– I think it’s a choice, but I’m not going to marry my girlfriend just because she’s pregnant. I wanted to have a kid, but… not now. But honestly, I’m happy though. I’ve been with her for a while.
How are you getting along with her now?
– I don’t know how people could deal with a female when she’s pregnant. It’s like nobody’s using their common sense, so you just got to manage the craziness. That’s how I handle everything. I just manage her craziness.
– The whole pregnant thing makes me want to just second guess it, the whole time she’s pregnant, I’m like, damn dog, why am I with her?
How about guys who leave their kids?
– It’s just selfish in my eyes. Like how do you bring someone into this world and you can’t—you don’t have the time to take care of it?
– I think that’s changing with time, because like now that’s frowned upon. Like nobody respects you for that.
– Before, it used to be like, yo, she’s wild. I could just say it’s not mine. Yeah, say it’s not yours. Now it’s just like, yo bro, you went in there without a condom and you check it.
What scares you about being a dad?
– I’m scared of not being able to be there. In any type of way.
– I’m scared of like, not knowing the answers to something. Like if my son has a question or something and I don’t know the answer. Not like, what’s the capital of this? I’ll tell him like straight up, I don’t know. [But] like something serious, something he needs help on, and I don’t know the answer to it, or I don’t know how to fix it for him, that’s my biggest fear.
– Like just sports and all that, take him to go play sports. I want him to play all the sports. Just… I don’t know, just be the father.
As I left those three boys sitting in that basement in Roxbury, I couldn’t be sure what kind of dads they would become. Will holding their baby spark the same kind of change it did for me? The CEO of an organization that serves 14,000 young people in the city of Boston recently told me that every teenage father he’s ever met talked a big game beforehand, but very few were able to follow through in the end.
I pray that these boys can flip the switch and help end the cycle of fatherlessness in their community.
♦ ♦ ♦
Tom Matlack, together with James Houghton and Larry Bean, published an anthology of stories about defining moments in men’s lives — The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood. It was how the The Good Men Project first began. Want to buy the book? Click here. Want to learn more? Here you go.