Former President Barack Obama had dreams from his father while I had nightmares from mine. I had the kind of nightmares where I was without foundation and every small misstep resulted in disaster or death. Scenarios ranged from abstract fear of the unknown to the quite literal dream about falling. To the extent that I had positive dreams—they were always deferred. My father shaped my identity in many ways, but not in the ways that a person would normally write home about.
I never looked up to my father. He wasn’t the type of father who made me feel safe, held me on his shoulders, or taught me how to be a better man. He didn’t teach me to shave, drive, or talk to women. He certainly was not the first—or even the second, third, or fourth—person I would go to on a bad day for encouragement. And he was anything but a provider.
My father was a shining example of what not to be. He even said this to me once on Christmas Eve. He called me randomly when I had not heard from him in years and was (likely) drunk and (definitely) belligerent—indirectly blaming me for the sorry state of our relationship. I was in no mood for it, so I hung up rather than argue. He called back after a few minutes with a softer tone and said, “I may not have been a good father to you, Matthew, but at least I was a good bad example.”
The bizarre part was that he seemingly wanted credit for this—almost undeniable—fact. While I offered no rebuttal, I refused to give him a pat on the back for the things he didn’t do. I will refuse this to my grave because one of the aspects of masculinity (if you want to call it that) I hate the most is the tendency to take credit for things that either someone else—most likely a woman—achieved or to expect credit for what should not be considered an achievement in the first place.
My father expected an undue amount of respect for simply being my father, even though anyone with active sperm can be a father in the biological sense of the word. I was never impressed by the mere fact that he conceived me, and as an adult I scoffed at anyone who told me that I owed him respect for this simple act. Almost everyone who demanded I honor him, incidentally, had never met him.
Nonetheless, I am the man I am both despite my father and because of him. All the credit others would have me bestow on him goes directly to me and those who have filled his void (especially my mother). What should be more routine than questions indirectly compelling me to reconcile or forgive are questions designed to understand just how I was able to function—and continue to function—as a man without a male role model. I would be eager to discuss with friends, family, and strangers alike just how I see the world through masculine eyes without any sharp lenses to bring into focus what a healthy, well-adjusted man must see. We learn almost everything from our parents—or those closest to us in our formative years—how to talk, think, feel. Even their absence becomes a lesson: typically one of self-doubt, betrayal, grief, and despair. We wonder what we must have lacked to have been deprived of what so many others have (and often don’t appreciate). For many years I did not respect myself as a man because I did not—and could not—respect my father as one.
This is why I will always advocate for widows, working women, wayward youth, and, especially, warriors-otherwise-known-as-single mothers. And why I will always advocate for personal responsibility—despite not being politically conservative in any other way—and would never enter into a commitment akin to marriage or fatherhood lightly. If I decide to take on a wife and children, they will be my first—second, third, and fourth—priority. And I will make sure that before I begin such an undertaking that I am fully conscious and ready for it. Our society excuses those who should not be excused and neglects those who have long been neglected—for too long. On behalf of my family—both present and future—this ends with me.
Each week on Friday at noon EST, I will be shining a light onto a unique aspect of my identity hidden below the surface. I ask other writers to join me on this quest. Too often we think of “identity” in terms of physical traits, such as gender or race, and neglect the person within. Both sides of the political spectrum cultivate and manipulate identity to gain votes, but a more authentic identity politics entails more than succumbing to labels thrust on us by academics, politicians, and the media in other to further factitious or provincial causes. This series is a call for us as concerned citizens to determine our own labels and, consequently, our own causes.
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