How can good people assist decent men to become active fathers? I’ve come to see that forgiveness, getting to know myself, and freeing myself is a great start.
I encouraged my twenty-two-year-old son, before he moved to the next stage of his journey, to go with me to see my dad in Brooklyn, New York. We were heading back after dropping off his girlfriend at the airport. She was heading back to London to complete her master’s program at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Shortly he would be leaving for California to start the master’s program at the Haas School of Business, University of California Berkeley.
It was a beautiful warm summer day, and I set out to do this thing that I felt would help my son settle some things from his life experience living with me as a child as he moved forward with his life. I came to the awareness that I had dumped way too many stories of pain on my children when they were growing up. Stuff children didn’t need to be aware of when they were innocent.
I told my children about my father touching me inappropriately when I was a child. I told them how that made me feel as a person. It shamed me deeply. It caused me to focus on the ugliness of the world and miss the stillness in the present moment. I was hiding myself, protecting myself, using judgment, comparison, and competing instead of confidently having my dignity and knowing I’m worthy, and everyone is worthy of respect.
I saw how I was indirectly repeating behaviors by dumping on my children. I didn’t set out to hurt them intentionally, but this happens when you are living in the pain and fear that comes from shame. I set out to correct it. I wanted to bring awareness that our family wouldn’t repeat the same robbing of dignity to each other.
My son watched me suffer from the painful memories of childhood abuse and not live my best experience as a human being. He watched how I cried sometimes, and he tried to console me. Not your children’s job. I remember him at five years old reciting lines from Snow White movie to make me laugh and asking me, “Mommy, are you going to cry, Mommy, are you sad?”
I thought of my son’s journey set out before him, and I did not want him to carry the burdens of the past with him. At this time, he had a strong support system. I saw him build friendships, work to stay connected with loved ones, friends in the business world that gave him advice from he was a little kid, new friends from the church community he was a part of, and his girlfriend at the time, now his wife, who came from a strong church and family community as well.
I spent many years disconnected from family and my friends that I knew growing up. They raised their children, worked, lived, and moved forward without me. I did not want that for my children. I wanted them to have connections and the opportunity to experience living wholeheartedly what that means for them to have a beautiful life. I am grateful for second chances reconnecting with friends and loved ones.
I had the clarity I forgave my father, letting go of the burdens of the past. I decided as a mother; I had to show my children by my actions what forgiveness looks like for me and that it comes with freedom.
It took some convincing, but my son decided. “Okay, mom. Visiting your father seems important to you. We could stop in Brooklyn.” I kept my children away from my parents for many years. Mostly out of fear of what happened to me would happen to them. However, forgiveness and fear don’t live so well together. Forgiveness moves you to living in love. Love means having connections that you could learn and build from to move forward.
Forgiving my parents, I learned so much from their past, to find out what happened to them. I got to see where they became stuck and the why. I was able to build boundaries and give myself permission to connect, disconnect, and reconnect when necessary. For kindness, I suggested that my son buy my dad his favorite meal—ackee and saltfish with fried dumplings, the Island of Jamaica national dish.
I think of that child that always wanted to please their parents. The attachment theory that Gabor Maté talks about that we need for survival as the human child is so helpless. He says, where a calf born could run within hours, a human child takes up to a year and a half to run. So, the helplessness comes back automatically around the parents (paraphrasing). I no longer felt helpless around my parents. Awareness causes you to not be so automatic with your behaviors.
In hindsight, I could see how it benefitted me as well. My son doesn’t try to please people for connection that could turn into self-frustration. He is straight forward and honest. I wanted to show him that I was growing in strength as well.
When we got to my dad’s apartment, my son handed him the breakfast. Receiving this breakfast made my dad happy. We greeted and hugged, but I could feel a little discomfort in my being because forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting. Still, it does mean setting boundaries, knowing myself, and giving freely without shame or guilt attached. It helps to break the learned habits of the past to build something.
The conversation started uneasily. After the greetings and the eating of the food, my dad went into his stories. He talked about missing his wife, who died two years prior. He talked about all his regrets with my mother and what better life he should be having, seeing his grandchildren and great-grandchildren grow up, and how my mother is to blame.
This negativity towards other family members caused my son to cry. He said he would like to see his family be better. He said his family situation causes him distress. He said he was heartbroken about the way his family lives and doesn’t take care of each other. He cried and let go of the pain. I wanted to reach out and hug him and comfort him, but I said to myself, give him a few minutes to let it out. I then went to my son, and I hugged him, and he hugged me. I was watching and hoping that my son was freeing himself from this emotional family adversity from the past.
After this release of pain, the conversation soon opened up to what have you been doing? A grandfather was curious about what his grandson has been doing. And my son sharing stories about his journeys and a grandfather getting to say with joy and hope, “This is my grandson.”
This change happening in front of me felt like we were living in the present moment. My father was never able to stay in the present moment easily. He went from one story to the next; I often thought that he couldn’t stay present with me because of the shame. He lived mostly telling me stories of his past. I believe God is in the present moment. I forgave him and prayed that he would forgive himself, so that he could be present as well.
My son prayed for his grandfather to be well, hugged him, and we took pictures and wished him well before leaving.
It was more than I expected to happen, but although I hoped, I didn’t know that the moment would bring such peace as it did. I am hopeful for my children and their families that they will move in love, connection, and belonging, in ways that I know possible to learn and relearn. Forgiving my father set me free from those burdens. I encourage my children to be free from past pain, but this journey has taught me that we all take personal responsibility for our paths at some point.
I wrote this piece six years ago. My dad has been deceased a year and a half now. Editing and looking back, I have gratitude for saying all the things I needed to say, sometimes it got ugly, but I stood in my strength, confidence, and dignity that I took back. No one will give it back to me; trust me, I waited, I begged, and I looked under every rock and around every corner. There is only right now.
I know some people don’t get that opportunity. One conversation I had with my father, he said, “I’m apologizing for cursing at you. Not for what happened in the past.” I wasn’t affected because I did not expect anything better from this person and, therefore, no disappointment. I remember that forgiveness is not for the other person; it is for you. So, whether the person is alive on the planet or a memory, forgiveness does work. V (formerly Eve Ensler) creator of The Vagina Monologues and activist, wrote a book called The Apology. She did that for herself, and perhaps someone else who could hear the message. “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds,” Bob Marley.
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