“I was there to tell him I had met a girl. That I loved her, and that she was going to have my baby.”
Few people shape who you are as father as much as your own father. In this week’s installment of the Good Men Project Book series, Ricardo Federico tells the universal story of revealing his impending fatherhood to his dad … and what he took away from that conversation.
Whatever It Takes
by Ricardo Federico
You love this girl, right?” It was an unvarnished challenge, a test of no small order, and his eyes never left mine.
“Yes, I do,” I said quickly. And I wasn’t lying.
Never mind that I was twenty-four at the time and a U.S. Army veteran with an overseas tour of duty under my belt. There was still a tremor in my voice, because the man staring at me was—and always will be—my father.
Born in New York to Italian immigrants, he was a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division before going to work in construction. My mother died when I was young, and Dad raised my sister and me on his own. A stout, broad-chested man with a flattop haircut, he could build, fix, or do anything he set his mind to, and he believed that jobs were to be done right. He had a penchant for quiet introspection but also an Italian temper that could bloom quick and hot. He was not to be trifled with. These were not simply the observations of a wide-eyed, impressionable boy; from a young age I paid attention to stories from his peers and family members, listening to what they said about my father. Small wonder, then, that admiration, respect, and a healthy dose of fear were my watchdogs throughout adolescence.
So when I went to see my dad that winter in 1990, with his larger-than-life presence hovering over me still, to tell him I had met a girl, that I loved her, and that she was going to have my baby. My stomach was in knots, and I was sweating despite the cold, gray day. Dad had sold the house I grew up in while I was in the Army and bought a small travel trailer that he called home. We sat down at the little table, our faces not two feet apart, and I told him. I’m not sure exactly what I expected: disappointment, for one thing; judgment, perhaps; but severe admonishment for certain.
Dad looked across the table, his face a complex mask of concern for his son and the uncertain future, and his gaze pierced my young man’s heart like only a father’s can.
He held up a finger to stem any additional comment from me, and then he drew his breath to speak again. I braced myself, but what came next was not the browbeating I anticipated.
“Don’t you leave this girl to do all the work,” he began, with enormous, trembling gravity in his voice. “You take care of her, and you take care of the baby. You do whatever it takes, you hear me? You keep a job, you work hard, and you provide. Your buddies call and wanna go play basketball or drink beer, you tell ’em you got a family now. Sure, you go once in a while, but you be the first one back home, understand? Every time. You raise a family as a family, and these two—your girl and your baby—they’re your responsibility now. You get what I’m telling you?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
He looked at me for a few seconds, the silence unwieldy after one of the longest speeches he had ever given me, and then he nodded. I think he saw what he was looking for in my eyes. He could tell that I got it, and that, even though I hadn’t a clue what I was stepping into, I was earnest in my commitment. His face softened, and he put a hand on my shoulder.
“You’ll be okay, then,” he said. “You’ll do fine.”
And I believed him, as I always have.
The next fall, my betrothed and I went down to the county children’s services office to have our newborn daughter’s last name changed to my own. I fumbled to unhook the car seat, a process still new to me, and shuffled through the fallen leaves with our child in tow.
So many things were changing so fast for us, and the future, while as mysterious and unfathomable as it always had been, was now tethered to something tangible and completely beyond our control: a new person who chose to eat, sleep, and do everything else on her own schedule.
When the clerk came into the office with the paperwork, she greeted my wife-to-be before casting a perfunctory glance my way. “Are you here on court order?” she asked.
I stood dumbly for a few seconds, not registering the meaning behind her question. “No,” I finally muttered. “Why do you ask?”
“Oh,” the clerk replied, a look of genuine surprise on her face. “I’m sorry. Most guys who come in to do what you’re doing are here only because they’ve been ordered by the court.”
Guys, she had said—not men and not fathers, just guys. It took a few minutes for the ramifications of that to sink in: guys who had to be forced by a judge to claim their children, if in name only. Then what? A lifetime of haphazard, court-ordered child-support payments while the mother works two jobs and scrapes by raising a fatherless child?
I sat, waiting to fill out the paperwork, and looked down at our new baby girl sleeping in her carrier. Seeing her like that, totally helpless and dependent, my face grew hot at the thought of being mistaken for one of those guys. In that moment I renewed my vow that I would not be anything less than a father to this child and a man for this woman I loved. I could do nothing less for them, or for my father, whose expectations for me were so clear and uncompromising.
We walked out of that office young, scared, determined—and together.
My daughter, that baby of seventeen years ago, is going to her senior prom in a few weeks—this I still cannot seem to grasp. Her brothers, fourteen and twelve, are already fine young men. And my bride of eighteen years is more beautiful now than when I fell so completely in love with her in the summer of 1990.
Recently, the five of us were piling into our van to go for ice cream. I went to open the door for my wife, and—not for the first time—one of my boys beat me to it and held the door for his mother. As she got in, his eyes met mine and I nodded my approval. He returned the gesture, a subtle, silent exchange between men that confirmed my belief about character—where it comes from and how it is painstakingly built one example at a time. I felt the heady significance of that legacy handed down from my dad, the same legacy my wife and I will pass along to our children: We are family, and we take care of each other. That’s how it goes. You do whatever it takes.