I am a father by blood and a stepfather through marriage. Nothing prepared me to be either.
Growing up, my ideas and imaginations of what a father was (or could be) developed from what I saw of the men who came into me and my mom’s lives, or what I saw in the TV dads who I wished were the father in my life. Throughout my childhood, none of the men carried the same name as I, and while my name has Junior at the end of it, my father was not a source of what manhood should look like. I was told that he took his leave around 1968 after a violent altercation with my mother. I wouldn’t meet him until I was twelve, and that was due to my mother’s unfortunate conviction for second-degree murder. Her victim, on active duty in the U.S. Army, was a man giving me direction and purpose until a bullet from her gun ended his life.
My chances for developing into a responsible father or partner was stymied then and there with his death; from that point on, I became withdrawn and isolated. I don’t recall anyone making an effort to help me process what happened or provide coping skills to aid in dealing with conflict. People couldn’t be trusted, not even those close to you. What would ensue would be years of self-centeredness that motivated me to only think in the moment and that didn’t allow room for planning a future for myself or with anyone.
I witnessed a great deal of violence in the family household. Additionally, it wasn’t just in the home in which I lived, but in households of other family members and neighbors, who, in my young mind, were usually under the influence of alcoholic beverages or other mood-altering substances. Physical and verbal violence were constant and became normal fare; I would go to my room whenever I sensed either were leading to uncomfortable levels. I would hope the storm would be a simple drizzle and that crashing, thundering, and screeching wouldn’t follow.
As an adult, my actions mirrored the emotional/mental techniques I resorted to whenever conflict arose: withdraw and isolate. With all the dysfunction and emotional trauma left unaddressed, my life as a father was compromised from the start. One incident that stays with me was a time when my sons, five and six years old at the time, saw me crouched on the laundry room floor with my head in hands, sobbing profusely. I was in that vulnerable state because I had lost my job and the mortgage was a month in arrears and I felt my wife didn’t want me anymore because I didn’t know how to communicate with her. In my sons’ eyes, I could see my adolescent fears all over again.
Today, I reflect on the past with a sense of redemption. Communication with my children is good and promising. Our reunion will be one that brings us full circle. I wait patiently for the day this chapter ends, and another begins with me as a father and grandfather meeting my grandchildren for the first time.
Nearly 90% of Mount Tamalpais College students experienced violence or abuse in childhood. If you’re moved by Carl’s words, consider making a gift to Mount Tamalpais College to support the powerful work occurring in our classrooms.