What fathers should tell their sons

When they find out, people ask me incredulously if I regret not attending my father’s funeral.

I had no relationship with my father for all of my adult life. I lived a childhood where he hit my mother often. I could never reconcile it and fought him as a boy. As an adult, I never forgave him. He died a stranger, someone in my past I never talked about.

Violence was not my father’s only indiscretion. He grew up hard, and did his best to raise me with the totems of manhood as he saw them, for better or worse. All men, and especially men of color, learn quickly and from an early age that our existence depends on our performance of masculinity. My father tried to teach me to survive in a world that looked at we dark-skinned men with the kind of hostility my generation would never know.

Unless I told you, you’d probably never know my myriad traumas, or how many people I failed on the way to healing them. You’d never know I don’t know when Father’s Day is. Or how I never had children because I reasoned it best to break a cycle not worth repeating, to spare someone else from being damaged the way I was.

As a boy who craved his father’s approval, as young boys often do, I can’t help but wonder how different I would have ended up if my father taught me what I needed to understand about love, about principle, and about respect. Would I have hurt the people I hurt? Would I be as I am, still restless and unsettled? I will never know.

I write about this now because I want you who are fathers to not have a son like me. I don’t want you to have the moments my father had in his later years, desperately wanting a relationship with a son who stopped believing in him years before. This time you have now to share and talk with your son is far more important than you think. Use every minute wisely. Don’t take the casual things you say and do for granted. Make sure you don’t end up where we did.

I have lost count of the conversations I wish my father and I would have had, or the things I wish he helped me to see, instead of the lessons I spent years undoing.

It was not until some time away from my father that I learned to love my emotions. If I’d had a son, I would tell him to live your happiest feelings boisterously. It can feel very isolating to be that man who acts, speaks and expresses differently than other men. People question your intelligence and sexuality for it, moreso for men of color. But there is no reason to not be ostentatious, bold and open in what you feel. Holding it in proves nothing. Stuffing it down doesn’t make you better. It often makes you worse. More importantly, you have but one life. No one’s last days are spent thankful for all the times they avoided tears, played cool so someone didn’t know where they stood, or just didn’t share feelings.

I wish my father had told me it’s always easy to see the down side of things, but to take a moment to appreciate the people around us. My view today of my father is more nuanced — he had his own demons, and many resentments he never resolved. I wish it was not still a daily battle against sinking into his familiar morose and bitter place. Or to let the anger that comes with male entitlement rule my day. It’s hard sometimes to find joy in simple things. I learned gratitude matters far more than almost anything. Perspective means a great deal. It can always be worse. The best day is what you make of it.

I’d tell my son that respect for women is our responsibility to do and speak up about. Not just because we have mothers or sisters or partners, but because dignity is not about what people do for and mean to us. I’d remind him that you don’t talk like you know what others go through, because men almost reflexively always do that. And you especially do not to talk like you know what a woman goes through. Men are taught that is okay and do it often. Really though, men will never know.

I wish my father had told me freedom of choice can’t be divorced from how the world works, and from the power that men have. Everyone can get fixated on making their own choices. We’re told people make decisions and that’s okay, but we never hear about context, or how decisions come to pass. Our choices as men have consequences, often for those with far less power than us. The same gender binary that depends on choice and demands we act in particular ways also calls on us to acquiesce to things we may not agree with. As men have the greatest privilege, my father could have told me asking questions and standing up for my beliefs are virtues.

Most of all, I wish he had spoken through his actions. I don’t know one man who has a positive relationship with his father in instances where he was physically, emotionally or verbally abusive to the male’s mother. Not one. Like anyone, I’ve been upset with partners who hurt my feelings, said unkind things or seemed not to care. Maybe because of the way I was brought up, I never thought for even a second to put my hands on anyone. Physical violence against my mother defined my life. It scarred me for years. It changed the way I think of my father. I can’t say strongly enough how critical respect for partners, even when times are bad, is for a child.

My story is going to surprise even close friends, because it’s something I just don’t talk about. I’m doing it now because I recognize it must be hard for a father, with the expectations of maleness and more on him, to talk to sons about women and respect, about emotions and about vulnerability. Yet they’re the issues that come to matter most as we grow up. Teaching your son to fix a car, clean a handgun or fight a bully might feel urgent. Showing a boy to be tough in the face of adversity could seem right. From experience, I can tell you that if your son has to learn on his own how to respect the women in his life, how to express his feelings, and how to be just in a world that is often unjust to women and those with the least power, you’ll not only have failed him, but yourself.

If that’s not enough to convince you, let mine be your cautionary tale. For you who are fathers, the last memory you want is of a son who doesn’t even say your name or remember your face. If pressed, he can’t recall when you were born. Or one whose good memories, and even most of the bad, are gone. You don’t want your son to be me, with no regrets about erasing you out of his life or not attending your burial. I can only encourage you to teach them well and show them a better way. Do whatever you can to make sure the day my father and I saw never comes.

Ernesto Aguilar is the program director at KPFT in Houston, a writer for Air Media, and serves on the board of The National Federation of Community Broadcasters. You can find more of his writing on Medium. Follow him @eaXLR.

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