I have shared 35 years of friendship with the woman sitting across from me. There are tears in her eyes and her voice is trembling.
“Did I tell you I found my father, Malaka? I found my dad.”
A lifetime of muttered prayers – secret, silly and fervent hopes whispered between little girls navigating a world that was never constructed to show them mercy or care – was answered in one statement. We shared a burden, this spirit sister and I. I had willingly taken on her sorrows and cares when we were bonded by friendship at age 8, carried them with me and gotten so used to the load that I’d forgotten that they were in my pack. In an instant, I felt that burden lifted.
This moment called for a drink. Gin, infused with fynbos. And how apropos? The fynbos leaf, native to South Africa, thrives in infertile soil and fire – a wholly destructive force when unharnessed – is the mechanism to ensure not only its persistence, but its prosperity. There are few people I know who have sojourned through the sort of flames that my trembling-lipped friend has traversed. And though she appears risen from the ashes today – flush with accolades and accomplishments – a closer inspection reveals the scars of scorched earth where she was planted and fought to thrive. Hers has been a lifetime spent overcoming doubt, agony, abandonment for the sake of covering an erstwhile lover’s shame; a decision she had no hand in. Life with a violent step-father (a walking cliche in every way) and a willfully oblivious mother created the woman and beautiful contradiction sipping sweetened gin with me. As she launched into the story of how she discovered who her father was and where he lived, I sat spellbound.
The details are gut wrenching. The consequences of choices made between two people locked in their passions forty some years ago are still having ripple effects across generations and families today. These are all the pains and pitfalls I have tried to spare my daughter with my own choices. My hope was that if I sacrificed my own pride from the onset – choosing to cast off the shame that religion and patriarchy foists upon women who conceive and give birth outside of the bounds of matrimony – she might find mercy from the Fates. Perhaps if I was open and honest with both the biological father of my child, and eventually the child him/herself when they came of age and began to ask questions about their parentage, I could stall – if not eliminate – the peculiar heartbreaks and challenges that societal messaging imposes upon children who grow up in “non-traditional” homes. If nothing at all, at least I could save that child the cartoonish Maury-style revelation that passes as entertainment for a nation.
When making this decision, though I did take into account the personality of the person with whom I had procreated with, I know now what I had refused to acknowledge then: That no amount of optimism and good-will can compensate for what is an inherently violent nature, especially in the context of co-parenting.
I have several friends who grew up without knowing their fathers. I saw their faces when I picked up the phone to announce my pregnancy. I made a different decision from some of my aunties who concealed knowledge of the men who fathered children whom I came to call “cousin”, “sister”, or “best friend”. Seeing the pain that both the physical absence and ignorance of the identities of these men caused in some of my friends (only one woman told me that not knowing her father had no effect on her at all; she lived a very happy life alone with her mother), I made what I deemed the more noble decision. So when I discovered that I was pregnant (and gotten over the shock of realization), I let my child’s father know right away.
“I’ll kill you if I find out that baby isn’t mine,” a baritone voice said response to the news.
Of course I was shaken by this declaration, but not completely surprised. This man had long exhibited violent tendencies and demonstrated pleasure when recounting the numerous verbal and physical altercations he’d been involved in. He’d lost (and would go on to lose) several jobs because he could not control his outbursts and temper, or because he misrepresented his skills and would go on to be outed as a fraud. It was a fool’s hope, but I believed – or convinced myself – that his interactions with his child would be different, especially since she was a girl. What I did not know then and what I am here to tell you now is that the philosophy that even if a man doesn’t respect women in general, he will reserve some honor for the women in his family is a fallacy. Either a man respects women or he doesn’t, and my child’s father does NOT respect her. I see many of the patterns in the way he treated me and in the way he’s bragged about treating other women he’s dated repeated in the way he approaches their father-daughter relationship.
These are not the sort of adjectives you’re permitted to use in family court when you’re trying to explain what kind of environment the person on the opposite end of the table a judge is insisting that your child be foisted into. The person on the opposite end of the table has “rights too”, but your only saving grace is that you were not married to this man when you laid down with him. At least that’s some salve for the irritation for the next 18 years. This is no consolation for the toddler you’ve left in the care of your sister while you try to eek out an legal arrangement that won’t leave her too damaged in the long run. The futility of those efforts only shows its head eleven years later when your child hangs up the phone with this man and collapses into your arms in a weeping heap; or reveals that they believe that the only way to make friends is to “impress them by buying them things”; or stands in your full length mirror regarding their 5’7″, 140 lbs frame in disappointment because “my Daddy said I need to lose weight…and I’m not muscular enough”.
A father should instill confidence in his child, not chip away at it with every glib comment and mindless remark because it brings him amusement. But this is the way he’s always related to her: shaming her publicly when she failed/fails to meet particular milestones (the potty training era was the worse) and praising her only when those achievements are what he deems are a reflection of himself. The latest target of his attack is her perceived lack of “Blackness”. Like many kids in her generation, she is part of the K-Culture fandom. Her walls are PLASTERED with posters of BTS, Jackson Wang and ATEEZ. Her face lights up when Jonghyun belts out notes in sick octaves. When she has tried to share these interests with her father, the response is to treat those interests as a problem to be solved.
“Don’t you like any Black artists? We need to send you to an Black college so you can get some blackness in you.”
As if there is only one way to be Black. As if we have not spent the past quarter century fighting against these kinds of limiting stereotypes.
My child wouldn’t be my child if she were not in possession of quick wit and a healthy dose of sarcastic prowess. Like me, she uses this ability as a defense mechanism, shielding herself from injury or to conceal it altogether. When she first began to display her unique abilities in satirical delivery, I took offense – until I realized that I was looking at a younger (potentially better) version of myself. Now I know that you just have to give it back the way she serves it, always careful not to cross certain lines. This has come with intentional engagement and keen observation.
Her father has put in no such effort. On at least one occasion, he has announced that he would “not hesitate to slap the fuck out of her” if she “didn’t watch her mouth”, reminding her that he’s “still your father”.
I cannot even begin to explain how inappropriate it is for a 6’2″, 250 lbs, 53 year-old man to tell a 16 year old girl that he would slap the fuck out of her (I’m fuming typing these words) for any reason at all. But when you’re a hammer, everything is a nail…even the delicate, flowering sensibilities of a child.
I might be able to forgive these threats and outbursts if there was genuine remorse in the time that followed, but just like all his relationships with women, he has never acknowledged his error(s) and any apology is padded by the phrase “I am not perfect”…something my child has heard on so many occasions that she can predict the timing in its appearance in their conversation. Their relationship has taken a troubling new turn, where he has resorted to buying her trinkets to compensate for his unpleasant behavior and violent threats. Of course she accepts them and politely expresses her thanks, but this is how grooming starts. He is teaching her to accept put downs, threats of physical violence and disinterest in her accomplishments and interests from men. Every day, my husband and I have to make a conscious effort to affirm her a little more than the rest of our kids; as she gets older, the affects years of negative messaging and toxic interactions have become more apparent.
Sitting across from the table with my childhood friend who has to choose healing – daily – from a lifetime of myriad forms of abuse and the insistence that she absolve all those involved blameless – listening to her tearful recounting of memories or events I bore witness to or had no knowledge of makes me wonder if there is some such friend out there for my child. While I am glad that I am able to recognize the patterns of abuse and can head some of them off (every abuser uses the same playbook), I have to wonder if it’s enough. In trying to arm my child with the truth about her parentage, did I actually just set her up for a lifetime of affliction instead? Did I cause the very thing I was trying to avoid? Would ignorance have been a better laid path to bliss? All these questions are rhetorical, of course. Nothing can be done to alter the facts: I am co-parenting (even if it’s from a distance) with a monster whose damage is yet to be revealed. At least my friend has the comfort of knowing that she shared no blood with the monster who caused years of turmoil in her life. I have no idea what the effects will be when my kid is sitting on the therapist’s sofa in twenty years coming to the realization of the opposite.
If you have reached this part in the post, you may be asking ‘What is the point of this missive, Malaka?’ None except this: To confess that I am concerned, uncertain and disquieted about my kid’s future. Men like to mock women with “daddy issues” without acknowledging that it’s very often the same type of man who ridicules the results of these toxic relationships that is most likely to perpetuate them himself. It’s the complete lack of self-awareness for me. It’s also to encourage any other person, man or woman, who is co-parenting in any capacity with a truly toxic (ex)partner that you are not alone in the guilt that you may be feeling by keeping this person present in your child’s life because of a sense of duty. I’ve been judged for my decisions and I’m sure you will be too.
Please pray for me and my child.