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Fatherhood

My Father Couldn’t Hug Me And I Refuse To Repeat History

T he day my father passed away is a day that will forever remain etched in my mind; not because of the loss, but because of the way his death brought us closer. He battled pancreatic cancer for nearly a year and the decline happened so fast the entire day still feels like a dream.

As I watched my father’s chest slowly rise and fall, a flood of thoughts overwhelmed me.

Before I stepped out to get some air, he used whatever strength he had left to slide one of his arms around my waist and pull me towards him. I held him in my arms. I told him that I forgave him. My father died without us ever making peace over the past. And it was a wedge that hindered our relationship for the greater part of my formative years.

Fathers and sons have complicated relationships. When a boy is not quite a child but not fully a man, he becomes more self-aware. We take note of actions and choices our fathers make. We mimic what they do without asking why. As a teenager, I became combative and disobedient. My father’s absences created distance between us where our interactions were forced and mostly formal. When we were at each other’s eye level, I saw myself as his equal. I tested boundaries and paid for it because he treated me me like an enemy.

I can count on my hands the times that my father gave me the type of hug that personifies love and pride. The type of hug that needs no words to accompany it. Those hugs were such a rarity that I valued the occurrences, all the while yearning to know why.

I can count on my hands the times that my father gave me the type of hug that personifies love and pride.

Why was my father incapable of showing affection? Why did the mere signal of affection make him defensive? And most importantly, how could I prevent myself from being like him?

As an immigrant, hailing from St. Mary Parish in Jamaica, my father’s decision to leave his home country was a story that grew convoluted over time. The older I got, the less I knew to be factual. When I did some digging and reached out to some distant relatives back in Jamaica, I found out my father was the product of an abusive relationship. His mother was a teenager when she had him and he was given up for adoption. From an early age, he had no concept of affection because he’d never witnessed what healthy love looked like. My father grew up in dysfunction and it’s the legacy he passed on to me.

The masculinity of black males has been studied and analyzed for decades. In spite of anecdotal evidence, a line has been drawn down the middle. Black men and the propensity to show affection toward each other is categorized in two overly-simplified ways. A man showing too much emotion and affection is thought to be soft and vulnerable. We tell our boys not to cry and don’t give them room to be anything other than tough at all times.

Today, not being affectionate toward your son is considered “weird.” Times have certainly changed.

The other side of that is stoicism coupled with detachment. We normalize not pursuing meaningful relationships. We play up being able to cut someone off with no conversation or explanation especially if feelings are involved. Whether the emotional disconnect is ingrained from birth or developed because of a painful moment, boys learn to dwell behind a stone wall. For many men, it’s so insidious that we can’t acknowledge any other reaction than anger. In short, we lack affection because generations before us didn’t teach us how to show it without fear or distrust.

The beauty of social media is that spaces now exist where male affection is praised and encouraged. You don’t have to go to a stock photography website to see black men hugging and loving on their sons. You can open up Instagram. You can go to Tumblr. Or you can actually look around you. On the train, in front of schools every morning, at sporting events, in the barber shop. Today, not being affectionate toward your son is considered “weird.” Times have certainly changed.

After understanding more about my father’s past and what he endured, I relieved myself of the pressure thinking I could have done something as a kid to earn his affection. Children aren’t supposed to win a parent’s love. It should just be.

If I do nothing else as a father, I want my future son to grow up knowing that he’s no less of a man for showing affection.

As sons, we don’t see the flaws of our fathers until we notice an inkling of patterns in our own behavior. People hugging me felt foreign. I brushed it off as not being touchy-feely. However, the innocuous excuse had roots. It didn’t occur to me until a few years ago when I had a sharp physical reaction to receiving a hug at church. This older gentleman hugged me because I hadn’t been to church in awhile. He couldn’t contain his joy in seeing me. The jubilant embrace made me recognize how important it is for men to illustrate to our future sons the power of touch.

Fatherhood is a role that I’m thrilled to experience one day. We have dialogues about how every generation has the keys to breaking a curse. For me, it’s never forgetting how much I feared my father because he never made me feel safe. It was never about the basic act of a hug. It was feeling like my father’s love was rigid and sometimes limited.

If I do nothing else as a father, I want my future son to grow up knowing that he’s no less of a man for showing affection. I want him to be free to express a range of emotions because he’s a complex person. I plan to raise a little black boy who understands that it’s okay to say he needs a bit of extra love on a given day. Because in those moments is when I’ll hug him a little tighter.

By James Woodruff

James Woodruff is a grad school student and a struggling Christian trying to make smarter mistakes. His writing has appeared at The Good Men Project and Medium, and on his own blog, 30 and Beyond.