Reclaiming the Narrative of Black Fatherhood
Jun 16, 2021, 9:45 AM, Posted by Dwayne Curry
Fathers play a critical role in the healthy development of children and families. This is why it's important to address structural and systemic barriers that prevent Black men from being fully present in their children's lives—so that all families have a chance to thrive.
My wife and I have been married since 2019, but we’ve known each other since we were 14-year-olds. We are raising a blended family. She has a daughter who is 9 and a 7-year-old son. I have a son who is 8, and together we have a 2-year-old son.
The pandemic has profoundly shaped my parenting experience in numerous ways. I had to transform my house into a combined virtual school, daycare, and work setting. The last year has negatively impacted our seven year old, who is autistic, mostly due to disruptions to the in-person support that he needs to truly thrive. Navigating these evolving dynamics, while working, running a household, and trying to stay sane has been extremely challenging. But being present in my children’s lives makes every moment worth it.
My father left when I was 3 years old. Because he wasn’t in the picture for my upbringing, in some ways, I am trying to reach an ideal as a father that I couldn’t actually see as a child. Something inside pushed me to be different, to counter the “absent Black father" narrative.
When I was younger, my perception of a father’s role was very different than it is now. I grew up in Newark, New Jersey, where norms for a Black child, a Black young adult, and a Black man could be stifling. The limits were very clear on what society deemed appropriate for a Black man, and how you were supposed to interact with others. I was never comfortable with those unwritten rules.
Once I began surrounding myself with other fathers of color, I started to realize I wasn’t alone. Media, television, and popular music perpetuate this idea that Black dads aren’t in their children’s lives, and that’s simply not true. Good Black fathers do exist, but it’s taken more time for our experience and contributions to be recognized.
It is so important and powerful for a child to have a father figure. I see that my kids’ view of fatherhood is being shaped by what they see in me.
Parenting in a Pandemic
Before COVID-19, my wife was working full-time at a university. After giving birth to our son, I supported her decision to leave her job so that she could dedicate more time to care for our children and our home. Caring for four children, including one with special needs and another who just learned how to walk, especially during the pandemic, is not a one-person job. It requires flexibility and patience. Even tasks as simple as taking out the garbage become complicated if the timing isn’t perfect.
One of our most challenging times during the pandemic was when my wife became ill and we worried that she may have contracted the virus. As we awaited her test results, she was quarantined in our room for several days while I took on the responsibility of caring for our children and for her. During that time, my family depended on me most as a father and husband, but I still needed to work in order to provide food and housing for all of us.
It’s difficult to give 100 percent of who you are to each of these distinct roles, and I struggled silently in fear of imposing guilt on anyone who depended on me. Even after my wife recovered, I suffered through many sleepless nights, anxious about who I was letting down each day—my kids, my wife, or my coworkers?
As I became better at expressing my feelings to my wife and colleagues, I also gradually began to better balance my roles. I didn’t want to be that dad who is always working and isn’t present in my kids’ lives, and they all understood that. I’m grateful to have the flexibility to be the best father, husband, and professional that I can be. Every day during my lunch period, I put my youngest down for a nap. Feeling his small hand grab my finger as he says “Dada, go to sleep?” is my signal that it’s time for the highlight of my day. My wife and I alternate helping our school-aged kids with their homework, preparing lunch, and taking the entire bunch outside to play. The silver lining in these times is how closely I get to watch my kids grow up before my own eyes.
Supporting Caretaking with Policy, Culture and Leadership
I recognize that I am blessed to be able to find balance. Many obstacles prevent fathers from being fully present in their family's day. Because of the environment I grew up in, I intimately understand the forces holding people back. I’m referring not just to a culture that only encourages men to pursue a very narrow set of traditionally masculine career paths, but also systems that make it difficult for men to take time off when they have a new baby or a sick parent. There is no question that policymakers can do more to break down those barriers with reforms like paid family leave.
There’s a role for employers here, too. It’s really important to build a culture that doesn’t just extend paid family leave benefits, but also encourages employees to use them when needed. I used to be nervous to take time off when someone in my family got sick. This added anxiety and stress made the situation even more difficult. I no longer feel that way, and wish others had that autonomy. I am grateful that I can take time off and be an active parent and caregiver during this devastating time.
There’s also a cultural piece—caregiving responsibilities can impact someone’s career growth. It’s so important for those in senior positions of power to understand this. Even if you have the right policies in place, people may judge or subtly dismiss those who actually take time off to provide care. Supervisors must lead by example, and be aware of implicit biases.
These false archetypes of what a leader looks like can influence decision-making. Even a well-meaning supervisor could ask themselves, “Should I avoid giving more responsibility to someone who is a caregiver?” They may have good intentions, but that outlook could hold someone back. It’s not just about having the right policies on the books, it’s making sure they are implemented equitably as well.
Bringing it Home
I’ve also seen what male caregiving can do to help a family grow and thrive. When my wife was raising her son who is autistic, as a single mom, her caregiving role was overwhelming. Depending on the resources available to you, based on where you live and your level of support from family or friends, single parenthood may be extremely tough. You may be constantly putting out fires, burned out, and strained. You may not have the flexibility to plan for the future if your present feels like a nightmare. How can you think about investing if you can’t even pay the bills? There were little to no resources available to her and her children in the city where she lived, so she relied heavily on her mother to navigate through that phase of her life.
For me to take on the role as her partner has had a great impact on me. I also see that my wife now has more freedom to dream. She became a certified life coach, discovered her passion for psychology and is taking college courses. We launched a podcast together where we have real, honest, and transparent discussions about relationships, family, and careers. To hear her aspirations and see her grow is breathtaking. At the same time, our son’s development has gone through the roof. This has been so uplifting for all of us.
As someone who has been impacted by false narratives, and is working to bring about a new one, I’m grateful to be involved in this work. In my life at home, I know that I may not always have the perfect words to express how I feel on command, but my children know that I love them, and my wife does too, because I show them every day. There is nothing more important to me than that.
Like me, many men of color take pride in caring for their children and families. To read more about our experiences, check out the new brief A Portrait of Caring Black Men and Every Family Forward’s Man Enough to Care series, including their thought provoking survey of real men who care for others.
About the Author
Dwayne Curry joined RWJF as a program officer in 2019. Through his work he strives to ensure that all families, no matter their background, have access to the resources they need to raise thriving children.