I did not grow up with my dad. He had a relationship with my mother for a time, but when they broke up, he vanished. I never knew why they didn’t make it; neither he nor my mother shared many details. I heard snippets here and there, but the full story never came together.
I was raised in California, by my mom, along with the help of my grandparents. My mom and I moved frequently — sometimes because we didn’t have money and sometimes because my mom felt a neighborhood was too dangerous. As a result, I attended a different school every year from elementary up until the eleventh grade, when I met my dad.
Before I met my dad, I had the worst thoughts about him, including wishing he were dead. As much as I tried to ignore his existence, I couldn’t. The disdain grew as I got older, and it festered in me. So when I first met my father when I was fifteen years old, it was awkward — for both of us. I had developed a personality and habits shaped by the struggles of growing up in poverty and being surrounded by crime and addiction. Survival was all I knew. My dad hadn’t been there to protect me from dangers or to help me understand what it means to be a good man.
A year after meeting him, I moved in with him, his wife, and their three sons for two years. They lived in a world I had only seen on television: a spacious home with a white picket fence in the suburbs of New Jersey, while I had been moving from place to place with my mom just trying to survive. Once I moved there, however, our true personalities emerged and often clashed. I detested the idea of chores. He drank too much. I skipped school. He had a volatile temper. I rebelled. He cursed at me. I consorted with the wrong crowd. He got angrier. In the end, after two years of conflict, I moved in with my grandparents before heading off to basic training and the army. My relationship with my father returned to what it had been before that time: nothing.
For the next fifteen years we were estranged, a period of time in which the original feelings of abandonment, confusion, disappointment, and anger reemerged. I was not paralyzed by my father’s absence — I went on with my life. But I was, in a way, haunted by it. I served in the army for four years, and then became a student at Howard University. A year after graduating from Howard, I attended Duke University School of Divinity. Both of my children, Aman and Jordan, were born during that time.
Finally, in 2017, my father and I reconnected. I visited him in Houston, where he had moved. It was a pleasant, encouraging time together. We had grown in different ways, and we were now able to communicate with each other with civility and as men. Our time together was so fulfilling that I left that visit with a thought: I wish my dad had spent more time with me.
I wish my dad … That sentence fragment grabbed my attention, causing me to pause and reflect. I came up with lots of different ways to finish the sentence. Finishing that thought allowed me to give voice to all the things I had longed for from my father. It gave me an outlet for emotions that I didn’t even know I had.
I wish my dad … Finishing the sentence gave me a way to be honest with what I had yearned for, a way to name the love for my father that created those longings in the first place. It was a way to identify what was missing and to admit that I needed things from my dad. Completing that sentence was a way to say that I yearned for deeper connection with my father and that my relationship with him felt incomplete.
You have to diagnose a heart condition before you can find the right prescription. There is medicine for the broken heart of a son, and it involves breaking the silent oath of being “a strong man.” It involves naming the pain on the other side of the thought: I wish my dad …
It was such a simple start to a sentence. But I began to wonder whether it contained the power to heal wounds I didn’t even know I had.
The sentence that changes everything
Was I the only man with unfinished business with his dad? Was I the only one who had a broken or sometimes nonexistent relationship with his father? I couldn’t be alone in this, I thought. Census data shows that of the 121 million men in the United States, about 60 percent of us are fathers to biological, step, or adopted children. That’s a lot of dads. Perhaps other men’s wishes about their fathers were not totally unfilled. Or perhaps their wish list was even more extensive than mine.
What if my father had been around when I was growing up? What if he had been the kind of father I needed, giving me guidance and affection? Surely his impact on me would have made me a more emotionally sound person. Surely I would have become a better father myself.
I wanted to hear from other men about their dad wishes and find out if other men longed for things from their fathers that they hadn’t received. So I started reaching out to friends and coworkers — men I knew in some capacity and would randomly invite to my home office for conversations about their fathers.
I ended up interviewing dozens of men. Some had good or mostly good relationships with their fathers, and others’ relationships with their dads were difficult or simply nonexistent. All but one “I Wish My Dad” interview took place at my home. Some of the men were local, some drove hours to Atlanta, Georgia, where I live, and most flew in from various cities for our conversations. I intentionally selected men of different cultures, ages, and socioeconomic environments. I wanted to see what, if any, common desires for relationships with our fathers transcended differences. Turns out that there are common threads among sons: from those who grew up in poverty — sharecropping and picking cotton — to middle-class men to wealthy aristocrats. Although their environments were different, all the men I interviewed wanted to experience love, affection, and time with their fathers.
After the third interview, I put a box of tissues in my office. At some point while sharing his story, every man cried. As one heartfelt conversation after another unfolded, I received tender, transparent, and emotional stories. Each chapter in the book centers on the story told to me by one of the men I interviewed, who graciously gave me their permission to share their story. (Some names have been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.) Some of the stories are tender and demonstrate the loving care of fathers who themselves were wounded but who managed to offer their children what they did not receive themselves. Some of the stories are hard to read and may be especially difficult for readers who have had traumatic experiences.
These are sacred stories that stretch beyond generations: of courage, vulnerability, and transparency. The lessons that those of us who are fathers can learn through the stories will be pronounced. Listening to these sons’ “I Wish My Dad” stories, we learn to show up emotionally; to meet our kids where they are; to express genuine concern for their feelings and listen without judgment; to create a safe space in our homes where our children feel loved, respected, heard, and valued. We can learn from both the healthy and loving choices these fathers made and from the unhealthy and unloving ones. If a son learns the transformative power of a father’s words, the healing touch of a dad’s hands, and the critical impact of a dad being fully present, he learns how to be a father and an emotionally healthier man for people in his life. While many of these stories point to the ways fathers fail to give their sons what they need, many also introduce us to fathers living out healthy, loving relationships with their sons.
I learned so much from interviewing men about their “I Wish My Dad” stories. Each story I heard confirmed my original assumption: all of us — no matter how much money our families have or don’t have, no matter where we live or how old we are or what culture we come from — need to experience love from our fathers in ways that allow us to feel emotionally safe. All of us desire deeper connections with our fathers. We want to be seen, valued, and treated like we matter more than work, money, or things. We want to hear the words “I love you.” We want to be hugged by our dads. We want to know our fathers’ stories: the challenges, fears, dreams, and childhood experiences that shaped who they became as men. We want to be seen for who we really are rather than who they want us to be. We want our dads to value and love who we are.
Here are a few of the things I realized as I listened to men share their stories with me.
1. When we speak to our sons, even when they are young, we have to be mindful that our words have an impact on their future.
2. Our sons should be striving to become better and more loving men because of our example, not in spite of it.
3. We need to determine if we are passing down pain to our sons. Are we leaving the same emotional wounds in them that our dads left in us?
4. Maintaining a silence around our mistakes and trying to live as if they never happened, without ever addressing them, is not helpful.
5. Having hard but healing conversations with our sons means they may finally get the relationship they have always wanted to have with us. We as fathers and sons can both share in the reward.
Clinical psychologist Deryl Goldenberg expresses the goal of giving voice to our father-and-son stories this way:
As men face the truth about their father-son bond, they will experience both pain and liberation. As they make their way through this emotional labyrinth, it can become a true “rite of passage.” The son can emerge with a stronger sense of his identity and a solid sense of his own masculinity. The son can come to feel more integrated as a man and perhaps willing to see his father more realistically, with both positive and negative traits. Both father and son may be able to recognize more clearly how their negative unexpressed feelings may still be impacting their intimate relationships as well as intruding into their friendships with men.
Goldenberg suggests that one goal of coming to terms with our feelings about our dads is to “no longer be entangled with them through anger or hurt.” He writes that men can carry “their newly earned individuation and energy into their love life, work life and friendships with other men.” In short, emotional freedom that moves each of us along the journey toward wholeness is our hope.
I hope that if you are a father reading these stories, you will see all the ways in which you’re getting it right. I hope, too, that if you also see the ways that you have been getting it wrong, you will push yourself to do things differently. I hope that you will be courageous enough to try. Break the cycle of toxic masculinity that has not served any of us well. Find ways to lay down your armor, hug your children, and tell them you love them. Spend time with them in ways that might make you uncomfortable but allow them to feel loved. Enter into their space on their terms, not yours.
I pray that you find healing where you need it and offer your children the opportunity to heal if they need it. I pray that you surrender to love and experience it fully so that you can offer it to others. There’s a saying that “you only live once,” but that’s not true. You live every day, and you only die once. Use this one life to thrive, love, hug, cry, laugh, and be free.
I wish all of you a life well loved.
Excerpted with permission from “I Wish My Dad: The Power of Vulnerable Conversations Between Fathers and Sons” by Romal Tune copyright © 2022 Broadleaf Books.