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Non Fiction: For Fathers That Are Present

For Fathers That Are Present by Lanre Apata

Finding a Fine Balance

Water was her first word. Clenching her lips to palatalize the word’s second sound with her soft voice, she would reach for a bottle of water or whatever seemed like water. But before she said water, she said love. In the love she said with her being I found the completeness that heals and covers void. I found happiness for moments I searched for meaning in the global chaos that announced 2020, and support for the times aspiration and work threw bricks to cause me a stagger.


I welcomed a daughter on a sunny Thursday three years ago. I had grown up recognising words as the most potent tool of expression where heightened emotion, the numbest moments, the resplendence of happiness like the bloom of a purple coneflower, the darkest hours that leaves mantis shrimps scampering, and the incredulity of that yet to be experienced all have sufficient descriptions in the languages I speak. Confident in the clarity language provides when navigating emotions from my years of reading Achebe and Ishiguro, Chekov and Soyinka, Kofi Awoonor and Langston Hughes, I was stunned when the words left me the moment the midwife who placed a newborn with legs curled and eyes shut remarked: you must have been looking forward to this day. I saw her symmetrical face first, then noticed the aligned brows. I gently stroked her feet, with my left index finger finding its way into her fists; opening them for air, opening them to the world. 


I have been a father for a few years now, too short to give advice to other fathers as some may say. I have been a father long enough to reflect on parenting, noting where I buckled while enjoying the fulfilment that comes along. I have been a father long enough to know the practicalities of the ideas I theorized as an ambitious young man may not match the real-life manifestation of the ideas. In my reflection, I took notes:


Never forget Day 1

You may not forget DAY1 but memories will blur some special moments and the finest details of some memorable days. You may have to record their moments. Take pictures of their joy because time will fade memory. Preserve their innocence with videos; growth will happen and adulthood will peel the innocence off their skin. Do this for the moment your son would say he forgot how he danced the day you returned home with candy or the day your daughter jealously pushed a friend’s child away from you, reminding those who cared to listen: he’s my dad.

Timestamp the moments you wish not to forget. Time will dilute the details of your daughter’s first attempt at feeding herself, or the words she yelled when you appeased her with her favorite ice cream flavour on days she visited the clinic for immunization. Write notes about them if writing isn’t a chore for you and send to the email account you signed up for them days after their birth, knowing memory, as Tope Folarin suggests, “isn’t just a catalog of things past; in times of desperation or loss or exile a memory can be a passageway into the future.” 


Dance, Sing, Listen and Act

The last two years have seen me dance, sing, listen and act. This tradition in parenting is not spoken of enough. Learn to dance when your two year old pulls you to acknowledge the rhythm of Pinkfong’s Baby Shark. Do not think your daughter will always sing to those melodic playtime songs and not have you as a backup singer when you are sitting on the couch next to her. Listen when they show off their growing language repertoire because there is satisfaction in the attention given. Be ready to act too; a readiness to act when she wants you to get into character while watching an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants or when your current TV show and its characters are not for her. Being present is understanding the need to be there when it is significant, when it is for their pleasure and when an adult is needed in the room. Being present is knowing you have decided to share your life and your time.


Here, sharing takes different forms

Fathering a child I love has offered me clarity on the ‘faces’ of sharing as a parent. There are days I draw inspiration from starring at a child I feel an inexplicable connection to, and there are days I lose productive minutes and hours, leading to struggles with deadlines, because I’m awestruck. It’s always DAY1 again, when I opened her fists to the world and later watched her voice water, on days I enjoy immense inspiration or on days quality work isn’t possible. Do not let worry fritter away your joy on days like this, and do not let your joy rob you rational judgement. 

Now, you have to learn to share. It’s at this point you embrace giving a part of you to someone that fills you with excitement, to someone whose joy is your presence. You have to share your time, your space, your food, and sometimes your light when the universe momentarily shines that which they find as illumination elsewhere.


Avoid “Keep Off!! Military Zone”

Before I became a father, I was lucky to understand the kindness in the language of parenting, either as a permissive parent or an authoritative parent. A language kind enough to underscore the importance of your presence is what you need. This language is not combative, it is not polemic and it is not militant. The language does not lace your feet in jackboots with whips placed on your tongue. It does not confer superiority on your sons for their gender, nor does it make cooks out of your daughters.

Find a language that does not shrink your sons and daughters, a language that does not steal their confidence. Find a language that matches what you stand for so an observed variance in your identity does not litter their path with confusion as they grow. Find the language that does not teach them absurdity in expressiveness, a language that teaches them the consistency of decency in all relationships, a language that teaches humility isn’t classlessness, a language that tells how truth can also be kind, a language that doesn’t convey weakness as strength, and a language that detaches a sense of superiority from privilege.  


“Love don’t cost a thing”

Yes, as Jennifer Lopez sang, love doesn’t cost a thing but loving has its cost. With this consciousness, you need to work, build, plan and execute. This is a call to self-love. Loving your child and forgetting yourself betrays your understanding of the ‘faces’ of sharing. It could cost you joy, fulfillment, your relationship with your partner or friends, or your professional ethos. Work and do not wait for a pat on the back or a reward from their work. Build whatever you find convenient – a legacy, a bungalow, a record or an estate. Plan to save the one you love from the chaos of doing nothing or doing everything for this is worthwhile, then execute for that is where the reward is. Find a balance while loving; literally a fine balance. 


Your Pocket or your Heart?

As you have not forgotten the cost of loving, you have to know that the heart is elastic enough to love nine children the same way it loves one. The pocket – considering inflation, the capitalistic nature of some progressive societies and the financial impediment plaguing middle-class fathers in struggling economies – may not be wide enough to provide for three or nine. This awareness survives on knowing loving also manifests as a responsibility which is to provide. Providing as a basic duty signifies presence. To this end, put a number to it since your heart cannot cater for the valuable education and the confidence-inducing exposure you desire for them.  



The Writer:

Lanre Apata is a full-time reader of literature, a part-time writer and an editor. He also works in Nigeria’s educational sector. This piece was originally published on his substack page, Finding a Balance