Fatherhood and Being an RA

Gibbs and his mother

Gibbs and his mother

Last May, I got an exciting email that notified me that I was going to become an Resident Assistant (RA). I was ecstatic. Living in the “lodge” during my sophomore year meant I had no freshmen or other types of hall life, and soon I would have an entire hall to all my own (though I technically share my hall with another RA). I am at my happiest when I am part of a community, and the RA role would provide me the opportunity to foster one with which I would be deeply involved.

Now, as I finish my first year as an RA, I've been reflecting on something that has always been in the back of my mind: Fatherhood. As an RA, I am often viewed as a fatherly figure. But that very concept, fatherhood, like the word father, is alien to me. Yet, everyday I'm reminded of my father: when I look in the mirror I see his face, when I smile I see his smile, when I write my name I write his name.

My father and mother were never together, but when I was young he did come around. During these years, I would spend weekends with him and my younger brothers. Things were much simpler then, but still not quite easy. He only existed when he was around. He was married to another woman and had a whole different family with my other brothers. But only when I got older did I begin to wonder: why did he choose to stay and be father to them and not to me? I never got an answer. As I got older, I saw him less and less. Now, he pops up from time to time, but I have no idea where he is or what's he doing. Because of this unstable relationship with my father, my relationship with my siblings was strained as well. Today we don't talk, even if we see each other (an extremely rare occurrence).

My story is not an uncommon story where I come from. In fact, we almost never talked about fatherhood in elementary school and high school. It was taboo. Almost as if there was an unspoken rule to not talk about fathers. Even people who had fathers would often only mention them if it were absolutely necessary and relevant to a conversation or situation. In all my years, I can’t really remember meeting many fathers except for the monks at my high school. But this all changed when I came to Swarthmore.

I never realized how much my father's absence affected me until I began to hear everyone at Swarthmore speak about their parents. I heard stories of people and their fathers--their father-child adventures, the times that their fathers pissed them off, the times that their fathers were there for them. I realized I was jealous. I never had these experiences that seemed so ordinary and normal. Swarthmore reminded me how different my life is from that of many others.

Ultimately, I had to become my own father. I grew up to become independent; a side-effect of which was being cold and calloused at times. I grew up not looking up to any real male role figures because there weren't that many in my life. Yes, I did have many uncles and cousins, but nothing compared the kind of paternal connect of a father figure role model, let alone na male black role model. So still I fear that I could become like my own father. He didn't teach me how to be a father, and I could follow that example.

Back to when I received my RA acceptance, I was filled with excitement and trepidation: what does it mean to be an RA and can I even do it? Or, perhaps more saliently, what does it mean to be father, and can I even do it? Even after my first year as an RA, these feelings are still as vivid as they were when I first received that email last May. For me, the role of an RA is more of a parental or mentorship bond than a sibling bond.

In a sense, I am using my position as an RA to help reconcile my relationship with fatherhood. Maybe if I can succeed as an RA, there’s hope I can do the same for my own children one day. Not having a firsthand experience with fatherhood, I am piecing together something new. I am piecing together some ideal, though I don't even know what shape it holds. The RA role has helped by giving me a place to start. The RA position is a tough one that deals with a multitude of problems, from emotional support to making sure my residents get the right resources they need. Yet the RA position is really fun too; I get to be involved in the lives of my residents. I love when their eyes light up when they talk to me about their passions, when we joke around, and when we all spend time together as a hall during events. Currently, I’ve been rehired to be an RA for the next academic year, so I must be doing something right! Yet I still feel that there is still more for me to grow and figure out in terms of being an RA and fatherhood.

These feelings of fatherhood do not stop at just being a father; they also have their foundation in my conception of masculinity. These feelings have only been excavated as I reflect on the values of where I grew up. I attended an all-male school in the middle of Newark, New Jersey. Although I had an amazing experience, it was an environment of hypermasculinity and heteronormativity. The words “be a man” were echoed throughout my childhood and adolescence. What the hell does that even mean? Well, in urban environments and in my community of POCs, it means anger, not being perceived as a woman, non-emotional, strong, calloused, having a backbone, having lots of women, making money, not showing weakness, not crying, and more. For a long time, these were my conceptions of manhood. 

As an RA, and further, as a Swarthmore student, I have gained much critical distance from my world and its values. I have become painfully aware of my misconceptions and problematic attitudes and beliefs. As I try to work through these toxic values, the RA role has helped by providing a lot of interpersonal interaction. Helping my friends and residents has helped my own moral position, as I can see pieces of myself in the issues with which they are dealing--to quote Uncle Iroh: “Sometimes the best way to solve your own problems is to help someone else.” I am still picking up the pieces of myself, and this is not an overnight transformation.

Even now, I am still stuck with the question: what does it mean to be a father? In senior year of high school, I was given the prompt “what is a man?" For me, this question prompted another: what it means to be a father. I wrote down “vulnerable, persevering, has a moral code and sticks to it.” Immediately after writing this down, I was then asked who in my life fits this definition. Without a second thought, I wrote the only person I know who could fill this role: Alvarita Forde.

She's also known as my mom.

I am a son of a strong woman. And for most of my life she was my rock. I viewed her as both a father and a mother, and she had to be both of these roles. She is phenomenal, and if I end up being a fraction of the woman she is, I would be a greater man than anyone I know or look up to.

Yet her alone, was still alone. There was a masculine presence or paternal presence that I never got from her. Part of the problem could be that I am asking the wrong question and perhaps looking to the wrong places. I understand and recognize that my question has been extremely binary in terms of gender--maybe therein lies my problem. But no matter how much critical distance I can get from the world in which I was raised, I am still a part of it and it is me. I cannot outright reject everything I came from.

Today, I still struggle with fatherhood and masculinity. But now, when I look in the mirror I see my face, I see my smile and I write my name, and mine alone. I claim my past, and own up to my circumstances. I will not let my life be defined by what I came from.

I hope I'm doing the right things as I continue asking so many questions. Will I do the right things? Will I ever get closure? Can I be a man? Will I be a father? Can the RA position truly help me in achieve come kind of conciliation? Are those the right questions? Am I looking in right places?

All I have are questions… but I do have a mother.

I dedicate these words to my mother because although my life has had its struggles, she was always there to help me, to push me, to challenge me, and mold me into the man I am today. I owe a lot to her, and perhaps she’s the answer I could never see. As much as the RA position has given me a start to answering these questions, my mom has already given me everything else.

I dedicate all my words and all of my respect to all the Black, POC, Queer, and Trans single mothers this Mother’s Day. You have given everything to your children, and while we may not always recognize it, we will always appreciate it.