I'm 32 years old, and I'm about to do something that I've never really witnessed. I'm about to be a father. Sure, I've seen other fathers close up. There were a few scattered about in the Montgomery, Ala., neighborhood where I spent my teen years, and there definitely were tons on the Air Force base I lived on with my military mother. But my observations were those of a safari vacationer, jotting down mental notes and wondering if one species' habits were like those of another.
You don't have to go far to see bad examples of black fathers. Just throw a stone in any black neighborhood and you'll hit a house containing children but no father. Just last week, we as a nation collectively smacked our teeth and shook our heads as we read about Howard Veal, the 44-year-old man who fathered 23 children with 14 different women and owed $500,000 in child support. There are great examples of black fathers too, but you'll have to aim carefully with that rock to hit those houses.
My own fatherhood is about two months away. Until now I've managed to distract myself with work, side projects and healthy doses of ESPN. But now, as my beautiful wife's belly balloons with life and we feel our unborn son's kicks, hiccups and squirms against our palms, the reality and weight of fatherhood is sinking in.
My two best friends, like me, were both raised without fathers in their homes. It's a fact that we unconsciously bonded over in our youth.
"I'm always going to be there for my kids," we said to one another when we were 15. We exchanged those words at the same time we talked about the cutest girls in school and the new pair of Jordans each of us wanted.
But unlike my two friends, I haven't seen my father since I was toddler. My two friends have hugged and shaken the hands of their fathers as grown men. Like many of my generation, I could easily have walked by my father on the street yesterday without recognizing him.
He isn't in jail, and I don't think he's dead. No, he's just a dude who jettisoned my mother and me after a divorce. I've spoken with him once by phone in 25 years — it was a random call after two decades of silence to see if I had been in jail or had any children.
"What's up?" he had said, as if our last conversation hadn't been on the eve of my 6th birthday, with him promising gifts that never arrived.
"Nigga, what's up with you?" I said in my mind. But what came out of my mouth was a dry, "Uh, what's up?"
No kids, no jail, I told him. A journalist, I told him. Shock, he expressed. Yes, my mother is awesome, I said. The conversation lasted five minutes, and he left a number that later didn't work.
In some ways, having a father who was deceased or locked up would have felt more reassuring to me as a child than having one who had just washed his hands of me. There is a discarded feeling you carry with you when you know that some cat who fathered you is out there but doesn't care enough to nurture you.
I once hurt my mother's feelings when I was about 13 and she asked me if I would like to live with my father. I had said, "Sure, that be cool. I'd jump at the chance." The answer wasn't meant to trample the sweat and tears she had expelled to raise and mold me. It was just an honest response from a boy who wanted a father.
There have been men — two in particular — who stepped up and played fatherly roles in my life. I love them for their guidance, phone calls and visits to my college. But even though I know both of them would say they'd drop anything to help me through a trivial problem or counsel me through a challenging period, as I grew older I began to feel that my own expectations were a presumptuous intrusion on their lives and, quite frankly, not their responsibility.
Lately I've grappled with the fear that I'll overcompensate with my son. Will I be too strict? Will I be too focused on his education? Will I have unrealistic expectations, all in an attempt to ensure that he is smarter than I am, achieves more than I have, earns more than I do, is happier than I am, is better than I am? I know that's the wrong way to go about it. I've seen the movies.
I know I need to steady myself, relax and trust that this is just another phase of life that comes with its successes and missteps. I've experienced failure before, but until now those letdowns have largely affected only me. That's no longer the case, and it's easy to feel the pressure to be a perfect parent.
I know that viewing fatherhood like this is juvenile and unfair to my son. But at my most honest moments, these are the thoughts bouncing in my head.
OK, now that I've been honest with myself, it's time to do a hard-drive erase of my expectations. It's my job to put all of my issues on a shelf and love the heck out of this kid. With all of the Michael Jordan-Thurgood Marshall-Ralph Ellison dreams I may have for my son, it's simply my duty to love him. I'll be working his entire life to ensure that my dreams for him do not eclipse my love for him. That's what my mother did so well, and because of it, I am who I am. While far from perfect, I turned out OK.
The one promise I can make to my son is that his father will never discard him. He will always feel my love and presence, even if my fathering is a work-in-progress.
Topher Sanders is a newspaper reporter who is shopping his first novel. He and his wife live in Jacksonville, Fla. Their baby boy is due in November.