The Trials of Single Fatherhood

At 21, Mason Jamal planned to become a big-time music producer. Instead, he became a dad -- and is better for it.

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masonjamalmichael
Writer Mason Jamal with his son, Michael.

Before President Barack Obama was penning essays and delivering social sermons on fatherhood, there was Ed O.G. & Da Bullldogs. It was the early '90s and the hip-hop quartet from Boston had a hit single on their hands, “Be a Father to Your Child.”

For absentee dads everywhere, it was a call to action, even if it was tantamount to herding cats. For men already doing the right thing, it was affirmation. For me, it was merely a song with a positive message and a dope horn riff. I was 19 years old at the time. Becoming a father to a child was not part of the picture. I was planning to become a producer to some rappers as I fixed my gaze on Atlanta to pursue my own music ambitions. Things changed when I was 21.

Last Wednesday my son turned 18. It seems that he grew up faster than Ed O.G & Da Bulldogs fell off. Where does the time go? I remember holding Michael in my arms for the first time and not wanting to let go. Emotionally, I haven't. Over the years, I've cried for him. On occasion, I've cried with him. Bonding during the good times is great, but bonding during the bad times is cathartic. The latter occasions were numerous. At an early age, my son displayed a propensity for doing things the hard way. He struggled for years with his temper and his academics. As a result, I struggled for years with striking the right balance of support and discipline.

At the time, I unfairly blamed his mother for the reasons our son was constantly getting in trouble in and out of school. She and I never married, but we shared custody. The problem was that our values were different. I wanted things for him she didn't seem terribly concerned with, and I found myself hating her. But I came to the realization that doing so was subconsciously hating a part of him. And to be the father I wanted to be, I had to let go of the ill feelings and accept her and, even more critically, accept the part of her that was in him. It wasn't an easy thing to do, but I did. I had to for his sake.

Being a young father spurred me to write an essay for Essence magazine in 1995 -- in it, I briefly discussed the turbulent relationship with his mother. More importantly, it was personal narrative of a young man's quick and unexpected pivot from being a carefree college dropout to a young father, who knew he had to grow up fast. I was all in.

His arrival shook my world. I began to think differently. I was moved to go back to school and complete my degree. I wanted to be able to provide for him in the manner that I have. I also yearned to set an example so that he would want to follow in his father's footsteps and go to college as well. Several years later, he was there at my graduation. I still have a framed photo taken that afternoon of him wearing my cap and a beaming smile.

I wish I could say that everything went according to script. Instead, Michael would rewrite significant chunks of the storyline, you know, to make it more interesting. The kid was creative in his mistakes. But not all of his challenges were of his own making. Some were the inadvertent work of his numbskull dad, who at periods spent too much time fighting with his mom and not enough time putting him first. I taught him a lot -- how to tie his shoes, spell his name, shoot a free throw with proper form and be a critical thinker, among many other things. Unfortunately, I also taught him how to lose your cool and overreact. We're both a work in progress.

My amazing wife of six years, his second mom, helped to settle us both. To her credit she knows how to extinguish the testosterone fires that occur during some of our more intense father-son moments. She also knows how to step out of the way when necessary and let things burn. Sometimes he needs to feel the heat. Conversely, I've had to save him from her wrath, as well as the fury of his biological mother, on occasion. A dad providing refuge to his son from the women in his life? Men have to stick together sometimes. And here I am looking up at my son, who currently stands almost two inches taller than I. I hate that as much as he loves it.

I never made it to Atlanta, but that's OK. My son made it to college. He leaves this fall. For all of his mistakes and struggles, he came out on the other end of it wiser and more resilient. I can't begin to articulate the pride I have for the young man he's become. As far as his dad goes, I wasn't perfect. But I was there.

I dedicate Father's Day to him because, in more ways than he'll ever know, he made me the man that I am.

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