When I think about everything I’ve learned since the birth of my daughter – and still have to learn – I’m humbled by it all. I’m humbled by the realization of what it means to be a better husband and father, and a better human overall.
When I found out we were having a daughter, my wife and I were still struggling in many respects. Alexis wasn’t expected, and honestly, I was very much afraid of being responsible for another child in our family. We were really unsure, and in fact some family members and friends openly questioned whether or not we knew what we were doing in having another child. (That still hurts to think about.) But I remember one of my cousins, upon hearing my concern about even just the finances of another child, said, “James, it’ll be alright. You figure out how to absorb things, and you focus on loving your family as best as you can. Everything else takes care of itself.”
I think about that often when I look at her. She is such an amazing little human: smart, funny, fiercely loving, strong and sensitive. In fact, those are the qualities I want for all of my children. Those are the qualities I want for myself.
So… fast forward a few months, and I’m sitting with Darcy in her hospital room in the women’s pavilion at Henrico Doctor’s Hospital.
As we got ready to go into the delivery room, so many thoughts ran through my head. I was about to become a father for the fourth time, and this time – it was a girl.
We had already decided what to name her – Alexis Rae Warren. I don’t quite remember why we thought Alexis was important – but Rae is the middle name of the women in Darcy’s family. Darcy and her mom come from a long line of D’s, too, but we couldn’t come up with a D that didn’t feel dated. So Alexis Rae Warren it was.
After Darcy gave birth to Alexis, I remember the nurse giving her to me. The bright lights in the operating room and the sounds of all the machines faded quickly, as Alexis and I just looked at each other. I told her then how much I loved her and how I would do everything in my power to be the best father I could be. She just looked at me. She wasn’t crying, but I was. And I kissed her and gave her to her mother.
I now tend to look at life as before-Alexis and after-Alexis. Perhaps the events of the past two years have made me pay closer attention to the experiences that girls and women go through. Perhaps it’s having a daughter. Perhaps it’s both.
But probably the biggest thing I’ve realized that women aren’t given equal treatment – and it starts at a young age. It shows up in the way the toys are designed – which ones focus on ‘play’ vs. ‘learning.’ How the faces are drawn on girl dolls vs. boy action figures. How many TV shows are designed with boys as the default audience, vs. girls or at least a unisex mindset. It’s getting better, but there’s still a long way to go. It shows up in our tendency to say how pretty a girl is as the default compliment, while we focus on a broader set of a boy’s attributes or accomplishments.
I grew up with a really strong mom and sister, both of whom are the epitome of resilience and grace under pressure, both of whom sacrificed much for their family, and both of whom are or were extraordinarily accomplished.
Maybe I thought that simply being exposed to that upbringing was enough to make me a better man towards women, as though it occurs by osmosis. Now I realize that while it may have shaped some of my perspective and expectations related to women, it didn’t shape my expectations related to myself. That part was and still is up to me. There’s no osmosis there…
What I began to learn is that it’s all about what I think, what I say and what I do both as a husband and as a father of a girl that can help my daughter develop the confidence and positive expectations of herself and the world – just like boys get the opportunity to do. It’s also about being a better role model for my sons in terms of what it means to be a decent human who happens to be a man (or a boy).
Becoming a father to a daughter also changed my perspective on women in our society. My views weren’t negative, but they weren’t proactive. They weren’t supportive. And I’m sorry for that. I used to be blind to the fact that a girl or a women is more likely to face significant disadvantages in terms of their income potential, their suggested educational pathways, the roles people expect them to play, the judgments based on their physical appearance, and even how people describe their emotions. Now I ask myself more often what I can do to support women – in particular – because I realize that the world we live in doesn’t always give women the same kind of support it gives men. Over the past two years, I’ve found myself having so many conversations – affirming, challenging, and ultimately common-ground conversations – with women of every background. In doing so, I found that many of the issues I had experienced as a person of color, really and truly were similar to the issues that many women face. For some reason, that made me feel, more… human.
So what does it mean? Well for starters, I try to be less assumptive, avoid generalizing and just connect one-on-one, human-to-human. It is a work in progress, but I expect more of MYSELF now in this regard. I’m accountable to me – and to all the women in my life – to be a better man.
In the words of the Queen, It really is all about R-E-S-P-E-C-T. And that is definitely something my mom and sister gave and got a lot of. So perhaps the roadmap was there all along, after all.
I’m sorry it took me all these years to start learning how to be better at this. But I’ve got some time left and I’m looking forward to spending the rest of my life being a better human, who also happens to be a man, towards other humans, who also happen to be women.
And I’m really excited to see what Alexis will do with her life, as a phenomenal human, who also happens to be a woman.