Terry recently became a new father. He also works as a teacher and tries to make an impact in his community through his social advocacy. As he melds these two aspects of his identity, he is coming to see how much of his experience as a father depends upon privileges that he didn’t earn. Here, he wrestles with balancing the call to love people on the margins as much as he loves the newborn in his arms.
I became a dad last summer when my wife, Whitney, gave birth to our first child, Caroline. In addition to paternity leave, I had the summer months to spend bonding with our daughter because I’m a teacher. That time with our newborn, as parents know, was both exhausting and exhilarating — it was filled with joy and grace. It was a privilege.
Because of my personality and my ingrained habits, it’s not easy to just hang out and do nothing during paternity leave. I work off to-do lists. I do not let dishes sit in the sink. Clothes must be folded and put away. I am doing my best, though. I am learning about life from Caroline, as she is now the teacher and I am the student.
In addition to household chores and errands, there are other to-do lists that compound the challenge of “letting go.” Broadly speaking, I am involved in social justice work as a full-time public high school history teacher, as a part-time volunteer activist with a couple community groups, and as an amateur writer. At times over the past several months, I’ve thought: I should do some lesson planning. I need to grade these essays. I should make it to that community meeting — they haven’t seen me in months. I must make an appearance at that protest vigil. My congressman needs to hear from me. Facebook needs me to weigh in on this issue. I should write a short piece on that.
I find it tempting to locate my identity in the work: If I’m not doing anything about the children at the border, about the fires in the Amazon or Australia, or about impending or continuing wars in the Middle East, who will?
Not only is this unhealthy — and possibly egotistical — I have to recognize it is a privilege to indulge in such thinking. For one, many working parents don’t have time for such volunteer endeavors. They are too darn busy. And second, those on the front lines affected by such injustices don’t have the luxury of unplugging and then plugging back in when they wish. They don’t get to pick and choose which struggles to join. The struggles choose them.
In the middle of these ponderings — Am I doing enough? — I am called out of my head by the physical environment and in-the-flesh relationships developing in my life. It is an oak tree in our neighborhood park that re-centers me. Or the birds in the feeder, or Whitney’s gentle reminder about how to mix the baby food, or Caroline’s less-than-gentle reminder that she wants the baby food, or the fumes from her dirty diaper.
Most especially, Caroline’s laugh and her searching, melting gaze calls me out of my head: Be here… now… presence… centered... Oh yes, this is what it’s about, I am reminded. Being with Caroline, with Whitney, is what it’s all supposed to be about. Even all that social justice work and talk — when you take the ego out of it — is ultimately supposed to be about individuals being able to have special, secure moments with a child, a partner, a dear friend, an older parent.
And yet, these special and secure moments are not just made possible by Caroline, by Whitney, or by me. Each of these special moments comes as a form of support that requires a little social archaeology.
For one, Caroline was born in a very good hospital and received excellent medical care. She has a very good pediatrician within walking distance from her house. Her mom and dad and both sets of her grandparents, two hours south, are available for all her needs (so much so that we likely have spoiled her). Caroline breathes very clean air. She bathes in, and eventually will drink, clean water. She lives in a nice house in an intentionally planned community in a safe neighborhood. When she is not nursing from Whitney, she eats good and healthy food. When she is of school age, she will go to a very good public school, walkable from our house. When she is old and independent enough, for fun, she will walk to the train with her friends and head into New York City. She and we are privileged.
Let’s dig deeper, though.
Medical care and child care: Caroline and Whitney were the beneficiaries of very good pre-, peri-, and post-natal care because we have very good health insurance. Whitney had very generous, by this country’s standards, maternity leave. Likewise, I am on a very generous paternity leave. Both Whitney and I have good jobs and are members, respectively, of strong labor unions. These unions and others have historically fought to obtain our benefits and rights, and they help protect them now. We hitherto had landed our jobs, in part, because of the very good educations we received and also the networking capital that comes along (deservedly or not) with going to very good universities.
Clean air and clean water: Caroline breathes in very clean air, especially for North Jersey. And once a week, she even gets to smell cookies in the air with the Nabisco factory around the corner, which is an added magical bonus. Meanwhile, the Newark neighborhood we used to live in has some of the poorest air quality in the country. Not too far from our old apartment is an incinerator that receives and burns much of New Jersey and New York’s trash. It happens that the majority of the people in that neighborhood are Latino. We didn’t have lead in our water, but many of the predominantly black neighborhoods of Newark still do.
Housing: the house Caroline lives in was bought with a VA-backed mortgage, which we could take advantage of because I served in the Navy for four years. I didn’t do anything extraordinary in the Navy — being a college-educated officer instead of an enlisted “grunt,” I avoided any combat danger in Afghanistan or Iraq, for instance. Nevertheless, I am happy we could take advantage of such a generous loan insurance program. Additionally, the down payment for the house was partly paid with some modest cash passed down from my recently deceased grandfather and his apparently generous — news to us — portfolio of stocks and bonds.
After World War II, Pop Pop used the GI Bill to go to college and also to buy a house in the suburbs. These were his, my grandmother’s, and eventually my mother and her siblings’ (and by extension, my) tickets to the then-burgeoning middle class, along with millions of other Americans. Similar stories transpired with Caroline’s other great-grandparents, from that same generation.
Many black Americans, including black GIs, were denied access to government-insured mortgages, however — and through various machinations, they were denied access to “good neighborhoods.” Housing, it must be noted, has been the single, most crucial social lever that American families have used to build and pass on wealth. Therefore, many black families, and other families of color, have not been able to build up the same type of wealth — be it extreme or even moderate — that white families (generally speaking) have been able to.
And it is wealth, more so than income, that gives a family its safety net, its security, and its stability. We are the beneficiaries of some wealth and thus a little safety net.
Education: we will not have to pay tuition for Caroline to attend excellent K-12 public schools. New Jersey has recently been awarded “best public schools” in the nation, but it also has some of the most segregated schools in the nation. This is because New Jersey has some of the most segregated cities, towns, counties, and neighborhoods in the nation. Caroline’s age-peers just a mile away in Paterson on the other side of the Passaic River probably will not go to a public school as good as hers. Most of those peers across the river are children of color.
Caroline’s luck, or her blessing, does not necessarily mean that others can’t have such luck, or blessing. I don’t believe it has to be zero-sum game. But history shows that we have unfortunately treated it that way. To a great degree, we have because others do not. More than luck or blessing, our situation is the result of power and privilege.
As a first-time father, I love Caroline deeply — I’m driven to provide for her and make sure she has the resources she needs. At the same time though, should I not ask to what degree I and the communities I affiliate with hoard resources? Historically or currently? Nationally or globally? How can I love Caroline more than anything in the world, but not at the expense of other children?
And in the end, what should we do to fix it? Care for Caroline or care about other kids? Write this pie-in-the-sky article about other people’s kids I haven’t met, or be with my own kid, now, here, in the present moment? (She’s napping by the way.) Act for change, or simply contemplate the beloved in front of me?
Franciscan priest and spiritual teacher Richard Rohr often speaks about the name of the institute he founded — the Center for Action and Contemplation. He says that the most important word is neither “action” nor “contemplation.” It is “and.”
The answer is “both-and” — both action and contemplation; both Caroline and other children; both vocation as father and vocation as teacher. Be still with Caroline here, yes — and go out to make these moments possible for children and parents of all colors and creeds.