To help a boy become a man there’s nothing like having daughters, writes Yarehk Hernandez.
I am the father of two beautiful girls. One of my daughters is the ripe old age of six months. The other is a bright and wonderful 18-year-old. I had my eldest when I was 18 years old myself, and I am now 36 – double the age I was when I had her.
When my eldest was born I was barely old enough to be considered an adult, and most definitely far from actually being one. Becoming a father so early was like exploring an unknown country that I discovered bit-by-bit and moment-by-moment with my daughter as my guide. And boy, did we travel. My daughter and I were inseparable; we blanketed New York City with her cries and my hopes, as we traversed the urban landscape to and fro on the arterial web called the subway.
My daughters are a lifetime apart, and in a way they have two different fathers. As a young man, I was rash, feisty and quick to anger. My desire to be the best Muslim I could be made me rigid in my understanding of religion and the role it played in my life. I learned how to be a father through trial and error, as I guess a lot of parents do.
My introduction to fatherhood is not a new story. Young men often enter fatherhood with very bad examples as role models. Fathering seemed to be exemplified only by the fictional men I saw on American sitcoms and films. These romanticised images presented a vision of fatherhood located squarely within middle class suburbia, far from the working-class poverty of my surroundings.
On the opposite side of the spectrum were the very real men I grew up with. They seemed to be absent even when present, their interactions with me apparently governed by a desire to impart by force what it meant to be a man. This imagined manhood was instilled in cold harsh realities that were always somehow contrary to the way I naturally was. My fitra, or human nature, was prone to kindness and softness. As an emotional child and adolescent, I was incessantly picked on for not epitomising the type of manhood or masculinity that my older brother and cousins seemed to excel at.
Manhood, like fatherhood, became this nebulous thing that others did and I merely observed. From what I could tell, being a man often meant ignoring the womenfolk in our family and performing acts of hyper-masculinity that were more show than substance. It also involved, in very real terms, being a misogynist and a sexist. In Latin America we call it machismo, but it goes by many names throughout the world, such as patriarchy or male privilege. It usually amounts to a closed-off old boys’ club where men get to be men at the expense of women.
Now, I don’t think that the men in my family were bad or somehow lesser men. Quite the opposite is true; the men of my childhood memories were providers for their families and worked hard and long hours. It’s just that, growing up, I wasn’t man enough for them.
My second child now has the opportunity to experience me at a different point in my life where masculinity and sexism aren’t conflated, and where being a father doesn’t come with the baggage of my youth. My littlest gets to have a stay-at-home daddy for at least part of her childhood, while I finish up my schooling and her mother works to provide for us as family.
My measure of self-worth is no longer tied to outdated notions held by previous generations of men. As an academic and critical Muslim thinker, I get to spend time with my daughters in more self-reflexive ways that are grounded within my practice of Islam as an embodied faith and living ethical tradition. Beyond clichés of being older and wiser, I have learned to locate my fatherhood in a space securely within my best-envisioned self. What this means is that I get to model fatherhood, manhood, Islamicity and – most importantly – humanity for my daughters.
While I am no longer the young man who discovered himself, religion and fatherhood at 18, I now strive to better my parenting and my Islam every day. They are now both verbs in my life. The challenges are different, but the rewards are multiplied.