His pregnant girlfriend came from a long line of vanishing dads. How could he—a young, unemployed college dropout—persuade her (and her mother) that he'd be any different? Ta-Nehisi Coates remembers the nine most thrilling, unnerving, tightrope-walking months of his life.
Early one August morning, I stand and pledge a shamed fraternity—The Order of Unmarried Dads. I am the prototype: a college dropout with bad credit, a man who can't hold a steady job. I'm also 24, arrogant, naive, and convinced that "good father" and "husband" are not synonymous. It's around 6 A.M. and I am sitting in a maternity ward in Wilmington, Delaware, beside Kenyatta, my pregnant partner, waiting for a nurse to finish a battery of tests. Every day some nervous father-to-be wheels a groaning woman into the ward, only to find out it's a false alarm. Our nurse assures us that we probably fall into that category. But ten minutes later, she walks through the door smiling and I catch the sign—in the bowels of St. Francis Hospital, I am up.
All year I've studied for this moment, leafing through What to Expect When You're Expecting, Eating Well When You're Expecting, and The Expectant Father. I've humored the old women and their blind predictions of boy or girl. I've worshipped protein and iron, spurned sushi and smoky clubs, mastered rhythmic breathing, all to prove myself a responsible father and the iconic dad for these modern times. Never let it be said that I am simply the lunk who swills Guinness and cheers on Emmitt Smith. Let it be said that I swill Guinness only after ensuring that Kenyatta receives the correct allotment of folic acid.
Now I sit at Kenyatta's bedside, feeding her ice chips from a plastic cup, watching the meter for contractions, holding her close when it spikes. When she grunts and whispers, I untangle the web of IV tubes, toss her arm over my shoulder, and help her to the bathroom. Across the way, a woman is screaming like the goblins have gone to work on her. But from blood to bone, I am steel. Occasionally our nurse checks in—We should have you on payroll. You're a really good birthing partner. Not good. The best. And this is me drumming solo, beating the buzzer, embracing my moment, claiming my manhood.
Still a mountain looms—excluding the soon-to-be grandparents from the actual birth. In birthing class, Kenyatta and I watched a woman go into double labor on film—first with the baby, and then with her family. Eyes loomed everywhere, a scrum of relatives milled about, and in the midst of all the pointing and smiling, the expectant mother groaned and glared. It looked miserable. And so Kenyatta and I formulated a policy—grandparents are welcome at the hospital for support, but nonessential personnel won't be allowed in the birthing room.
I easily explain this to my parents. With seven kids between them, and grandchildren popping off biannually, they are fine with sitting this one out. But for Kenyatta's mother, Camille—the in-law who isn't—this is a loaded proposition. When Kenyatta was 2, her father walked out on his family. He never returned, but his ghost walks with Kenyatta and Camille, dredging up ancient issues of trust between black men and women. And so for their mutual protection, Camille has forged a secret pact with her daughter—it's the two of them against the world. Nobody, especially not a man, can save them.
I want to believe that I've given both Camille and Kenyatta reason to think differently about me. I don't close down the clubs or run the streets. I have a passion for cooking and reading, which makes me a natural homebody. Most important, I love Kenyatta. And I also feel bound by her pain. Her father's sin of abandonment, so common among black men, feels like some sort of burdensome family debt. On my honor, I'll have that debt paid. But I want to do it as I see fit—without fanfare and pomp, without grandiose titles and pronouncements, without marriage.
That's where I run afoul of Camille. Her own father was emotionally abusive. She was 19 when she got pregnant with Kenyatta, and her parents told her that marriage was the only next step. But things fell apart before Kenyatta was even born. Kenyatta's father joined the air force and shacked up with another woman. After Kenyatta's birth, he'd make the occasional half-ass effort to check in, but even that never amounted to much because of the considerable anger Camille held toward him. She only kept two pictures of him—one in which she's sitting on his lap looking very unhappy and another from his days as a collegiate basketball player.
Kenyatta is the only good that came of that relationship. In a life filled with disappointments, Kenyatta will always be Camille's rock. Smart, ambitious, and compassionate, Kenyatta is Camille's greatest and surest investment, a monument to Camille's determination and strength. Camille has long dreamt of the day when she could properly release her daughter into the world, but she hoped that release would come with some sort of guarantee. For Camille, marriage is at its core an insurance policy. That this guarantee did nothing for her own situation doesn't seem to matter.
Kenyatta and I rejected that notion of marriage early on in our own relationship, feeling that looking at matrimony from that perspective made the wedding ceremony resemble little more than an elaborate prenup. Besides, I doubt all promises made in the grand fashion of a wedding. A relationship is about the day-to-day work. Save the ring money, I reason, and make a down payment on a house.
But in a community rife with daddies on the lam, my theorizing sounds like the prequel to a great escape. I've only been with Kenyatta two years, not nearly enough time to make Camille into a convert. And now here I am about to phone her and explain why, at Kenyatta's most vulnerable moment, Camille will have to leave everything she's ever loved in my hands.
At first when I call Camille, there is joy, mostly because I've just told her that today her daughter will deliver. There is a quick conversation about logistics, about how to get Camille from Chicago to the hospital in Wilmington. But it goes sour as soon as I tell her that she will have to stay out of the birthing room. Camille is a hard woman with a soft exterior. Her style is curt and polite. So she does not explode on the phone—she simply tells me that she'll speak to Kenyatta when she gets here. I hang up, unsure and ill at ease. When I turn to Kenyatta, she is only half-lucid and approaching an ugly contraction: I don't know what to do with your mother. I tried to tell her, but she said she wanted to talk to you. Kenyatta looks past me, hyperventilating and squinting her brow. When the contraction subsides, she looks over at me, and now the steel is all in her. Her voice is low and impolite: Ta-Nehisi, I can't deal with this right now. You have to handle it.
After setting me straight, she leans her head to the side, half-burying it in a pillow, searching for some relief. Every so often a nurse walks into the room, asks Kenyatta if she needs more painkillers, and then checks her dilation. The thick drapes in the room are drawn tight, and between the darkness and the air-conditioning, I start to lose track of time. Kenyatta is only fully aware at the moment when a contraction peaks and punches its way through her trunk.
I met Kenyatta while we were students at Howard University. I was a romantic back then, with a preternatural ability to fall for girls I hadn't exchanged two words with. Lucky for me, when I finally did exchange words with Kenyatta we had a lot in common. We both considered ourselves intellectuals, and loved nothing more than to get drunk, get high, and then argue over some obscure point about debt peonage or feudalism. This is how I knew I'd found my match.
We also both believed in iconoclasm. So when Kenyatta got pregnant in late 1999, even though almost no one our age was having kids, we decided to go full steam ahead. I had no idea where that decision was headed. But I did know two things: (1) If I started having kids at 24, I could have my life back by 50. (2) A man who doesn't raise his kids is only half a man.
I grew up in West Baltimore. I had two working parents, and I never wanted for anything. My father was a very active—if eccentric—parent. And in my extended family, I was surrounded by strong men. It was different for most of my friends, who either didn't know their fathers or only had trivial contact with them. This was not just a matter of class. At Howard, many of my friends had troubled or nonexistent relationships with their fathers. Whenever my friends talked, I could hear a bitterness toward their absent half that chilled me. I felt a communal sense of disgrace, and desperately wanted to be some part of a solution. Had there been an army for black fathers, I'd have rushed to the front lines.
In the birthing room, sitting next to Kenyatta, I think about how I've turned having a baby into a political statement. For my son, I picked a name invested with meaning—Samori Maceo-Paul Coates—Samori for a Mande chief who fought off the French, Maceo for the black Cuban revolutionary Antonio Maceo, Paul for my father, and Coates for his clan. I fancy myself part of some grand plan to rebuild the bonds within the black community. In my relationship with Kenyatta, I've seen my own small but essential step toward that end. In making a child from that union, I've seen something larger, a chance to live for all those black fathers too broke-down to live up to the title. The revolution will be televised—if only on sonogram.
When Kenyatta first told her mother she was pregnant, Camille was mostly happy. Whatever happened with me, at 23 Kenyatta had proven to be capable of handling herself. She had a steady job as a copy editor and paid her own rent.
A few years after Kenyatta was born, Camille took a job at Federal Express. She's worked there steadily for over 20 years, slowly climbing the ladder and securing Kenyatta's needs. Her work ethic meshes well with black America's image of its women, not as domestic caretakers but as the economic engine that keeps us moving. We believe our men to be flaky, but our women are always there in the crunch.
And yet in placing herself in that mold, Camille gave her youth away to her daughter. After getting pregnant, Camille dropped out of college, and though Camille never talked about it, Kenyatta would often get a vague sense that Camille had ambitions that went far beyond FedEx.
But that never affected Camille and Kenyatta's relationship. In college Kenyatta's friends would tease her because she talked with her mother for hours, like she was talking to an old girlfriend. When Camille came to visit us, she would hover around Kenyatta, plying her with tales of Chicago, aunts who were expecting, and cousins who'd had their cars towed.
I came from a different world than Camille and Kenyatta. Though Camille and Kenyatta are very close, Camille's family is large but scattered, and only slightly interested in each other's affairs. Camille seemed hardened by the distance in her family, as well as the general distance that having a baby creates between the mother and non-mothers her own age. I come from an equally large and disjointed family—seven kids by four women. But my father was a strong thread, making sure all the kids were tight and refusing to allow us to use the terms "half-brother" or "half-sister." I came to my relationship with Kenyatta believing in family. But Camille's and Kenyatta's experiences with their respective fathers left them suspicious.
Camille flew from Chicago to our home in Delaware twice while Kenyatta was pregnant. Her visits were pleasant and awkward, mostly because she spent half her time praying her daughter was not revisiting the sins of her mother. Always I could feel a dull discomfort emanating from Camille, and I often felt like an intruding guest. Our conversations were generally brief. We'd talk about food or Chicago. Whenever Kenyatta left the room, Camille would leave with her. I should be fair and say that I wasn't that social myself. Part of it is my nature, but a larger part was that I felt much of the difficulty in my relationship with Kenyatta stemmed from my in-laws, both the one who was accounted for and the one who had skipped out all those years before.
One night about a month after Kenyatta and I started seeing each other, we were heading out to see a movie. She asked me a question about how her hair looked. I made some offhand remark about liking it better the way she had worn it the day before. I spent the rest of that evening attempting to douse Kenyatta's anger and convince her that I thought her hair looked fine. At the time, I wrote that episode off as typical male-female miscommunication of the "Do I look fat?" variety. But as we moved into our relationship, it became clear that a part of Kenyatta saw me as the mastermind of a mad plot to pull her into my clutches—and then trample over her feelings. In everything I did she saw clues of this conspiracy. She routinely set out to test me. She would walk into a room and pick a fight, or accuse a mutual female friend of ours of trying to steal me away. To her, this was simply self-defense—she never wanted to experience anything like the pain that resulted from having a father who walked out. So she'd assume the worst and keep her hopes at bay, thus lessening the approaching and imminent heartbreak. Furthermore, Camille's rage toward her ex-husband had rubbed off on Kenyatta, and I was catching the worst of it.
My parents and my younger brother drive up from Baltimore. They pick up Camille at the airport in Philadelphia, and then make the trek to St. Francis. Kenyatta hasn't dilated much since they first brought her in. She shifts in and out of consciousness. Camille calls to tell us that they are just moments away. I'm scared because the last thing I want is a fight with Camille in the maternity ward. I think back to some advice my dad gave me after the baby shower. The time there with Camille had been uncomfortable. Once again, I felt judged and I told my dad as much, hoping for a bit of affirmation. He was unsympathetic: Kenyatta's her whole world, man, and you've gotta understand that. I could see it in how she looked at her daughter. Kenyatta is everything to her, and you really need to respect that.
Yet I remember my father's own attitude toward his in-laws. For most of my childhood, my maternal grandmother's relationship with my dad was polite and cold. I never saw them fight, but I also never saw them have a conversation that extended beyond the level of "How's the weather?" And my dad seemed unwilling to do much to repair it. He would not ingratiate himself in the slightest, and never believed he had to prove that he was worthy enough to be with my mother.
But like Kenyatta's father, my maternal grandfather abandoned the family when my mom was young, leaving three daughters in the care of her mother. They lived in the projects in Baltimore, and, like Camille, my grandmother obsessed over protecting her daughters. When my mother met my father, his rap sheet read exactly like the sort of guy my grandmother didn't want her daughter to end up with. He was a book-peddling college dropout with an estranged wife who, while polite, had little tolerance for the sort of niceties and effects that my grandmother believed in. He wasn't a churchman, and he'd already sired five kids by three women.
My résumé reads better than my father's did, and I am more willing to bend, but I can't escape the thought that it isn't just the daughter revisiting the sins of the mother, it's the son doing the same.
Camille walks in with my parents at about 10 A.M. By then Kenyatta's hard labor is approaching the five-hour mark. The hospital regulations only allow two people in the room. Since I insist on always being present, that means that each visitor has to file in one at a time. Camille understandably comes in first. She offers me a hug and then stands over her daughter, leaning down so she can speak to her as tenderly as possible.
I've never doubted that Camille loves her Kenyatta. Now she talks to her in a really low voice, and Kenyatta responds in a similar tone, mostly because of the drugs. After a few brief moments, Camille walks out. After she leaves, Kenyatta says that she's told her mother that I had been speaking for both of us and wasn't trying to shut her out. I am impressed that Camille elects not to wage war over the issue.
My mother and then my father file slowly in. Across the way, I can still hear that lady's besieged wails.
Soon it is time. Kenyatta hasn't dilated enough to deliver, but the doctors don't want a protracted labor. They decide that it's best to send Kenyatta into surgery for a C-section. As it turns out, the hospital rules for surgery allow only the father to be present, so my near confrontation with Camille seems silly—I could have just let the doctors take the heat for me.
I stand outside of the operating room while they prep Kenyatta for surgery. The waiting is agonizing, but I am happy that we are nearing the end. A nurse escorts me inside and I stand near Kenyatta's head, not just because I'm squeamish but because I want her to know that I am here.
No more than ten minutes later, a nurse says the baby has arrived. And I see her walk away with Samori, who is bluish red. I am babbling every detail I can think of to Kenyatta. Finally, they bring me over and let me hold him. I realize then how inexorably I am now tied to Kenyatta. Samori's birth feels as binding as a wedding ring.
Then the nurse swaddles him in a blanket. Kenyatta is lying on a gurney. The nurse places him in her arms and wheels them both out, to where our old family awaits our new family. When Camille holds Samori, I realize how bonded I am to her, too. Samori's presence is a bridge extending between both of our families. I like to think of myself as the ultimate modernist and my relationship with Kenyatta as the ultimate modern romance. And yet, except for the absence of titles—husband, wife—there is very little different about what I am ultimately charged with as Kenyatta's partner.
I think back to a conversation I had with Camille on the last day of her first visit after Kenyatta got pregnant. At the time I thought she was being old-fashioned, but now I understand what she was getting at. On the day Camille was going home, I drove her up I-95 to catch her flight from Philadelphia. We were pulling up to the airport. She looked at me and began talking: Kenyatta didn't have a father. She was raised by me alone. I really appreciate your willingness to be a father. I want you to take care of my baby.
From I Married My Mother-in-Law and Other Tales of In-Laws We Can't Live With and Can't Live Without, an anthology of essays published by Riverhead.
Printed from Oprah.com on Monday, March 10, 2014
© 2014 Harpo Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.