Toward Tenderizing Daddy Disappointment
By Allan Shedlin
Grampsy and Founder, DADvocacy Consulting Group
My dear friend and “Bronx brother,” E. Ethelbert Miller, was kind enough to share his recent poem (below), “Fathering Words,” with me. I eagerly read it, and then I reread it. I recommend you do the same:
My poems come from my father’s
heavy lifting. The sweat of my words
his sweat. My poems seldom sleep.
They are too tired for wordplay or rhyme.
Night streets found my father a long way
from home. He walked like a jazz musician
dipping his shoulder into darkness. His
muscle music a deep moan. My father
was a tired saint. A good man and provider.
I am a poet. All I do with my hands is
write. It is my father’s pain that gave
birth to this gift.
- E. Ethelbert Miller, August 2022
I met Ethelbert 22 years ago, when I sought him out after the publication of his book, Fathering Words. It is sub-titled “The Making of an African American Writer.”
When the book was reprinted as a paperback to commemorate its 20th anniversary in 2020, I was honored to write “A Note on the 20th Anniversary of Fathering Words.” I remembered well the existential pain expressed by Ethelbert when he wrote “a father’s love (is) measured by the distance between us (when a father is) the man I never knew, but the man I always saw.” I remembered it because it mirrored a similar pain I felt at my father’s frequent absences during my childhood and youth, and it echoed the soulful sadness that has been shared by so many of the 200 men I have conducted in-depth daddying interviews with.
In this poem of the same name as the book, Ethelbert refers to his dad as “a tired saint. A good man and provider.” So it caused me to wonder if during these two decades time between the book and the poem, Ethelbert’s feelings about his dad had evolved.
During my father’s memorial service 20 years ago, I shared the thought my father had done the best he could. It was the first time I acknowledged that – it was as if, in his death, there was no longer a possibility that I could hope he might be more truly present. And in saying it aloud, perhaps I was on my way to truly believe it.
In the intervening years I have worked to more fully believe he did the best he could. He may not have been around as often as I wanted and needed, but I have come around to a more tender understanding, a reckoning of sorts that he did as good a daddying job as he could.
Perhaps I’ll eventually fully believe it as the years of yearning and disappointment give way to remembering my father’s good-heartedness; as compassion overtakes the years of sadness.
My father, too, was “a good man and provider.”
Thanks, Ethelbert, for sharing your “fathering words” and this invitation to reflect. As you reread it, may you also see it as an invitation for tender daddy thoughts.
Check out Ethelbert's baseball-themed trilogy, which includes If God Invented Baseball (February 2018), When Your Wife Has Tommy John Surgery and other Baseball Stories (September 2021), and the upcoming How I Found Love Behind the Catcher's Mask (September 13, 2022), all from Simon & Schuster.
Allan Shedlin has devoted his life’s work to improving the odds for children and families. He has three daughters, and five grandchildren, as well as numerous "bonus" sons/daughters and grandchildren. Trained as an educator, Allan has alternated between classroom service, school leadership, parenting coaching, policy development, and advising at the local, state, and national levels. After eight years as an elementary school principal, Allan founded and headed the National Elementary School Center for 10 years. In the 1980s, he began writing about education and parenting for major news outlets and education trade publications, as well as appearing on radio and TV. In 2008, he was honored as a "Living Treasure" by Mothering Magazine and founded REEL Fathers in Santa Fe, NM, where he now serves as president emeritus. In 2017, he founded the DADvocacy Consulting Group. In 2018, he launched the DADDY Wishes Fund and Daddy Appleseed Fund. In 2019, he co-created and began co-facilitating the Armor Down/Daddy Up! and Mommy Up! programs. He has conducted daddying workshops in such diverse settings as Native American pueblos, veterans groups, nursery schools, penitentiaries, Head Start centers, corporate boardrooms, and various elementary schools, signifying the widespread interest in men in becoming the best possible dad. In 2022, Allan founded and co-directed the inaugural Daddying Film Festival to enable students, dads, and other indie filmmakers to use film as a vehicle to communicate the importance of fathers or father figures in each others' lives. Allan earned his elementary and high school diplomas from NYC’s Ethical Culture Schools, BA at Colgate University, MA at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and an ABD at Fordham University. But he considers his D-A-D and GRAND D-A-D the most important “degrees” of all.