Originally shared on The Mighty
She and I are dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” album in our living room. She’ll be 2 soon, but my wife and I are in no rush to see our daughter grow up. We want to freeze-frame every moment like this: her feeling blissful, unburdened and largely unaffected by living in a world — a country — which has found creative ways to attempt to invalidate, dismiss, silence and snuff out the dignity and worth of countless Black woman before her. For now, she’s just our little girl. She’s someone who makes living something to look forward to each day. She’s my everything.
There was a different scenario to all this, one in which my daughter is reaching out for me to twirl her, but I’m 6-feet under, incapable of making her feel safe. At its height, my manic disorder rendered me reckless and impulsive. At its depth, my bipolar depression told me: “Your life is no longer worth living.”
So, for me, any moment I have to parent, to guide and to steward is a blessing. While I’ve been saved and sustained by a grace-filled combination of divine intervention, restorative practices, therapy, medications and support from loved ones, I cannot deny the ever-present impact fatherhood has had on my life. Specifically, I’m a witness to the gifts of being a Black father living with bipolar disorder. It’s healthy for me to have this perspective and to intentionally remain planted in a space of gratitude, lest I forget how far I’ve come and forget what (and most importantly whom) I’m truly living for.
In a time of countless headlines about the harm done to the Black community, especially those of us who live with mental illness, it’s important and necessary for us to hold fast to joy, real joy, because there’s so much worth living for. It brings me happiness to take a moment to share the three gifts I’ve been given, by virtue of my daughter existing and furthermore showing up at a turning point in my own mental health journey.
1. A renewed purpose.
Our little one was born in the winter after I’d burned down our finances and almost rendered us both homeless. Circumstances, no matter how dire, are of no significance to new life. I prayed hard during those cold, dark days, as my wife and her medical team did all that was needed for a safe delivery. Our daughter was nothing short of a miracle. Her birth was a reminder of God’s grace and mercy over my life. I take none of this lightly. She gave me the gift of feeling grounded during a time where it felt like the floorboards were incessantly shifting.
I was jobless, hopeless and in many ways friendless. At the same time, I had the responsibility of being a stay-at-home father while my wife worked during the day. This meant having a reason to get out of bed, get dressed and keep someone alive. But, I didn’t just want my daughter to survive; I wanted her to feel loved. My wife told me the first few years of a child’s life are highly important especially for instilling a foundation of belonging and mattering. My daughter needed to matter, and she needed to see me as someone she could trust. I viewed every diaper changed, every bottle warmed and every tear wiped, as a step toward a future where my daughter knew she was needed, important and validated. In this, my purpose was renewed.
2. A reason to model healthy habits and behavior management.
Carbs and sugar are my weakness. Growing up, the food pyramid was a mere suggestion. Diabetes and hypertension were just things we carried, things I saw my aunts and grandmas deal with. Present-day is me needing to have a balanced diet, guilty pleasures and all, so I can manage my disorder. Food directly impacts my mood, so in addition to maintaining my own mental stability, it’s equally imperative I model healthy eating habits.
Consequently, my wife and I have been diligent about sweeping the supermarket for every healthy, organic and kid-friendly thing that exists. We’re serious about our child’s health. And, I know if I want to continue being a healthy presence in my daughter’s life, I need to watch what I put on my plate because there’s always an impressionable toddler watching every move of my fork. This truth, this gift, has been more effective than any personal trainer I’ve ever had.
3. An opportunity to reverse generational and racial trauma.
As I work to unlearn my own shame and unpack the burdens of racial trauma that directly impact my mental health, I can empower my daughter and teach her that her Blackness is beautiful, valid and welcomed. By taking my medication and showing up for therapy appointments, I’m a living example of how it’s OK to have brokenness, scars and wounds. Growing up, secrecy was paramount, so it was taboo to tell someone outside my family about my problems. But, this ends with me. I’ve experienced the benefits of sharing my hurts, and I get to be a father who challenges himself to be vulnerable. My daughter will inevitably have her own healing journey, like all of us, and I’m thankful to be able to show her what resilience can look like.
It’s evening now. My wife is getting ready to cue up our daughter’s bedtime playlist. Routines are important for children, and in so many ways, important for me. Even in something as simple as winding down for the day, I have the gift of structure because relaxing and centering before bed is ideal for someone who needs a good amount of sleep to manage his disorder. Our daughter’s yawning now. We’ve read one last Dr. Seuss story and it’s time for prayer. I hold her hand and she gently grips mine. My head is bowed, my eyes shut and breathing even. I tell God how grateful I am for sustaining our family, I ask for guidance, wisdom and favor, and I request He never let me take this privilege of being a father lightly. At that moment my daughter leans her head against my arm. I peek and notice a smile on her face, and then I shed a tear no one sees.