A little more than 20 years ago, I learned one of my most valuable lessons about fatherhood — the hard way. It was a cold, winter night, and I was carrying my sleeping, 2-month-old son, Jamin, across a parking lot when suddenly, I lost my footing on a patch of black ice and went airborne. I landed hard, hitting my head first before landing solidly on my back. It was at that very moment — lying there motionless, in pain and embarrassed — that the significance of my role as a father hit me.
You see, I was flat on my back and vulnerable, but my little son was safe, secure and, surprisingly, still asleep in my arms. That is what being a father is about. Taking the hard hits, taking the pain, the embarrassment, taking all of it, but making sure that, above all else, you protect your children.
A few years ago, I was reminded of this experience after seeing Chris Gardner — the subject of the Will Smith movie, “The Pursuit of Happyness” — in an interview on ABC’s “20/20.” He shared the story of how he had fallen on hard times and ended up penniless and homeless with his toddler son. Though knocked “flat on his back,” Chris persevered with a determination to protect and provide for his son that took him from rags to riches as a top stockbroker and eventually the millionaire owner of his own Chicago-based brokerage firm. Before the “20/20” interview ended, I knew I had to meet Chris, and fortunately, I was to be in Chicago the following week.
I called Chris’ office and he graciously agreed to meet with me. We struck a quick and easy friendship, no doubt, because we had much in common. We were black men who grew up without our fathers and who were determined to be the kind of fathers for our sons that we wished we had had. We were fathers who easily could have “cut and run” — I as a nearly teen dad who resisted temptation and chose to stay and make my “baby mama” my wife; and he as a father who was down but never out of hope for better days for him and his young son.
These flat-on-our-back experiences steeled us and taught us that the truest measure of a father is not what he does for himself but rather what he does for his children.
Therefore, it is of little surprise that I left our first meeting convinced that Chris was a true example of responsible fatherhood, and thereby worthy to receive the National Fatherhood Initiative’s Fatherhood Award, along with other notable fathers such as James Earl Jones and author Dr. Stephen Covey. Chris has continued to show his commitment to responsible fatherhood by becoming a member of the National Fatherhood Initiative’s board of directors.
I am convinced Chris’ story will be remembered for a long time, and not just because Will Smith played him in a movie or because he is now a best-selling author. His story will be remembered because it’s an “every dad” story that communicates the hope-filled message to fathers everywhere, in every circumstance, to never give up.
His story is particularly relevant today as countless dads face underemployment or unemployment. Indeed, his story reminds all dads to be encouraged because some of their best fathering may start when they are flat broke and flat on their backs. After all, success in life and in fathering is less about how many times one falls, but rather, about how many times one gets back up. Because only in the getting up is “happyness” found.
• Roland C. Warren is the married father of two sons and president of the National Fatherhood Initiative (www.fatherhood.org). He can be reached at email@example.com.
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