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What parenting looks like, according to fathers


This weekend, as we head into Father's Day, I've been thinking a lot about what it means to be a dad. My dad - we call him Abu (ph) - was an immigrant. He believed his duty was to make sure his kids didn't worry about money or food, and growing up, we never did. So thank you, Dad. He did not know how to change a diaper or cook dinner. Well, I should say he tried that once or twice, but it wasn't very appetizing. He worked really hard, though. I mean, he had this work ethic, kind of like no one I have ever seen. And I learned a lot about how to work hard from him.

And now I'm a mom. And on this Father's Day, I'll be in the office. Yeah, I will say, didn't plan that one too well. My husband will be home trying to handle a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old. My kids often say their dad is their best friend. When they cry, the first person they reach for their dad. When they want to play soccer, their dad. When they want to build some crazy Lego contraption, it's their dad. Given the crazy, unpredictable life of a journalist, most days, he drops the kids off to school, and he picks them up.

I owe a lot in different ways to both of these men, my dad and my husband, two men who have shown me that there is no one universal way to be a father. There are so many different ways to be a dad. And so we wanted to talk to fathers from different walks of life, like Kaden Coleman (ph). We reached him right before nap time with his daughter Journey (ph).


KADEN COLEMAN: Go get a Popsicle. Go ahead and take it. You have your iPad. You have your TV. Have all your lovely toys, all your books. Here you go.

JOURNEY: Thank you.

COLEMAN: You're welcome.

KHALID: Coleman is one of the dads we're hearing from this week ahead of Father's Day. He has two daughters. Journey is going on 3.

COLEMAN: But she is basically going on 30.

KHALID: And Azalea (ph) is 9.

COLEMAN: The biggest thing for me with my kids was always to make sure that they were built for tough because of the world that we live in.

KHALID: Coleman is trans. He uses social media to talk about his life as a trans father, especially his experiences with pregnancy.

COLEMAN: Especially for someone like me, who is also Black, also low income, things of that nature, especially 10 years ago, people weren't interested in learning about transmasculine people navigating pregnancy. So I had to do a lot of advocating for myself, and I experienced a lot of pushback and discrimination within the medical system based off of preconceived ideas of what a pregnant person is supposed to look like.

Fast-forward six years. With my second child, I thought that it would be different, and it really wasn't. I still had to deal with people telling me that I didn't belong in certain spaces. I had to convince a lot of people that I was pregnant and that I wasn't just some strange man trying to infiltrate the OB-GYN's office. I got offered abortions an astronomical amount of times.


COLEMAN: One of the biggest things that people get wrong is that we hate our bodies, and thusly, anything feminine remotely is something that we will reject. And that's included but not limited to pregnancy. Those of us who identify more on the masculine spectrum, just because we identify as such does not take away our desire to have kids. And if we have the body parts to do so, why not? And the other thing is that a lot of people think that because we gave birth, that we suddenly become mothers. And so people are always shocked when they hear my child calling me Daddy, my children calling me Daddy. And they're worried that our kids are going to be confused in some way, shape or form. And that's just simply not true.


COLEMAN: Being a trans dad means I was assigned female at birth, and I was essentially raised to adhere to societal standards of what a girl is supposed to be, how a girl is supposed to act. I think that because of that upbringing for myself, I got to get the insight into how women are perceived by society. I also just have certain experiences. Like, I know how to do hair. I know - you know, I'll know how to navigate when the menstrual cycles start and the bodies start changing.


COLEMAN: I know how to prepare them for what society is going to be expecting of them and teach them that they have autonomy over themselves. I'm just here to provide a safe space for them to grow and flourish into amazing adults who know what healthy, genuine love feels like and acceptance so that they know to be able to project that out into the world and hopefully be some sort of shining light to others. I feel like as a dad, my job is to be an example of that for them.


KHALID: Jorge Mata's (ph) story starts in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in the 1990s. Mata and his wife were living and working as doctors there until something terrible happened.

JORGE MATA: Part of the decision to come to the United States and move from Juarez was that we lost a couple of friends. They were doctors, too. In Mexico, you can have your office as a doctor, and next to that, you can have a pharmacy. Somebody came and robbed the pharmacy, but they killed my friends. After that, we say, you know what? Like, it is not safe. The violence and the crime was the reason for us to move to the United States.


MATA: When I moved with my two children, they were one year and a half, and my daughter was 3 years old. I didn't understand any English. Then I felt like, oh, my God, what I am going to do with two children, my wife, no home no car. It was scary at that moment to think how we are going to survive here. For me, moving to the United States, it wasn't a sacrifice. I knew that I was losing control of my life, but it was the necessary move to have my family safe.

My daughter, Cecile (ph), I remember taking her for the first time to a park here in the United States, and she went to try to play with children. And she noticed that they were speaking English, and she didn't understand - then the face of my daughter, just, like, looking at them and not being able to understand and coming back to us to sit down there and be quiet. And I say, what happened, Cecile? Said, I don't know what they are talking about, and I'm not going to be able to play with them. Then I have to explain, and, no, it's going to be, like, really fast for you to get the language.


MATA: My first job was at the Outback Steakhouse. They say, what do you do? And I say, I don't do anything because it's a new job for me. I didn't mention I'm a doctor from Mexico, no. But I said, you know what, I like to cook, and that's the only thing. OK, they say, then you're going to start as a dishwasher. Then I start moving on the positions there to do salads and then to do fried things. And then in eight months, I was doing almost all the positions in the kitchen.

When I'm cooking, my children, they know that I'm in the kitchen because first of all, they start listening mariachi music in the kitchen. And they say, OK, Dad is cooking. We have special meals for each one of them. My son likes to eat carne en su jugos. My daughter likes posole. And my wife, we like to do carne asada and ceviche.


MATA: What I most miss from Mexico was the friends at the level of college. And let me tell you, now I have two friends here that are my children, and they have college degrees. We talk about everything. We go to museums. We talk about art. We talk about music. We talk about the medical field, philosophy. They are so interesting, so intelligent that it's amazing for me to see how they transform from the babies that we brought here to really interesting human beings, adults that are doing well in their lives.


KHALID: Now Mata is practicing medicine again as a physician's assistant in California.


KHALID: Dwayne Jolly (ph) is an Army dad. His military service often took him far away from his three children.

DUANE JOLLY: And while we were taking fire, I remember thinking, please, God, don't, you know - sorry. Don't let me get shot in the back. You know, that's really what really went through my mind at that time was, you know, my kids, you know. I'm a retired sergeant major from psychological operations. I deployed to Afghanistan for three years and I spent one year in Iraq and about two years in Qatar.

KHALID: His wife, Patrice (ph), is still active-duty Army. They have a 26-year-old daughter, a 21-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter. Sergeant Major Jolly spoke to NPR while he was on a rare romantic getaway with his wife in Hawaii.

JOLLY: Oftentimes, just, you know, as a married couple, we don't get a chance to get away for ourselves. So we're down here in Kauai, and I'm sitting on the porch, looking at the ocean and listening to the waves crashing in.


JOLLY: Say the - my two oldest kids really caught the worst of it as far as missing out on things. One of the worst parts was my oldest daughter at the time, when I left, she was - I think she was 9. And so she was still a little girl - you know, pigtails and such. And then by the time I came back, she had hit puberty. And that was a bit rough, you know, to leave your little girl and come back, and, you know, she's becoming a young woman. I feel like I missed that transition period. You know what I mean?


JOLLY: There's definitely a difference in the attention that my youngest gets. And I will say that when I would leave, it certainly seemed to affect my daughter more than it affected my son. And you could see a correlation in my daughter's behavior or even in her grades. You could spot when her dad was gone. You know, her grades would dip down. And then when I came home, you know, her grades would come back up. Her behavior would come back up.

And then, yeah, with my son, he never really finished any kind of sport. So, for instance, I would start soccer with him. But then I'd deploy, and he'd quit. And then, you know, I'd come back, and we'd start baseball. And - but then I'd deploy, and he'd quit. I would say that my son's the only one who has even made the comment that, you know, he's not sure about the military because we were gone so much and that he doesn't want that for his family.

You know, my older ones know now, of course, what I did. But even, you know, my 12-year-old, luckily for her, she's, you know, had her dad at home more now that I'm retired. She doesn't have to worry about me going to combat anymore. I've promised her I'll never miss another one of her birthdays. You know, I will always be home, no matter what I'm doing for her birthday.

The sacrifices isn't just what the soldier or sailor, Marine makes - or airman. It's also the family. Their daddy, their mommy is not there for a year. You know, they're sacrificing their relationship with their parent. They're sacrificing their time - not just the soldier, not just the sailor but the kids as well. Even though it does take a toll on the family, I think it's important to serve your country. Serving your country is a noble effort, and I think that the sacrifices that we made were worth it.


KHALID: That was Dwayne Jolly, a dad who's now retired from active military service. Before that, we heard from Kaden Coleman and Jorge Mata. We want to thank them all for sharing their stories about fatherhood with us. And, you know, hearing all these stories, I realize that maybe it's not that dads have changed so much over the decades but that we have changed. You know, our cultural concept of fatherhood has changed. And I think there's something really beautiful in realizing that what it means to be a, quote, "good dad" in America is not identical for everyone and every family. Maybe fundamentally, it's just about love - sharing that with your children and trying to do the best that you can. So happy Father's Day to all you dads out there, especially if you're listening to my dad and my husband.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNS N' ROSES SONG, "SWEET CHILD O' MINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.