Whenever I’m in photographs, I’m rarely alone. Just as during the undocumented moments that make up the majority of life lived, I’m always with others: holding a child up high, or putting an arm around my love, or squeezing into the crowded framing of a group shot of family or friends. I am defined by the people in my life: son, husband, father, friend. So much so that when I have to, say, pick a photograph to serve as a profile picture on Facebook or Twitter or to illustrate my biographical statement for a conference or to put on the back of a business card, I don’t choose a solo photo. Partly because I don’t have any solo photos to speak of, but also because this is who I am, the man in the photograph with the child, with his girls, with his family. Who am I if not that man? Who am I without them?
Now, reading back those lines I realize that they sound way more morose than they were intended. Actually, they weren’t meant to be morose at all. I am because they are. I have always defined myself as such, and seen that as a good thing. When I was the college race activist, those things permeated all I did and all I was, from extracurricular activities to the very things I studied in the classroom. When I was a teacher, however badly and however briefly, youth issues and education for change and social justice were why I was there, were who I was in and out of the classroom, or at least, they were supposed to be. When I did digital journalism and social media, I lived on the cutting edge, I read and researched above my paygrade and dreamed of the next wave of the democratization of information and my place in it. I have never known how or where to draw those lines.
And as a parent, oh, as a parent… It is all-encompassing, all-enveloping in a way that makes all those other things seem mere preoccupations. And as someone privileged to be at home with my children for most of their, and my, time, sometimes those lines between them and me seem to fade into nonexistence. Sometimes, that’s okay. Other times, it’s a sign that you need a break, no matter how guilty you may feel to take one, for both their sake and your own.
Ironically, my break, a not-so-little pre-birthday gift from myself and from my wife, came in the form of a trip to a conference of dadbloggers. Six years ago, I combined my long-ignored love of writing with my love of my family and of this new role I found myself in and became a self-professed “daddy blogger.” I wrote about the politics of being a stay-at-home-dad, about race as a parenting issue, about all the little minutiae that fill the days of a new parent at home with a baby that no one really wants to read yet again. As time went by and our family grew, I wrote less and less, and got more and more tired. With a second-grader exploring her ever-expanding world and a toddler not yet in preschool but bursting with energy and thoughts and feelings she can’t yet express in language I can always understand, I’ve found myself quicker and quicker to vocalize frustration even as I cringe within myself when I do it and apologize after.
I didn’t want to put too much pressure on this trip. [And I do plan on writing up a post with more details about the actual conference and the actual trip itself. Though publicly promising such a thing doesn’t always work out for the best for me.] But part of me did hope that, with a few days away, by myself for the first real time, I’d be able to take a breath and come back… I don’t know, refreshed? Calmer? More me again? More able to be present for my family without the guttural noises of frustration that have been all too easy for my littlest one to mimic?
And you know what? Even with the missteps that always happen with trips and conferences and travel in general, I think it worked. I think I got out of it what I needed to get out of it. I was both alone and among peers, with other men who, even if they didn’t define themselves along the same lines as I did, were dads who wrote and were writers who parented. I got to breathe. I got to walk, alone. In the last two days, I hope that I’ve been slower to frustration, quicker to appreciation, and to showing that appreciation, especially to my oldest, so much like me in so many of the ways that scare me for both of us. And I think, I think that I have returned recommitted to writing. Maybe not to this blog necessarily and specifically, but to my craft, to the act and practice of writing, to being a writer, to writing all this down. Because if I really look back, before all those other encompassing identities and underlying them along the way, there was always this, the word, the act of putting fingers to keyboard, the magic of expression caught on screen and paper. This, too, is who I am.
And, at the conference, thanks to the friendship, generosity, and talent of a fellow traveler whom I’ve known for years but only just “met,” I finally have that headshot, that solo photograph, that image, alone, and yet not, because all those others who usually share the frame with me are still there, in my eyes and in my smile.
Today is my birthday, and this is me, at thirty-eight.
Who will I be tomorrow? I can’t wait to see.