Hi, my name is Joel, and I’m a co parent.
Growing up, I never heard the term “co parent.” I heard a lot of other things: absentee father, sperm donor, deadbeat dad, and my personal favorite: baby daddy. Baby daddy, for those not in the know, refers to an individual who helps to conceive a child, but does little else. A baby daddy is also someone who is not married by law to the mother of said child. A co parent was a term I assumed was only reserved for white families that star in televised primetime dramas. It wasn’t a term used to explain the role of a parent — either you had kids, or you didn’t. And no one was having explicit conversations at the dinner table about the role fathers played in the conversation. A shared responsibility in the household, a balanced and more open parenting approach, was not a topic of discussion in our social circles. A majority of the time, the fathers I knew of growing up were barely present or completely nonexistent. Coparent wasn’t a phrase used or heard of where I came from.
I come from the hood. That hood would be Creston Avenue and 188th in the Bronx. I was born in the American Reaganomics era, coined after Hollywood actor turned profiteering President Ronald Reagan, whose trickle down economic policies helped ring in a new industry of financial propensity: crack. I should know — my eldest brother was locked up in state prison for ten years due to the harsh drug sentencing penalties that were issued out like peanut M&M’s in the 80’s. There were a few cases of fathers living in the household with their children, but we rarely saw those in person. Those dads were working 2 jobs to help put food on the table. And a lot of other fathers were doing time upstate for doing the same things my oldest brother got caught up in. And when those fathers weren’t around, there was only one person we could all turn to for food, shelter, warmth, love, and discipline: our mothers.
My mother, who I playfully call Linda T., was my first example of love, and what showing up as a healthy parent looked like. She was a hardworking, devoted single mother, a woman who would have benefited greatly from having a stable and secure partner as a co parent. Linda Theresa Daniels was and still is my matriarch, my bandaid, my salvation, the closest thing to a personal Jesus I know. My father, God bless him and his courage, was a Vietnam veteran suffering from Bipolar Disorder, Paranoid Schizophrenia, and Alcohol Dependence. By the time I was in 1st grade, my parents were already divorced, my mother choosing our safety and her life over maintaining a very dangerous status quo. My mother accepted no child support, choosing instead to continue working her job as Medical Surgical Technician for Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx, accepting help with groceries from family and hand me downs from Ms. Helen, her coworker at the time. For a lot of us in that hood, there was only one person we could all turn to for food, shelter, warmth, love, and discipline: our mothers.
I vowed, whenever I had children, I would be married to my partner forever. We’d share the same bed and home, we’d eat at the dinner table together, we’d argue at Ikea…normal stuff. My partner would feel safe and loved, and our children would grow up in a two parent household. However, things rarely ever end up how we plan them: My daughter Lilah has never known a home with both of her parents living together under one roof. Her mother and I were never married. We dated on and off for several months before she was pregnant. Up until then, my mother didn’t even know she existed. I was ashamed, embarrassed, and at times, suicidal. What was I doing? Where did I go wrong?
I never wanted the stigma or label of being what some thought was the stereotypical Black father — absentee, confrontational, non-communicative, not present. It took a lot of work, time and effort to finally realize that, for us, maybe the commitment we made as parents didn’t need to involve wedding bells and a shared household. Maybe for us, co parenting lay not only in the layered nuances of our partnership, but also within the capacity of our hearts to tend to another human that we had created…together. It would include love, a nurturing environment and space for us to show up in ways that would feed Lilah long after we left this earth. We had to reshape our vision of what parenting was, to what we knew in our hearts coparenting could be. Fast forward, and Lilah is now four years old: she’s in Pre-K, loves gummies, and says things like “my heart is filled with love”. She’s the most loving, kind, and empathetic human being I know. And the reason I get to tell you all of this is because she’s back in the Bronx with her mother.
This is coparenting. And because of our co parenting relationship, Lilah’s amazing mother was able to get her bachelor’s degree in International Business at Baruch College. Six to seven days out of the week, while she studied nightly and went to work, I stayed with Lilah. I don’t deserve a medal for this.This is coparenting. And in an ideal world, my mother would have had a co parent, too; she would have had a break, time off. In an idealistic world, every parent is a co parent. I dream of this world everyday when I see the disparity in wages between mothers and fathers — according to the National Women’s Law Center, women are paid 80 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts, with mothers earning 69 cents compared to fathers. What this translates to is opportunity — if one parent has to turn down growth in their career or industry because there is no balance in the household, everyone suffers: the family grows weary from the weight and pressure, businesses bear the burden of a lack of diverse leadership, which essentially hurts our economy.
In an idealistic world, both parents share the weight and brunt of the work appropriately. Lilah’s mother and I have a schedule — I have Lilah some nights and pick her up from school, and some I don’t. Lilah’s mother gets to go rock climbing or study for the LSAT, and I get to have coffee with friends or go talk to a room full of inspiring, bold and dynamic women about dad stuff. It is work, beautifully hard work, dismantling the systems that would have us believe a mother’s role is in the kitchen tending to all things domestic, while the hapless dad fumbles over himself whenever he has to spend a weekend alone with the kids. It is work that needs to happen. Right now.
Far too often, it seems like when both parents work, one person is primarily tasked with organizing the household, and keeping the home in order. That person is typically a mom, or someone who identifies as such. Far too often, those who identify as women have had to sacrifice their dreams because motherhood takes precedence over all else. I’m not here to say it doesn’t, but what I am here to say is that, as equal partners and parents, we have to create safe spaces where the pursuit of our partner’s passions don’t need to take a back seat just because we’re too self-absorbed to show up as allies. Co parenting can make this space possible, for everyone.
As a co parent, I have gotten to share and spend time with Lilah in ways I would have never imagined. The alone time I get with Lilah is time I cherish, time that has personally allowed me the opportunity to be fully present for my child, moving away from the notion that the emotional labor required to raise a child is a woman’s work. As a co parent, Lilah and I have gone to museums, art exhibits, had dance parties; she’s sat with me while I’ve led workshops at Columbia University about the intersections of poetry, theater and hip-hop. We get to have conversations about her feelings and her emotions, because we have exclusive time together. And that time is not by happenstance. It is planned time, organized around not just my schedule, but her mother’s. Both of us, as co parents, have unique parenting styles. And while we may not always agree, we have a shared understanding of what it takes to raise a human…our human.
I have never and will never experience holding a child in my body for ten months. I will never know the trials and tribulations of breastfeeding; the full physical, emotional, and chemical toll carrying a child has on the female body; the potential for postpartum depression. What co parenting does is hold each of us, as parents, accountable for creating a more balanced home and work life for all involved. Co parenting says that, while parenting may involve sacrifices, the weight of that sacrifice does not solely rely on one parent only. No matter your relational dynamic, no matter how you identify as a human — he, she, they, zee — co parenting creates space for better communication and empathy: I hear you, I see you, how can I show up for you in a way that benefits our family?
So, my goal: I want all fathers to embrace co parenting as a way to create a better today for ourselves and our parenting partners. I want more fathers talking about fatherhood. I want more people to know that Black fathers, in particular, are more than just child support or the court system. Our value as fathers and co parents is not in the amount of zeros at the ends of our checks, but in the content and quality of the time spent and shared. Being a parent, being a father, is not only a responsibility, but an opportunity. This is for Dwain, for Skee, for Tyron, for Biggs, for Boola, for Kareem “Buc” Drayton, for Creston Ave.; for all the Black fathers showing up and doing the work. And for my father, Charles Daniels, who lacked the language and tools that would have allowed him to show up in the same way.
My name is Joel, and I’m a co parent.
*This essay is the unedited version of Joel’s TED Talk from 2019*