I Wanna Be Like You, Dad!

Photo by Szilvia Basso on Unsplash

Noboby’s perfect; we all make mistakes. But it’s especially hard when we make mistakes and there’s a little guy (or gal) watching, a child who just wants to be like their dad.

Two immigrant men I know have young sons who are their constant companions. They’ve taught their sons to fish and swim, to ride bikes and to play soccer.

These guys are both great dads and, right now, both are the primary caretakers of their young children.

But they’ve made mistakes and are paying for poor choices made due to the misuse of alcohol. They accept the consequences of their actions, but that’s not what really motivates them to seek help or change.

They’re motivated to change because of the look in the eyes of those little boys who want to be like their dads. Hearing a preschooler ask if Daddy is drinking again and suffering the humiliation of being handcuffed and hauled off to jail in front of their kids when they were stopped for driving under the influence were the catalysts for change.

Both men recognize the physical danger that their drinking habits have caused to their children. More importantly, these dads have come to recognize the damage that is done to their children’s mental and emotional health.

In a 1998 joint-study by CDC-Kaiser Permanente, 10 adverse childhood experiences (or ACEs) were identified as having a significant impact on the mental and physical health of adults.

One of these experiences is growing up in a household where there are substance abuse issues. This alone has motivated these dads to seek help.

While they may be motivated to seek help because of their children, they soon realize that they are other victims.

Many immigrants, asylum seekers and asylees have had their own share of ACEs and/or traumatic experiences during migration. According to therapist Michael Quirke, “a childhood that is scary shapes your nervous system and your brain. It creates a body that is ready to defend itself, or is adept at numbing, ignoring pain, and disconnecting.”

Substance abuse is a form of self-medication from the emotional pain, a means of escape from the overwhelming problems they face or of coping with depression or loneliness.

One of these dads, whom I’ll call E, is from El Salvador. His parents migrated and left him and his three siblings with a grandmother who was unable to care for them.

By age 12, he had run away from an orphanage and struck out alone for the U.S. to join his sister, who was barely 10 years older. With little adult guidance in his life, E became a father at 15, dropped out of school and was drinking heavily after the death of his baby son.

E’s next two significant relationships were with women who “just wanted to party.” He denies using drugs, but E admits that he’s an alcoholic.

One day, he saw his preschool son and step-daughter playing and realized that they were mimicking the actions of their parents when they were drunk. “They were staggering around and all,” he said. “It broke my heart. My kids deserve better.”

The other dad, J, is from Honduras, an asylee who grew up amidst gang violence in his community.

He was beaten and tortured by different gangs because he refused to join, and the police offered no protection, as they believed him to be a member of one of these gangs.

After numerous threats to their lives, armed gang members stormed his home as J and his family narrowly escaped through the back door.

The family split up, and J spent five months living on the streets of Mexico with his three-year-old son before entering the U.S. and requesting asylum.

J relates a harrowing experience of “trying to earn a few pesos for food” at a busy intersection in Mexico City and realizing that his son had wandered away and into traffic.

He also shared about being marked for assassination by one of the cartels, seeking sanctuary in a church and literally stumbling across the U.S. border to safety as they were being pursued by armed members of the cartel.

Many men in general, and many Latino men specifically, have a hard time dealing with their emotions, and this is reinforced by a “machismo” culture.

Men and boys are taught to be strong, tough and independent, and to express feelings, such as fear or anxiety, is to exhibit weakness.

Men, particularly those who have experienced trauma, are more prone to quick or explosive anger, more likely to isolate themselves from others and to avoid dealing with stress.

They often feel that everyone is against them and that no one would understand them. They avoid the appearance of vulnerability.

They often turn to drugs or alcohol as a way of dealing with the difficulties of life when they’re feeling overwhelmed.

Both E and J are taking steps to acknowledge the trauma they’ve experienced and the long-term consequences of not dealing with their emotions in positive ways.

It takes courage to break out of the cultural norms that they’ve been taught, to express vulnerability and to ask for help.

J has frequent nightmares, a common symptom of PTSD, and has difficulty trusting others and asking for help.

His primary focus is on the safety and security of his sons, ensuring that they never have to face the violence and insecurity that he faced. He realizes the key to their wellbeing lies in his ability to address his own mental and emotional health.

E has recently returned to live with his sister and her family, and his young son is with him. They’re attending church on a regular basis, surrounded by a supportive community. He says, “With God’s help, I can be a better person.”

Everyone makes mistakes. But these two young men exhibit a huge degree of courage, strength and faith, along with a fierce love for their children.

It is my prayer that these characteristics are the ones that will shine through and be most evident to their sons.

*This article was published on July 9, 2021 on Good Faith Media

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