How do I know if I'm a great father or a terrible father?

Can I be both at once?

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published June 17, 2022 9:00AM (EDT)

D Watkins and his daughter (Photo courtesy of D Watkins)
D Watkins and his daughter (Photo courtesy of D Watkins)

With a few fresh baby wipes resting on top of the wipe warmer, I pin my daughter Cross, who needs a diaper change, down with my left elbow, because although I have washed my hands in the thorough style of a Johns Hopkins Hospital neurosurgeon, as my sweet wife has instructed, I then touched my iPhone, the device my sweet wife considers to be the dirtiest item in our home. (I often wonder if she thinks I rub my phone around the rim of a dumpster every night for 20 minutes before I come in for dinner.) While trying not to press onto my daughter's torso, I reach for the hand sanitizer. I think of rewashing my hands but don't want to step away while she's on the changing table — she could take a leap of faith deep into her fuzzy pink throw rug and land both of us in the doghouse. 

Cross squirms and kicks, knocking the wipes off the warmer as I punch a perfect glob of sanitizer into the center of my palm. I am sanitized. I try to pull out another wipe, but it's stuck, so I tug. Sixty wipes explode out of the box onto the changing table and the floor.  

"You OK up there?" my sweet wife yells from downstairs. "You wash your hands?" 

"Yes," I reply, followed by a semi-offended, "you know I washed my hands!" 

 "Yeah, OK," she answered. "I didn't hear you do it."  

The entire floor of the house now smells worse than a gas station restroom at the end of the night.

Cross is playing with the wipes, tossing them into the air like confetti. I grab a chunk of the remaining wipes off the table with one hand and undo her diaper with the other. Inside was 15 pounds of waste that somehow came out of my 15-pound baby. No really, how? The entire floor of the house now smells worse than a gas station restroom at the end of the night. I power forward, using the remaining wipes to disappear all evidence of the feces, rolling those soiled wipes into her heavy diaper, then rolling the whole package into a tight ball, sealed on every angle to suppress the funk. I slam-dunk the ball into the Diaper Genie, then quickly apply the regimen of lotions, oils and creams that my sweet wife requires after every change, before fastening on a new pamper. Cross jumps to her feet, still up high on the table, spreading her arms, excited to hug me for completing the task.

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"Dad-yeeeee," she says. 

"One second, baby," I tell her.  

I reach for her shorts and catch a whiff of a toxic odor wafting from a place it should not waft, because I just cleaned her and I know I sealed that diaper with CIA-level security. What is that smell? 

I look down at my hands. My index and middle fingers have a thick brown swirl of chocolate stink on them that I have also transferred to Cross' shorts. Now I have to take the big gamble of flipping myself into the bathroom to thoroughly wash my hands, while peeking out of the door every three seconds to make sure she doesn't jump off the table, then dry my hands, then check them again, then drench them in enough sanitizer to make my skin burn and peel. I do all of this quickly and efficiently, and then I run a bath to wash Cross as thoroughly as I washed my hands, re-greasing her with the same assortment of lotions, and snap on a new diaper and outfit. Mission accomplished. This is what being a great father feels like.

Cross smiles, showing off all her tiny white teeth. "Hello, Dad-yeeeeee!"

"Hey, Cross," I smile back. 

My sweet wife walks into the room, looks Cross over, places her back onto the changing table, takes off the diaper, readjusts the tabs, and tells me that I put it on wrong.

"What?" I reply, with a hit of anger. Is my sweet wife trying to snatch away my moment? Can she not see that I'm Dad-yeeeee? 

"It's not a big deal," she says, applying all the lotions I have already applied. "You just have to make sure the bottom is secure. We don't want her leaking out." 

Cross gleams, giving my sweet wife the hug that was meant for me. The nerve of this toddler. 

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I get upset like a child. I don't yell or scream or shoot back rebuttals. I am more of an inside-my-head type of guy. Deep, deep into my skull is where I venture, to the section responsible for questions like: What does she mean I didn't put the diaper on right? Does she know I changed this little girl's diapers a zillion times? Does she know my fingers were just covered in doo-doo, and I still was able to save our daughter from becoming one with that doo-doo? Could she not smell the 172 lotions I applied in the order she told me to apply them? Does she know that I care just as much as she does? Does she think that I don't care? Why does she think that I don't care? 

All my dad had to do, literally, was show up.

I grew up in the '80s, at the height of the crack era. Many of the dads from my neighborhood were on the wrong side of the drug war: using them, selling them, sitting in a box because of them, or dead because of them. Having a dad was as rare as a four-leaf clover in a sea of concrete; in the event of the miracle of your dad being present, you probably only really saw him on holidays. Present dads lived at work; they made money, came home, fed the family, relaxed with a beer for every bit of two minutes, and then got up and went to work again. They didn't change diapers, give feedings, or wrap their fingers in stink like me. No dealing with emotional growth and working through the issues that many children face. Dads saw their kids when they saw them. 

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My dad was there. He had his struggles with addiction, like most of the men in my neighborhood did when I was young, but he always kept a job and made sure we had the basics: food, shelter, Nikes. His presence made him a neighborhood hero, but the lack of paternal figures also set expectations extremely low. All my dad had to do, literally, was show up. 

Sometimes I tease him about it. "I swear your generation was terrible," I laugh. "You guys weren't responsible for anything past money. You guys didn't even know your children's names!" 

Being a great father now means taking your kid to school every day, mastering all kinds of weird TikTok dance routines, making a bunch of money no matter how the economy is doing, dressing cool for an old guy, being a master photographer and social media caption writer, and cooking five-star meals, perfectly plated and photographed, to receive no fewer than 1,000 likes after the first two hours on Instagram. I'm exhausted.

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My dad often reminds me that his dad — a drunk, philandering salesman and alleged war vet — wasn't around, so he had no real examples of what a great father would be. 

"You know I try my best?" my dad once asked. "You know I tried to be the father you needed." 

"And you are great," I respond. "The best father I could ever ask for." 

He choked up, his eyes becoming glossy wet slits, as he pulled me in for a hug. That's also rare, because I don't really hug, but I obliged him. I was being 1000% honest. As far as dads went, he was the best I ever saw. Of course I count his mistakes, just as my daughter will be able to count mine. But despite his flaws, I still think he is amazing.

What will my daughter think of me? Will I be the best in her eyes? Because times are changing. The era of the absent Black father is over. 

What else am I doing wrong while aimlessly thinking I'm doing a good job?

Not only are statistics showing a rise in the presence of minority fathers in households, but we Black fathers are also working hard at being the people our fathers could not be for us. My friends who are dads are not only spending time with their children, they are getting their nails painted, baking cupcakes, figuring out how to braid hair, and enjoying every minute of it. According to the CDC ,"Black fathers are more likely than their white and Hispanic counterparts to feed, eat with, bathe, diaper, dress, play with, and read to their children daily." We are being more vulnerable, fighting to be more understanding, and sharing chores with our spouses, while doing the emotional work and trying our best to be as present with our children as mothers have been for generations. But are we doing it right? After all, I thought I did a good job on that diaper, but I put it on wrong. What else am I doing wrong while aimlessly thinking I'm doing a good job? Am I not strapping her tight enough in the car seat? Applying too much cinnamon to the oatmeal?

"Are you a good father?" I asked one of my close friends. "What does your girl think? Better yet, what does your kid think?" 

"I swear bro, I ask myself that all the time," he responded. "I feel like I am, but you know …" 

I do know. It's hard to gauge your impact when you are present everyday and the results don't really come in until you get to see your child's grade school, collegiate or business accomplishments, the impact they have or the people around them and their community, the way they interact with their own family (if they decide to have to have one) and then the ultimate test: how they reflect on their experiences with you. What will she say about me?

Will my daughter say that I was the most loving and caring guy she ever met, a true gift from God? Or will she say, "This klutz couldn't even change my diaper without dipping his fingers knuckle-deep in doo-doo! Get this asshole out of here!" 

My sweet wife snaps me out of my Aquarian aloofness, questions my constant day dreaming and pondering. "What are you thinking about?" she asks. 

"Nothing," I say instead of telling her my inability to change a diaper perfectly, two years in, makes me feel like a failure. I know she'll respond with something like, "You are beyond amazing! The best father ever!" but isn't she supposed to say that? I can't imagine her actually saying, "Our daughter would truly be better off if you spent more time at a work. As a matter of fact, take a job in another city and Zoom in biweekly, because things are better when you aren't around." 

I sit with all of these rambling thoughts and ideas — sometimes while holding my daughter, sometimes while the three of us are curled up together on the couch, the two of them fast asleep. In those moments, I can't help but feel like I did something right. The intimacy allows me to pull away from the emotions that cloud this journey, and I can see that I am not special, and neither is my wife or her comments on how I administer care. Because the truth is there will be times my sweet wife will get it wrong too, and I know she cares more than anything. And if I'm lucky, I will be there to pick up the pieces the same way she fixed the lopsided diaper. This is what family is. 

We are normal people who are sharing a beautiful experience and what is special–– is the way we live, love, try, and talk about that experience for us and for the sake of our child, her life, and wellbeing. We love our union and our child dearly, and will proudly suit-up and go to war over that love with any and everyone–– but that should not mean each other. 

I watched my sweet wife change our daughter a few times after our exchange. Carefully and slowly, I mastered her artful technique, her ability to throw multiple wipes in the air with her left hand and catch them like a Cobra Kai sensei with her right before sanitizing our child. I vowed never to walk away from the changing table until my daughter's diaper was applied a step beyond perfect, in a manner that exceeds the company's application guidelines and expectations. My great diaper debacle behind me, I finally felt good enough to earn my sweet wife's respect.

"Baby, no, no, take that diaper off of her," my sweet wife said after I finished changing my daughter. "Do you listen? We switched to pull-ups." 

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By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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Diapers Essay Fatherhood Fathers Father's Day Parenting