Article Thumbnail

My Life as a Stand-in Dad

When my sister’s kids were young, I moved in with them and became a co-parent. Now that they’re college-aged, I asked them what they made of that time, and how they came to think of me as both their uncle and replacement father figure

Welcome to The Daddy Issue, our very fatherly tip of the cap to the father figures in our lives as well as all the fatherly stuff they can’t help but do — from pretending they’re not asleep on the couch, to the dad jokes that make even Tony Soprano smile. We’ll talk to famous dads and their equally famous progeny and also deconstruct fatherly influence in each and every one of its forms. In doing so, we hope to come out the other side with a better understanding of our own — and everyone else’s — daddy issues. Read all of the stories here.

It’s not easy to be a father. It’s also not easy to be a replacement father — to step up and act as a father figure when no one else will. I know because I’ve done it. And the trouble for a replacement parent comes from the fact that, ultimately, they’re not your kids. It’s something the world will constantly remind you of — especially if you don’t share the same skin color. 

My sister has three children, all of whom are white-passing, although my sister is not. Nor am I. I’m unmistakably Black in appearance. When my nephew Griffin and my niece Skylar were in preschool and elementary school respectively, my sister left her husband and needed help raising them, so I moved in and became both uncle and father figure. It was meaningful, no doubt. But again, it was far from simple.

My sister worked full-time as a loan officer in real estate, which meant she was often driving all over the L.A. basin. She’d leave early in the morning and return after dark. So I’d make Griffin and Skylar breakfast, walk them to school, come home, go to sleep, wake up in the early afternoon, pick them up from school, walk them home, make them snacks and do their homework with them. Then, when my sister got home, I’d head off to my job working as a painter from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. 

“I used to tell the other kids at school, ‘My uncle, he’s not my dad, but he’s my father, basically,’” Griffin says, who like Skylar, is now college age. “I always felt bad about not having my dad around, but I never resented the fact that I didn’t have a dad like other kids. I never had a dad, but I always had, in my opinion, my father, because that’s how I thought of you. Some of the happiest memories of my life were when we’d have our boys’ nights together and just sit around, with you, I don’t know, teaching me fantasy football, or the rules of football.”

“I enjoyed it when it was just the two of us because then we got to do whatever we wanted,” Skylar adds. “And I didn’t have to pretend. When I’m with you, I can be real. I’ve always appreciated that.”

Not that our bond was able to prevent all sorts of confusion and awkward moments when we were out in the world together. It might have been apparent to us, but many others had no problem leveraging the fact that it was clear I wasn’t their parent. I will never forget the time I promised Skylar ice cream but had left my wallet back at home, which meant we needed to walk back to get it. Being a toddler, however, Skylar didn’t like that plan — she let go of my hand and tried to run as far and as fast as her little legs would carry her. I, of course, immediately chased after her. 

Before I could reach her, a minister at the church we were running past scooped her up. But he wouldn’t hand her back to me. Instead, he flagged down a passing cop car. The cops got out, and the minister told them what he saw. I informed the cops that she was my niece, but I had no proof. So they wouldn’t release Skylar until she eventually called me by name and asked to be handed back to Uncle ZZ. That’s when the cops believed me –– when they could believe the two-year-old child.

Yet, as much as these moments tore me apart, they’re not at all what stick with Skylar and Griffin today. “Even in kindergarten, I used to color myself in with the brown crayons and give myself dreadlocks because I wanted to look just like you,” Griffin tells me. “When they said, ‘Paint what you think you’re going to look like when you’re 15, or you’re 30, or you’re 20,’ it would literally just be you — it would just be a very crude, ironically horrible drawing of you. I was always so proud that you were my uncle, and that you were like my dad.”

If I’m being honest, I used to kind of want a Father’s Day equivalent for father figures — whether it was an uncle like myself, a grandparent or anyone else who steps up to raise kids that aren’t theirs. But I’ve also come to realize that the labels themselves don’t really matter all that much. It’s your effect on the kids you’ve been tasked with raising that’s most important. Because in the end, “parent” is best when it’s not used as a label but as an active verb.