Why I'll Never Call You Dad: A Letter to my Stepdad

Dear Obbie,


I wrote the first draft of this on the day before Father's Day sitting poolside in Dakar, Sénégal. The place from which our mothers and fathers were stolen centuries ago. 


In this place that represents so much loss, where black families were literally disbanded forevermore in the name of colonialism and selfishness, I've been reflecting on what I've gained in my family over the years.


This holiday calls for a celebration of fathers and dads, but you'll never be that to me. Though as a stepfather, you've gone above and beyond all dad-like roles in these few short years, I'll never be able to call you dad or any derivation of the word.


This has nothing to do with you. I couldn't be happier to celebrate your place in my life--today for me is Obbie Day. 


My relationship with my actual dad taught me about fall outs, dysfunction, selfishness, incompatibility, rage, frustration, and self-consciousness. A dad was supposed to mirror the prototype of male affection I was to demand from other males in my life. Instead, I learned to be guarded and mistrusting around most men. If my actual dad couldn't see the good in me, then I'd have to test everyone to make sure they wouldn't taint me like he did. 


My dad quit fatherhood when I went to high school. I haven't heard from him since, save for some sad attempt two years ago when he tagged me in a tweet saying "Happy Birthday" and some other words about being proud. His account didn't even have an avatar (meaning his account wasn't actually set up properly), and it wasn't even my birthday anymore. In fact four days had passed. I never replied. 


Our relationship crashed and burned, and I swept up the ashes like it was just any other Sunday spent doing chores. 

But, you never gave up even though I tested you even harder than most men. You had promised to love the woman who had given up everything to raise me while balancing bills, dealing with her own heartbreak from a divorce, and finishing residency. That required the ultimate test.


But at the end of the day, I knew that you loved her, I could see the proof in the glimmer in both of your eyes. I could have never imagined that you would then extend some of that love to me. 


I'd be lying if I said our bond formed immediately. No bond with a man has ever been easy for me. I didn't even form memories of my dad until about 1999 when I met him when he came to visit my mom and me in Virginia when I was in the first grade. I don't even remember thinking of him, or better yet his absence, until he wedged his way into my life. I called him dad because I was supposed to, not because he'd earned it. So from the very beginning, the word has been voided of any real honor. 


I make myself hard to love on purpose--it's a survival mechanism to be jaded. It's why I sometimes pretended not to hear you, or I'd twist my face up when you spoke to me. 


But you rolled with the punches--you let my moods swing. You established yourself as an advocate and an ally so early it shocked me. I was 20 when you got married after just months of dating my mother. I was no child. I didn't expect to carve out much of a place in your heart for me let alone an entire room in your home, which you set up for me without my asking. I pretended to be annoyed, furious actually, that I had to move all my stuff into your house. That was a cover for my excitement--I was secretly happy to finally have a home base. 


For 20 something years Father's Day has meant nothing in my household. It was just any old Sunday. We did chores and prepared for the week just like all the other dadless families on my block. It wasn't a sad day or a particularly happy one, just one that started and ended and begat another at dawn. 



The first couple of Father's Days with you as my stepdad, my mom encouraged me to write Father's Day cards. We searched for the right nomenclature. We tried "Pops" a couple times. I wrote it in cards and texts in an attempt to find a suitable substitute for "dad." Nothing was ever quite right, and I certainly wasn't going to say any of those words aloud. I have always called you Obbie, in no attempt to be disrespectful, but because your name has such positive connotations. 


You've accepted me plainly as your daughter ever since you proposed to my mother four years ago. Whenever you introduce me there is no "step" included, no separation between the fact that I'm another one of your kids. But, I always make the distinction. Not because I don't see you as true family, but because in my mind it's almost offensive to lump you with my actual loser dad. You've elevated the meaning of family--your presence has literally been a step up.


But, I can't explain that to everyone I meet. Stepfamilies have such a negative connotation, so I always feel like kicking myself when I introduce you as my stepdad. I can see how you might've found a reason to be hurt by that sharp distinction--it can cut a little bit. 


Dad, Stepdad, or god awful "Pops" will never be quite right for you. Those are empty and devoid of the proper energy. 


I hope you haven't been offended by me calling you just by your first name. I know how we can be in black households--calling elders by their first name is not usually kosher. But I see Obbie as a term of endearment. There is only one Obbie Riley who can be held responsible for restoring a special kind of love and happiness to my nuclear family unit. 


Thank you for proving it's never too late to take a chance on love. Thank you for leading by example. I'll be looking for Obbie-like qualities in my next partner: Your compassion. Your work ethic. Your dedication to the people you love. 


With Love from your Daughter,



Mom. Me. Obbie at my graduation from Columbia Journalism School. December 2016.

Mom. Me. Obbie at my graduation from Columbia Journalism School. December 2016.

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