Having a child often transforms a parent’s life. That transformation can bring innovative approaches to a profession or even parenting itself. With this Q&A series I’ll explore this phenomenon by interviewing Parenting Pioneers, who are redefining what it means to be a parent.
The first Parenting Pioneer in the series is Haji Shearer. He is the Director of the Fatherhood Initiative at the Children’s Trust, leading the campaign to increase father involvement across Massachusetts. Haji is a Licensed Social Worker and a father of two.
Andrew Bentley: You’re a dad to a son and a daughter. Tell me about them.
Haji Shearer: My son is 26-years-old and my daughter is 23-years-old. It took my son a while to find himself and his tribe. He’s an artist and he DJs. He’s also a bit of a techno guy and works in sales. He moved out four years ago and he’s poised to move back home soon. My daughter went to business school. She’s always been the traditional one. My family is very alternative, in terms of food and dress and she’s always been the normal one in the family. She is now very happy being a young, urban professional. My son is coming home but my wife and I were pretty much empty nesting for a while.
After having kids at home for so long what was it like to have an empty nest?
It’s a totally different vibe. I could go home and decide what I want to do. It allows me to remember that for me, parenting is relationships. A marriage and being a parent are the best course in personal development that I’ve ever taken. It’s a fabulous way to learn about yourself. Now that my kids are grown I have a the opportunity and the responsibility to go back and study myself on my own and not have this built-in course around it.
What is your role with the Fatherhood Initiative at Children’s Trust?
The Children’s Trust is a family strengthening organization that works to decrease child abuse and child neglect across Massachusetts. The Fatherhood Initiative is an instrument that moves through all the programs we have to remind people to include fathers more in the family intervention that we do. In our flagship home visit program that reaches parents 21 and under across the state, we make sure that it’s not just a maternal-child health program. We make sure that dads are involved and supported.
Why is the Fatherhood Initiative necessary?
A lot of the work in the fatherhood field is really an outgrowth of feminism. When we as a society started to look at women’s role in society, including the home, in different ways, it became really important for us as men to support more equality for women. And to think about how we could be more supportive. What happened that men and women didn’t anticipate is that when men started to do more childcare and do more nurturing in the home with children, we realized ‘this is amazing.’ I wouldn’t say women were holding us back, but we (men) had been prevented from engaging in some of the most heartfelt, dynamic work on the planet.
And yeah I see how it’s important to have some sort of vision and purpose in our lives beyond just raising children. But when there are, especially young children available for us, there’s so much we can learn from them and their development about ourselves and how to guide the next generation. And the emotional stuff around connecting with our kids feelings and who they are and what’s happening at school. A lot of us didn’t get that from our dads who had gender mandated roles in society.
As you know I totally fell in love with being a dad when I had paternity leave and was a primary caretaker for the first time. Did you have a similar moment where you thought, wow this could be my calling?
It was probably the birth. Both my kids were born at home by design. When I saw my son, my first born, come out of my wife’s body, I knew nothing was going to be the same again. And intellectually grasping that he would one day be a man, I mean how can you even get your head around that? This guy, who is moving back into our home as a man, was a little baby that I held. And I wiped his butt and taught him to read and ride a bike and climb a tree.
My dad was a great provider but he wasn’t super involved emotionally. He wasn’t a hands on guy until I was an adult. He owned a business and in my early 20s I started to work with him and that’s when I really got to know him. The home was my mom’s environment and work was his environment. With my kids I wanted to be in their world as well in a very intimate way so we knew each other from early on. That took an adjustment because my wife and I were raised in families where the dad’s weren’t hands on.
How have you been able to be an active, loving father and maintain your work commitments?
Years ago I came across a poster in the fatherhood world and it had a black man in nature and he was helping his toddler son cross a stream and the words on it said, “Fatherhood, the most important job you’ll ever have.” I used whiteout and changed it so it said “Fatherhood, one of the most important jobs...”. I believed then and I believe now that the most important job any of us have as human beings is to work on our own personal evolution. Again, parenting is an awesome way to do that. When my kids were young I was trying to be a become a better person constantly. I’m a big fan of daily reflection. I’ve been a regular meditator. People can practice meditation and / or mindfulness in different ways.
One of things I’ve been fascinated with when it comes to the black community is that parenting can come from many different sources. In fact, father figures can come from everywhere, like pastors, uncles. How do you see that play out in your work?
I watched a video of Chris Gardner, the subject of Pursuit of Happyness with Will Smith. His dad was absent in his life and he was raised by a single mom. He mentioned this idea of spiritual genetics. There are certain biological genetics you get from your mom and dad and there are also spiritual genetics. That you can adopt or absorb characteristics from anyone in the world. And you can recreate yourself and redesign your mind. That was powerful to me because we all do that.
I would like to get some spiritual genetics from you. Is that possible?
Yeah, shoot some more questions over. Thoughts become things -- that’s the key aspect of it.
When you were helping me craft the mission of Father Figure you encouraged me to include ‘loving bond.’ Our mission is to ‘Strengthen the loving bond between fathers and their children.’ Why is the utilization of the word ‘love’ with fathers so important to you?
It takes back that which has been denied to fathers. We so often play the breadwinner role, or the disciplinary role and often society doesn’t acknowledge that those things are an expression of love. The love piece is important because it reclaims something which is ours.
What advice would you give to a new father?
Meditate everyday. Take some time for quiet reflection everyday. And remember that ‘This too shall pass.’ And enjoy every moment because it passes more quickly than you can imagine.
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