I must have spent hours, in those first few weeks, staring into my daughter’s face: as she slept in my arms, as she nursed on a bottle, as she cried, as I changed her diapers.
I spent so long staring at her face that I was sometimes startled, when I looked in the mirror, to see that I didn’t look like her.
Fatherhood is like that. It reorients your world. You don’t just start prioritizing things differently: You actually start seeing the world in a new way. You see yourself a different way, too.
Parents often talk about how their babies help them look at the world through fresh eyes. You start noticing things you had forgotten about since you were small, because they’re so commonplace. You look at the play of headlights on the ceiling at night and imagine how that would look if you were looking at it for the first time in your life. You notice the rustling twigs in the wind and the soft feel of a plum blossom petal. You see the way water sinks into sand, and the way sand runs through your fingers, the way a child does.
For me, that also meant seeing the world through the eyes of a girl, and an African-American girl at that. We adopted our daughter and, a few years later, our son, too, and both of them are black while my wife and I are white.
Becoming a multiracial family through adoption requires a lot of thought and education. We attended workshops, we read books, we talked to people. But actually becoming the white parents of African-American children is a whole different level of eye-opening, life-changing reorientation.
It’s not like we think about race all the time, or constantly see our children through the lens of race. Far from it: Most of the time, we are just Mom and Dad, and they are our kids. Delightful, surprising, frustrating, and most of all time-consuming kids, like children everywhere.
But every now and then I have a moment, like those early days with my daughter, where I look in the mirror and I’m startled to be reminded that the world doesn’t see me the same way it sees my kids.
Recently there’s been a lot of talk about how women are treated in the tech industry, and what it would take for techies to be more welcoming to women. Some of the men who have turned themselves into allies and advocates for gender diversity and equality of opportunity have talked about how they came to that insight after they became fathers, and started imagining what the workplaces they inhabited would feel like for their daughters.
The same thing happened to me when we adopted our children. I started thinking what it would be like to grow up with brown skin and black, curly hair. I started trying to notice how few people there were in my workplaces who my daughter would see as being like her. I started paying more attention to the way people dress, and act, and who they hang out with. I started decoding the rules so I can better teach my children to meet and exceed those expectations, since every little slip-up will be magnified in others’ eyes thanks to the color of their skin. And as my son grows up, I read the news with fear and trepidation, worrying how police officers and others will react to my son when he is no longer small and cute.
That thinking sticks with you. When I’m working, I am no longer thinking about myself alone. I’m thinking about how my work can help not only myself and my family, but can also create more opportunity for people like my children. More than that: I would like to create opportunity for all people, regardless of color or gender.
I haven’t changed the world, for sure. I probably could do more than I have. But fatherhood has reoriented my career goals around my family and my children, and that lies in the background of almost every decision I make.
That’s a change I never expected.