Being Dad: Sean Williams
While a lot of people celebrate Black History Month in February, Sean Williams is making it all year round. Since 2016, the Activist, Father of Three & Founder/CEO of The Dad Gang has been on a mission to change the way the world views Black fatherhood. Today, he’s talking about his own personal journey with parenting and sharing his wit & wisdom.
Over the last year, Sean Williams has been making headlines and securing interviews with legends like Oprah Winfrey for his work with The Dad Gang, a social community on a mission to change the way the world views Black fatherhood.
In 2016, while grocery shopping with his baby strapped to his chest in a carrier, a white woman approached him to commend him for ‘sticking around.’ The not spoken, but implied ‘unlike other Black fathers’ at the end of the sentence was not lost on Sean.
“When I first became a father, I remember some of my fraternity brothers saying, ‘Welcome to the gang of fatherhood.’ Because I’m a graphic designer, I made a t-shirt that said ‘The Dad Gang’ on it. Fast forward to a BBQ after the interaction I had with this woman where I’m relaying what happened… Turns out, this was something nearly every single one of my friends had experienced. As I was audibly brainstorming that action needed to be taken because the stereotype sucks and that the world should see how actually good we are at this whole parenting thing, a friend pointed out that I was literally wearing the answers. I looked down and realized that I had my dad gang t-shirt on as well as my baby in the carrier.
So, I guess The Dad Gang needs to go on social media? my friend alluded.
This was my lightbulb moment. For weeks I had kept wishing I could put all of my friends on a TV screen and show the world how good we are. This is when I knew I needed to take this to Instagram and do what we do best: just be active and show that.”
Sean first started posting photos of himself and his friends actively being dads because this was the content he had access to. But as his community grew, so did submissions. Suddenly, he had over 125,000 followers championing the correct depiction of what it means to be a father of color. He also had the chance to do more than just share powerful imagery.
Through in-person events (pre-Covid) like his ‘Strollin With The Homies’ walks, discussion panels and networking brunches, he’s managed to provide a safe space for young and old dads of color to bond with their children and each other. While this has had to evolve in a virtual manner due to Covid, it’s something that has become an even bigger driving force for Sean and The Dad Gang team.
While we could spend a lot of time singing Sean’s praises as an activist and entrepreneur, we also love his outlook on fatherhood. As the dad of Davynn (16), Cameron (5) and Ethan (almost 4), Sean could (and should) write the book on parenting.
“When I first became a dad, I was 22, fresh out of college and I wasn’t prepared. The pregnancy was accidental and the first two years were pretty hard. While I had always envisioned myself as a father and was really excited about having a baby, it was not the path I had expected. With that being said, I embraced it whole-heartedly. Even though the relationship didn’t work out with Davynn’s mother, we became excellent co-parents, which is something I’m very proud of to this day.”
It doesn’t matter if you’re 22 or 32, for a lot of dads, it’s tough to know how to support your partner (and yourself) through the pregnancy and early years. That’s why Sean is a huge advocate of not only reading books, taking classes and listening to podcasts to prepare but also giving yourself (and your partner) grace and space to make mistakes without judging each other.
“When Cameron came into the world, it felt different because I was married, settled and emotionally ready for another child. It was also different because I didn’t live full-time with Davynn. While I was active, it felt part-time due to custody arrangements. This time, I couldn’t wait to have a baby around 24-7 and I was ON IT. Probably too much. At some moments my wife and I would butt heads because she’d be like, I want to wipe her butt in peace. I want to breastfeed by myself. Can you go away?
The thing is, the women have the babies, but women don’t realize that we go through it too. And we don’t instinctively know what to do because we didn’t physically push the baby out. We’re just sitting here like a sack of meat wondering, what do we do?
I’ve learned that you should just do what you’d normally do for your loved one. You help.
You lend a hand where you can. If it’s not with your baby directly, you help your partner. You make them as comfortable as they can be because it’s the partner that went through the physical. It’s important in that first year to recognize that you’re going to lose sleep and make mistakes because no one really knows what to do because every baby and every parent has such different needs and personalities.
Just remember to give yourself some grace because I didn’t understand how much the hormones affected my wife’s logic and attitude. I took a lot of things personally and people would be like, Sean, she’s pregnant.
By the time Ethan came along, I had learned that you have to find the sweet spot of offering help and knowing when to back off. While you may be more than qualified to do bath time (and secretly think you’re better at diaper changes), you just need to be the supporting staff for the first few months and ask how you can help. From there, figure out what you do best. Pick up on the cues that your partner is giving off. You might not be the best at massaging. You might not be the most calming voice in the delivery room.
You are, however, a vital role and you need to bond with your baby early. I used to talk into my wife’s belly all the time. When Cameron was just months old, she’d smile in her sleep when she’d hear my voice. I tell every soon-to-be dad to talk into that belly so they can hear you and you’ll be surprised how calming your voice will be when they’re out of the womb.”
“The days are long, but the years are short.” It’s a parenting quote we’ve all heard before. When joking with Sean about these types of clichés, he laughed and added,
“It’s funny, most of those sayings were and are true. My mom told me to be really patient with the kids, especially when they’re young because you don’t have them that young for much time. If you’re fortunate enough to have a baby, that baby will only be a baby for months, right? So, don’t get frustrated when you can’t get the swaddle right or don’t rush them off to bed. Because a few years from now, they’re not going to want to see you anyway.
I’ve always really cherished my time with the kids. I remember us wondering if we needed to not let our kids sleep in our bed. But the thing is, if they want to sleep in the bed, or jump in the bed with us and lay down, it will eventually stop. And when it stops, you’re gonna miss them. Now they’re nearing school age, and they have no interest in sleeping in our bed. And of course, we now miss those early snuggly days.
The other piece of advice someone gave me was: let a two-year-old be a two-year-old. Or let a three-year-old be a three-year-old.
When you’re reprimanding them or trying to teach them something, you can’t approach it the same way you would an adult. For instance, if your three-year-old spills something or they knock something over, you need to acknowledge that’s really on-brand for a three-year-old and try to hold in your frustration. They literally don’t have the coordination to do everything perfectly yet.
A few months ago, I decided to build a fire pit in my backyard. Since Ethan is my shadow, he’s helping with everything. After digging out the space, laying bricks and carefully spreading gravel, I turned to see Ethan throwing cups of dirt over the gravel.
Like any sane parent who had just painstakingly built a DIY firepit while answering rapid-fire questions from a three-year-old, I died inside. I also snapped and asked, ‘What are you doing?!”
Oh, I thought we were throwing things in there. I thought we were trying to make it beautiful, he answered sincerely.
I had to consciously take a moment to treat him like the three-year-old he is. I added, ‘I love how creative you are. Let’s throw some more dirt in there.'”
While it’s challenging enough to parent according to age and emotional intelligence levels, it’s even more challenging to navigate society’s portrait of masculinity and gender stereotypes. This is something Sean admits he battled with when he had his children.
“As men, we were told and trained to think that fatherhood is supposed to be:
- I’m going to provide a last name.
- I’m going to provide the food.
- I’m going to provide shelter.
- I’m going to tickle and play with the kids.
- But I don’t really have to nurture.
We have got to get away from how we think we’re supposed to raise a specific gender.
When Kobe died, that whole girl dad thing struck a chord for so many of us because we think that we could only have a legacy through a son. Your legacy is not your surname.
I actually have a video going viral right now of my youngest daughter doing my makeup. She loves makeup and thinks it’s hilarious when she gets to do mine. While it was such a fun bonding experience for us, numerous men on social media reacted shocked and judgemental. Wearing makeup, especially when applied by my child, doesn’t make me feel any less of a man. It’s interesting that some men are still so concerned with old conceptions of what it means to be masculine.
Honestly, it was hard for me to figure out what my nurturing skills were supposed to look like. I was constantly questioning things like, Am I supposed to kiss the boo boos too? Am I supposed to cuddle the kids every time they cry? In the beginning stages, I remember thinking, Oh, I have to find out why they’re crying. But maybe the kid just wants to cry. Maybe they just need to let it out. So instead of trying to ask your kid why they’re crying and encouraging them to stop, maybe you just give them a hug. Maybe you just rock them.
I’ve learned that you need to do away with gender stereotypes. Forget however you think you’re supposed to do it and do it the way you feel.
Here’s the thing: Your job is not to raise a lawyer or carpenter. Your job is to raise a human being who feels safe, understood, able to be vulnerable and ultimately resilient.
Don’t set yourself up for failure by thinking “dadding” has to be done a certain way.
As we approach the one-year anniversary of Covid-19 throwing the world off-kilter, Sean is keenly aware that men’s mental health is a lot more complex than we thought. In between having to work from home and teach our kids at home, it’s easy for a lot of parents to experience high stress levels and unresolved issues.
“We all have traumas whether we know it or like it. If you want to show up in your role as Dad, you need to have these checked out – you may have never said it out loud, but it will show up VERY LOUD when you’re raising a kid, especially during a global pandemic.
I’m a huge fan of counseling and therapy because sometimes, you can’t basketball or socialize your problems away. I don’t think anyone intends to give their kids daddy issues, but if you don’t deal with the issue, you’ll literally hand your kid that issue.”
As a child who was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY to immigrant parents from Trinidad, Sean and his two older sisters watched their father work relentlessly to never make them feel like they were struggling financially. As a result, Sean didn’t feel the same connection with this dad that he did with his mom, who was intentional in building relationships with each of her children.
“For years, I held resentment for my father for not knowing how to engage with me. I actually relied on the alumni of Kappa Alpha Psi from SUNY Old Westbury quite a bit. Those men took us under their wing and helped arm us with life skills, education and career choices. They shaped what I thought an educated Black man in America should be doing.
It wasn’t until I became a father myself that my own dad and I were able to mend our relationship. It’s been nice to watch it evolve over the years. I can’t deny that my view of him in my early years definitely fuelled my desire to be the engaged and active father I always aim to be.
I always tell my kids to walk in their purpose, whatever that may be. While we’re just about to wrap up a month of celebrating Black history makers, we’re going to continue celebrating the idea that they, even as kids, have the capacity to make history too.”
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