Joel Leon
1,564,211 views • 9:25

My name is Joel, and I'm a co-parent.

So, growing up, I never heard the term "co-parent." I heard a lot of other things, though, for starters, "absentee father," "sperm donor" — that's a good one — "deadbeat dad" and, my personal favorite, "baby daddy." "Baby daddy," for those not in the know, refers to an individual who helps to conceive a child but does little else. Baby daddy is also someone who is not married by law to the mother of said child. Growing up, I thought "co-parent" was reserved primarily for white families that starred in Netflix prime-time dramas.

(Laughter)

It still kind of does. But it wasn't used to explain the role of a parent. Right? Either you had kids or you didn't, and no one in my social circles or at our dinner table was having complex conversations about the role fathers played in that conversation, right? A more balanced, open, loving approach to parenting was not something we were discussing within our social circles. A majority of the time, the fathers I knew of growing up were barely present or just completely nonexistent. "Co-parent" wasn't a term I heard or saw where I grew up, where I came from.

I come from the hood. That hood would be Creston Avenue, 188th in the Bronx. And for — one person, that's what's up.

(Laughter)

Appreciate that.

For a lot of us in that hood, there was only one person you could already turn to for food, shelter, warmth, love, discipline: our mothers.

My mother, who I playfully call "Linda T," was my first example of real love and what showing up as a healthy co-parent looked like. She was a strong, determined single mother, a woman who would have benefited greatly from having a secure and stable partner as a co-parent.

So I vowed whenever I got married, my boo and I would be together forever. You know? (Laughs) We'd share the same bed and home, we'd sleep under the same covers, we'd argue at IKEA — normal stuff.

(Laughter)

My partner would feel seen and loved, and our children would grow up in a two-parent household.

However, things rarely ever end up how we plan them. Our daughter Lilah has never known a household with both of her parents living together under one roof. Her mother and I were never married. We dated on and off for several months before we found out she was pregnant. Up until then, my mother didn't even know she existed. I was ashamed, I was embarrassed, and, at times, I was suicidal. I was asking myself, what was I doing? Where was I going wrong? I never wanted the stigma or label of what some identified as the stereotypical "black father." So: absentee, confrontational, combative, not present.

It took a lot of work, time, energy and effort for us to finally realize that maybe co-parenting for us didn't need to mean a shared household and wedding bells, that maybe, just maybe, the way we showed up as co-parents lay not only in the layered nuances of our partnership but the capacity within our hearts to tend to a human that we helped create together.

(Applause)

It would involve love in a nurturing and safe environment that would feed Lilah long after we both left this earth.

Fast-forward four years, and Lilah is now in pre-K. She loves gummies, and she says things like, "My heart is filled with love." She's the most loving, compassionate, empathetic human being I know, and the reason I get to tell you all of this is because she's back in the Bronx with her mother. You see, this is co-parenting, and in an ideal world, my mother would have had a co-parent, too. She would have had support, someone to show up and give her a break, a time off. In an ideal world, every parent is a co-parent. In an ideal world, both parents share the weight of the work appropriately. Lilah's mother and I have a schedule. Some days, I leave work and pick Lilah up from school, some days I don't. Lilah's mother gets to go rock climbing or study for the LSAT, and I get to stand in a room full of bold, dynamic and powerful women and talk about dad stuff.

(Applause)

It is work, it is beautifully hard work dismantling the systems that would have us believe a woman's primary role is in the kitchen, tending to all things domestic, while the hapless dad fumbles all over himself whenever he has to spend a weekend alone with the kids. It is work that needs to happen right now. You see, far too often, what it seems like is when both parents are working, one parent is typically tasked with organizing the household and keeping the home running. That person is typically a woman or someone who identifies as such. Far too often, those who identify as mothers and as women have to sacrifice their dreams in order to appease the standard. They have to sacrifice their dreams in order to ensure that motherhood takes precedence over all else. And I'm not here to say that it doesn't, but what I am here to say is, as equal partners and co-parents, it is our duty to ensure that our co-parenting partners don't have to put their passions, their pursuits and their dreams to the back burner just because we're too self-absorbed to show up as allies.

(Applause)

Co-parenting makes the space possible for everybody. As a co-parent, the time I've gotten to share and spend with Lilah is time I appreciate, the time that has allowed me to be fully present for my child, removing the notion that the emotional labor required to raise a child is a woman's work. As a co-parent, Lilah and I have built snowmen, we've played with acorns, we've rapped to the soundtrack of "Moana," I know you have, too.

(Laughter)

She's sat with me while I've led workshops at Columbia University, when I talk about the intersections of poetry, hip-hop and theater. We get to talk about her emotions and her feelings because we have exclusive time together, and that time is planned time, it's organized around not just my schedule but her mother's. Both of us, as co-parents, have unique parenting styles. And we may argue at times, but what we can always agree on is how to raise a human — our human.

I will never fully understand or comprehend what it means to hold a child in my body for 10 months. I will never be able to understand the trials and tribulations of breastfeeding, the work that it takes, the emotional, physical, psychological and emotional toll that carrying a human can have on the female body. What co-parenting does is say, we can create balance, a more balanced home and work life for everyone involved. Co-parenting says that while parenting may involve sacrifices, yes, the weight of that sacrifice is not solely resting on one parent alone. No matter your relational dynamic, no matter how you identify as a human being — he, she, they, ze — co-parenting says we can create space and equity, better communication, empathy, I hear you, I see you, how can I show up for you in ways that benefits our family?

My goal: I want more fathers to embrace co-parenting as a model for a better tomorrow, a better today for ourselves, for our co-parenting partners, for our families, for our community. I want more fathers talking about fatherhood openly, candidly, honestly, lovingly. Right? I want more people to recognize that black fathers in particular are more than the court system, more than child support and more than what the media might portray us to be.

(Applause)

Our role as fathers, our role as parents, our value as parents is not dependent on the zeroes at the ends of our checks but the capacity within our hearts to show up for our families, for the people we love, for our little ones.

Being a father is not only a responsibility, it's an opportunity. This is for Dwain, this is for Kareem "Buc" Drayton, this is for Biggs, this is for Boola, this is for Tyron, this is for all the black fathers who are showing up on a day-to-day basis. This is for Charles Lorenzo Daniels, my father, who didn't have the language or the tools to show up in the ways that he wanted to.

Thank you.

My name is Joel.

Hi Bria, hi West.

(In Yoruba) Amen.

(Applause)