the embrace of present fathers
HAVANA TIMES – When I told him I was pregnant, he was just as scared as I was. We’d only been together a few months, and the two red lines on the positive pregnancy test seemed to change everything. We were full of doubts in the beginning, had a thousand fears and concerns that kept us up at night. Children weren’t in our immediate plans. In fact, our shared plans were only just beginning to take their initial shape.
But we decided to have the baby and to take on the responsibility of parenthood. He looked for another job immediately: his wages weren’t enough to support a young child in a Cuba that is becoming more and more barren and expensive.
The bump began to grow, and we also evolved as a couple working through traumas that we healed together and childhood scars that he helped me to heal.
When I was admitted into hospital with contractions on December 24th, he was always there. He slept on the hospital floor, waiting, nervous. Daniel took his time to be born and due to medical negligence, my dream birth ended up in an emergency C-section on January 3rd, when the baby was barely moving in the womb and there were times I didn’t think we’d make it.
He was always by my side. I told him to go home and rest, to sleep, but he didn’t leave my side. We saw the New Year in together, in that small hospital bed where my huge nearly 41-week belly barely fit. He held my hand, told me everything would be OK and gave me strength. He’d walk up and down the stairs with me, he helped me shower. I think the only thing he couldn’t share with me was the pain of the contractions and then the C-section, but we shared every fear.
The baby came into our lives to mix everything up. He was a baby that barely slept, cried a lot, and we spent late nights pacing up and down the bedroom corridor, exhausted, with a baby in arms. The background music was the desperate noise of a rocking chair that moved with fatigue and stress. We’d take turns to get some rest. Then, he’d wake up early to go to work, until the pandemic forced him to work from home, between crying, colic and dirty diapers.
When Daniel was a year and a half old, the two red lines came back to change everything again. This time, they came with a positive COVID-19 test and a very difficult family situation. I remember when I told a friend that I was pregnant for the second time in less than two years, she told me that I could dare to have another child because I knew Daniel was an involved father.
Although that wasn’t the only reason though, having him by my side he’s always been my rock and strength in the worst of times. In the middle of all this chaos, of reinventing our family dynamics and adjusting our dreams again, Emma came like one of those pleasant surprises that you don’t plan but change us.
We embarked on our journey through Central America when Emma was three months old, heading for the US, which would force us out of our comfort zone again and readjust the sails of our journey together. While we made this decision together (biting our nails), he was my driving force, like he has been ever since I met him.
My dreamer nature is grounded in his advice, and he helps me to materialize these dreams that seemed impossible. I always use the term “parenthood” because we’ve done everything between both of us from the very beginning.
He has enjoyed, suffered and experienced fatherhood 1000%, just like I have with motherhood. We’ve grown together, changed and made very difficult decisions, even when we didn’t agree.
We learned to change diapers together, to relieve colic, and to carry a baby. We took our first steps with Daniel and Emma, we’ve trembled with fear when one of them has gotten sick or gets hurt.
He has learned, just like I have, that tea towels soaked in vinegar help bring down a fever, that when a baby has reflux you have to put them to sleep upright so they don’t choke, and that it’s a real nightmare when their teeth come out.
Daniel’s and then Emma’s first word was Papa. Even though I pretend that I get jealous, I’m really happy I’ve had a companion that lifts the load with me, a friend, a lover who is not only my partner. We’ve formed a team that shares every chore, with a complicity that we couldn’t have imagined when we saw those first two red lines.
Yuniel’s story: the father of an angel with cerebral palsy
Yuniel Claro was the doctor who took care of me when I was pregnant with Emma. I never imagined that those days of never-ending appointments would be the beginning of a friendship/siblinghood that would grow stronger over time.
My mother had told me a bit about his story when they worked together during the COVID-19 pandemic, but then I got to know him better. I knew he had a daughter with cerebral palsy who required all of his attention, and a young boy who grew up happily alongside his sister.
Due to her neurological condition, Brianna couldn’t walk, talk or develop at the same pace as other children. “I had a thousand dreams, plans. To play, walk, do a thousand things with her, and when the time comes and you’re told your daughter has cerebral palsy it’s really hard because you realize your daughter won’t be like all the other children, and your experience as a father won’t be the same as everyone else’s.”
Brianna was diagnosed with the condition a few days after she was born. That’s when the turns, treatments, appointments, constant trips from Ciego de Avila to Havana began. Until they decided to move to capital and start a new life for their daughter’s wellbeing.
Three years later, the marriage gave birth to a second child. They also enjoyed this experience a lot and lived new experiences such as their child’s first words, first steps, which they didn’t get to experience with Brianna because of her condition.
“I’d recommend to any parent that has a child with a disability to give themselves the chance, if they can, to have other children to accompany their brother or sister on this journey together. Now, we are anxiously awaiting our baby, my wife is already 36 weeks pregnant.”
When Brianna fell sick in April 2023, and she was admitted into hospital with an atypical pneumonia, Yuniel never imagined that he would have to say goodbye forever. He was always by her side, while his wife Yara, pregnant, had to stay at home with the other child so she wouldn’t spend those horrible days at the hospital.
He says that everything happened very quickly. He tells me about that terrible moment that was a nightmare, with a lump in his throat. When the doctor told him that his daughter hadn’t made it, his heart shattered into a thousand pieces.
He has been carrying an empty hole in his heart ever since, a constant agony that suffocates him, but he’s also trying to find the strength to put himself together, and to face life with his other child and the baby on its way and trying to be happy; for her, for all of them.
“I’m very proud of her, happy we had all the times we had, the time she was with us, asking Life to let us get through this and carry on. I’m sad she never got to meet her little sister, and I can imagine her happy face when she’d see her. The pain I feel is for not having her physically here, but I’m happy I did everything I did for her, and everything she meant to us. If Life were to give me the chance to have her back, I’d do it all over again. She was my first daughter, and the one I began this difficult, but beautiful, test as a father,” Yuniel says.
Edisnel: life in a single-parent household
I met Edisnel Columbie through my cousin. His daughter’s birth was marked by his wife’s death and it changed his life forever.
He was at university studying Latin when he was told that his daughter was going to be born. He remembers telling the professor that he’d come to the next class and get his grades, but he never went back. “I never studied again, I dedicated myself to fatherhood 100%,” he admits.
He says that he didn’t have a clear idea of what to do back then, but when he saw Abigail, he had a pleasant feeling for this new life he had procreated, which required a lot of commitment.
“No matter how much you prepare yourself, plan, children change everything when they come along. They begin to make their own timetable, they wake up when they want, sleep when they want, and you follow them taking on this father role,” he admits.
According to Edisnel, every fatherhood and motherhood comes with great challenges, requiring a lot of responsibility, it can even be scary. “The biggest challenge for me has been mixing my personal life without Abigail, with my life with her.”
The first few years in the US were very hard for Edisnel. When you emigrate to another country, everything is new, even more so when you’re a parent because you are also learning how to educate and raise another person.
“It’s been challenging, but you slowly find your feet. You have to be humble enough to recognize your mistakes, to fix what gets broken. Then, things begin to flow and you manage to organize yourself and find time for her. You need a lot of patience because fatherhood is for life, even though children grow up, and it’s very hard to keep this balance of always being present without it invading your personal space.”
Edisnel has always had a friend, a relative, an acquaintance, who has made it easier for him, as much as they can, for him to be a father and move forward with his daughter who is already thirteen now.
“I don’t know if I would have managed to do it without this help, because I had to make quite some drastic changes to my life. My parents have been there unconditionally to support me with my girl. Every time I’ve needed a hand, I’ve always had people I can fall back on; helping her with school, looking after her so I could go out on the highway and make money. You think you’re strong, able to do so many things, but there are problems that are too big and it’s very hard to face them alone. That’s why it’s important to have a strong support network.”
At 44 years old, Edisnel’s life is very different to most people’s. He decided to take on a new lifestyle for his daughter: He works three months in the US to make a certain amount of money, and then they go to France for a period of time, and he repeats this cycle throughout the year.
This lifestyle might be less stable, broken down into periods of time, and it posed many challenges, a lot of flexibility to accept new things. Lots of people didn’t think they’d manage, in the beginning. After many years, him and his daughter have proved that this different method works for them.
“I found this job which is contract-based, and it allows me to have the lifestyle I want. I’ve earned a certain reputation at the company, which allows me to set my own working hours and let’s me work at my own pace,” he says.
Edisnel feels like he has literally two lives. “When I’m with Abigail in France, I wake up two hours before, I make breakfast, get the music we’ll listen to ready and then I wake her up. We eat breakfast together and we talk afterwards, from 8 AM until almost 9 AM when her classes start online. Then, comes school, from 9 AM until 1 PM. We do exercise together, I sit with her. Then comes lunch and homework in the afternoon. We go out shopping together, everything works around her, nothing around myself, I don’t go to an adult restaurant or anything. Those three months are basically Abigail full time.”
When Edisnel comes out of this bubble with Abigail and goes back to the US he picks up his professional and personal life. He travels driving a truck, and every five days, he gets a rest day which allows him to see and travel through the US.
Now, they’re preparing a tour of different European cities. He wants to create an unforgettable experience for his daughter so that when she grows up and takes her own path, she’ll remember everything she did with her papa.
“It’s going to be thirteen years of me being a widower, and even though it’s been hard, I had to learn to leave the past behind, because our feelings, our traumas, aren’t the same for our children, and dragging this along with us can hurt the present and even the future.” Even though they speak about Abigail’s mother and what happened, he tries not to impose his own memories, “nor force on her experiences she didn’t live.”
Children don’t have to walk down the same path as their parents, Edisnel advises. “Life doesn’t go as we plan. I studied a lot up until the day Abigail was born. Today, I’m a truck driver. Making an effort, projection, making plans are good, but it’s also good to think that everything can come crashing down, and that you have to invent new paths and reinvent yourself, especially when you have children.”
Alex: a face behind the screen
Dayne is the daughter of one of my mother’s best friends. One of these step-cousins Life gives you as a gift. When I found out that she’d be a mother, I was surprised, because having children seemed lightyears away. I was naive because I’d also fall pregnant soon after. When I met her husband, Alex Cardoso, I never imagined that he’d become part of our family, by some random twist of Fate, when we emigrated.
Now, we are neighbors here in the US. We made the journey at about the same time, although he traveled alone with his uncle, and has had to start all over again, far from Dayne and little Kamil. “Being a father is an adventure and challenge. Despite it being difficult, it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s been absolute happiness from the very first moment I knew my little boy was coming into the world.”
According to him, fatherhood is wonderful, a world full of suprises where no training is enough; “you’re learning at the same time you’re teaching.” “I can’t explain what it meant to see my little one’s first smile, his first steps, his cheekingess, his first word, him calling me papa.”
Alex remembers that one day, in a conversation, he said that his son would have everything he needed, because he worked day and night to make sure he had a decent life. The other person replied that there was one thing that was missing, referring to a future that is less and less certain here in Cuba.
Soon after, he decided to emigrate, to give his son other opportunities.
“Today, I’m a father from afar. I took on this risk for him. It’s been ten months without holding him in my arms, ten months that I haven’t seen him grow, ten months where I’ve become a face behind a screen. It’s hard for me and many other Cuban fathers today, who made the same decision for a better future for their children.”