205 Joel Leon
“But like being a father, I have to excel at that because a lot of people were expecting me not to.”
Joel was born and raised in the Bronx. He is the author of A Book About Things I Will Tell My Daughter and God Wears Durags Too. His recent TED talk on co-parenting is recommended viewing for everyone who listens to this episode.
Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW): In the Spring of 2009 I had been working to start a new church in Denver with nothing but a couple thousand dollars, a Masters in Divinity, and a mechanical pencil. I was working 60 or 70 hours a week, making fliers, writing sermons, setting up chairs, organizing events, and having coffee with what felt like everyone in Denver, twice. And despite my efforts, that scrappy little church just never managed to attract more than about 30 people each Sunday. We would get one new person and another couple would move away for graduate school. I was burnt out and exhausted and one Sunday when an especially low number of people came to church, I came home afterwards feeling like a complete failure and my 8- and 10-year-old kids were fighting with each other in the living room.
The phone rang and I could barely hear the person on the other end and I covered the mouthpiece and told my kids to cut it out. On the phone was a young man from church who was calling to tell me that he just doesn’t have time to help anymore and needs to step down from the leadership team and I mustered everything in me to be gracious and tell him I understood and don’t worry about it. But all the muscles in my chest and neck were contracting at the effort of it, so that by the time I hung up, I launched into my still fighting kids in a way that was far beyond acceptable. I slammed their doors as hard as I could and I yelled at them to just fucking stop it. I was out of control.
Within the hour I would find myself on the edge of their beds, teary, admitting that my anger had nothing to do with them and it is never ok for someone to act like that toward them and also asking their forgiveness.
It was my worst parenting moment. And I’ve always secretly feared that it is also the one moment they will carry with them forever. Not the trips I took them on. Not all the times I read to them and jumped with them on our trampoline, but that one Sunday afternoon when I cursed and slammed their doors.
Just last year, when my daughter Harper was 20, I sheepishly asked if she remembered that moment. “Yes,” she said. “It for sure wasn’t good.” We sat there for a moment without saying anything, then she looked at me and said, “But in all fairness. We WERE being awful.”
The grace in that just floored me. And made me wonder — what feels more impossible, forgiving our own parents for not being perfect, or forgiving ourselves for not being perfect parents?
My guest in The Confessional today tells me about his own worst parenting moment and how it led him to forgive his own father. Stay with us.
NBW: Joining me today and stepping into The Confessional is Joel Leon. And I am so curious what brings you in today?
Joel Leon (JL): So I have two children. I have a four year old and I have a soon to be seven month old. My first, Lilah, was not expected. Lilah was not planned, and Lilah was also conceived with the individual who I was dating but wasn’t really in partnership with at the time.
JL: And so once we found out that Lilah’s mother was going to have a child. We had already stopped dating, and I think what’s important to recognize is grief, right. And I don’t think neither of us gave each other the opportunity to grieve, like grieve the fact that we were no longer single people without children.
JL: Grieving the fact that the dynamic of our relationship had shifted. And so we hadn’t really done the work to really look at that and understand it.
NBW: Did you also have grief around, hey, I know I want to have kids, this is not the way I wanted to, and now I have lost that?
JL: Yes, absolutely. you buy the books, you read the books, you talk about parents when they’re separated, when they’re divorced. I didn’t see any book for like, hey, I met this person. I loved this person. We had unprotected sex. We’re having a baby now. I want to show up for this baby and this co-parent, but we’re not intimate like there was no book for that for me. And so when we talk about, like, her being pregnant and me wanting to talk to the baby in her belly, but also recognizing that the boundaries were different. How does that look? What does that look like? Yeah. Like, I didn’t have that, and then also too even grieving the fact that I wasn’t sure if I wanted kids to be honest.
NBW: Okay, okay.
JL: And so when this happened, it was like, okay, well, this is there’s a lot shifting. You know, so like, we’re going through our own battles just as, like, people who are no longer together. While she’s pregnant. Right. So we’re already talking about emotions already heightened. And at this time, I’m working at a job that I enjoy, but it’s not really paying me shit, I’m working in social services. I feel like my career as a creative while, it’s starting to slowly prosper, I have to raise a child. I can’t raise a child on this income that I’m making right now. I’m living in my mom’s apartment and, like, you know, for all intents and purposes, I’m a grown ass man. I’m feeling shame about that. So, like, all of this kind of creates this perfect mix of me being like, listen, I don’t know if I can do this.
JL: And then as a black man, what that looks like. You know, you’re lazy, you know, sloth-like you’re the baby daddy, all the times and terminology to be used to describe essentially, the men that we think are deadbeats. I would have people look at me as if they were expecting me to disappear or not show up because that tended to be the norm. And I love Lilah more than anything else in the entire world. But I also told myself, like, I’m I can’t I’m not going to fuck this up. That might be a lot of other things that I fuck up at. Yeah. That I’m not well at. But like being a father, I mean, I have to excel at that because a lot of people felt like were expecting me not to.
NBW: Right. It was almost like stubbornness.
JL: Oh yeah, for sure. And so what we’re looking at is a relationship that didn’t again, like didn’t have a chance to breathe. There were some struggles very early on. Like for me, it was like, okay, well, I can’t not be around my child, but how do I give us space? Because when relationships end right. Generally, like, you can just peace out on a person. Right? Like, hey good to know you I’m going, arrivederci. There’s no room for that, if you’re going to be an active parent. And that’s what I wanted to be.
JL: So we were in each other’s face pretty much every day.
NBW: Which is not what anybody wants with their ex-girlfriend.
JL: No. And definitely not with their ex-boyfriend either, and I think we were operating in this space in a way that felt like it was a relationship, except it wasn’t at all, which I think was the most unhealthy thing we could do.
NBW: Well, cause also you’re not getting the sort of almost like brain chemistry benefits of a relationship. So you have all the stressors, and none of the none of the yummy brain chemistry things, you know?
JL: Nadia, pardon my french like we’re not fucking, we’re not doing nothing. There’s no there’s no joy.
NBW: Affection, all of that, you know, because that’s what gets you through the hard stuff.
JL: Yeah! No dopamine. No dopamine is happening.
NBW: Okay, so how did all this tension play out?
JL: All right. So I’m gonna give you the rundown of essentially, like, location. Right. We’re both in the Bronx, but the Bronx is big.
NBW: Yeah, it is.
JL: Yes. Right. If I left work at five o’clock. I could pick Lilah up from daycare by maybe 6:25.
JL: If the trains got there on time, if there were no delays, and if I speed-walked from the train station because she lived about 15 minutes from the train station. So everything had to go perfectly in order for me to get there on time. So that was a source of contention because there were times that I would be late. So then that would be an issue and rightfully so. And so there was a lot of frustration I was feeling at the time, like a lot of, like, yo, I’m doing a lot. To your point, I’m not getting any of the dopamine effects of this. I love my child, but this is tiring as fuck. And I’m not doing the things that I want to do. I’m not getting to do shows. I want to date, but I can’t really date. So like, I have all this pent up frustration, and it all kind of builds up to this moment where we’re having a conversation. I can’t remember what the conversation was about honestly. I just know that one of my biggest triggers is when my, especially when we talk about the the history of black fathers in media.
JL: And so we’re having a conversation. And she said something to me that essentially made it seem as if I wasn’t doing a good enough job as a father and we’d already been yelling at each other back and forth. And mind you, Lilah is probably within hearing distance like she’s not in the same room as us. But she’s close enough that, like, if she was paying attention, she could hear us.
JL: Yeah. And I remember just being so mad and so enraged and looking at her and looking at Lilah’s mother and telling her very directly and yelling at her, like, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, jump out of a motherfucking window. And I remember looking at her face, and it looked like all the blood just left, because it was the first time that, a, that I said something to her so aggressively. And two, it was a time in which I, I think granted I wasn’t towering over her, but there was definitely, I could feel it, like, there was this level of, like, I’m going to use my masculine energy in a way that’s gonna put you on the defense. And I basically told the mother of my child to kill herself. And I remember just after I said that, there was like a brief pause. But then I walked out, I slammed the door. I didn’t say bye to Lilah, I didn’t say anything. I just kind of kept walking. But it still boiled down to what it felt like for me, probably the most shameful moment I’ve ever had because here is this person who on Instagram and on Twitter, like, I’m anti-patriarchy, I’m anti-misogyny, I’m all these things. But at the same breath, I’m telling this person who whether I love her or not, is still the mother of my child, my first-born child at the time, I’m telling her to kill herself. Like, I don’t care if you live or die. Like, you know, there’s so much steeped in it that. It was me really also trying to hurt her, I wanted her to feel the pain that I felt.
NBW: How did it affect your view of yourself to sort of have that humbling moment where despite how anti-patriarchy and feminist you are in your leanings, that you would bolster your own masculine energy in a conflict to try to intimidate the other person and then, you know, shout horrible things like how did you incorporate that into your self-understanding afterwards?
JL: I mean, it was embarrassing. Like, I was embarrassed and I could see part of myself trying to rationalize it. You know, I was entitled to be angry. I felt like there were things that were said from her that gave me the right to be angry and to say these things that I said that on the other side of it is like, you know better.
NBW: Yeah. Both things could be true. I mean, that’s the thing in AA that’s so difficult is it talks about, like, look, the other person could totally be at fault too, like, they could be in the wrong as well, but you dwelling on that will never lead you to freedom in the way that you metabolizing what was your fault will. Your fault could be 15 percent and theirs could be 85, and still, the only freedom you’ll get from the resentment of that situation is to solidly deal with your 15 percent. That’s fucked up math. But it’s true.
JL: Yes, absolutely. And for me at that point, it was a very clear mirror that, oh, I’m not dealing with my shit because in that moment, I just I was so enraged. I’m like I’m an excellent father and fuck you for even thinking to say that because I do ABCDE and F and it’s like none of that matters. It was embarrassing.
NBW: I mean, it’s also ironic that your worst parenting moment was in you trying to defend what a good parent you were.
JL: Yes. That is incredibly ironic. And also in front of our child.
NBW: That’s what I mean. Like that’s your low point.
JL: Right, yeah. What I will say though is it forced us to go to ground zero. It literally ended any kind of relationship we had, and we had to start over.
NBW: Oh, wow.
JL: We blew up the structure and granted I don’t want the listening audience to be like, oh, okay he said some incredibly foul, fucked up, horrible shit. And so that’s what led to the breakthrough. But what I think happened is the pretenses were let go of. Right. There was so much that I think we were both doing in order to kind of show up for the role.
JL: We had a structure for Lilah. Lilah was healthy, Lilah is fine. She’s happy. We, on the other hand, are doing a piss poor job of creating boundaries for ourselves, and that moment forced us to go, ok, we clearly had no boundaries. So here are what the boundaries are. And so she laid them out like, hey, I don’t want to talk unless it’s about Lilah. And it’s specifically about like school, money, whatever the case is.
NBW: And was it better?
JL: Yeah. I mean it was stressful, but it was better because there was no fakeness involved. And so, like, for me, it was like, okay, let’s go back to square one. You know, what do I need to do to show up for this person, this human, this woman in ways is gonna make her feel safe? Because I made her feel very unsafe in this moment, so I have to do the direct reversal of that. And that took a couple of months. But I think part of it was like, not for nothing, like, knowing I was going to have to eat shit and being okay with that. Because for me, this was a marathon, like, this is about the long term benefits of what having a healthy co-parenting relationship is not just going to mean for Lilah, but honestly for me.
NBW: Right. Right.
JL: You know, because, like, shit was stressing me out. Like, I don’t want to not be in, like, communication or partnership with this person who I do at the end of the day care about. But it was work. Like I remember, I went to a leadership conference and Devon Bandison was the brother who was leading it. And he was sharing a story about his ex-wife and how he changed her name in his phone from her name to like “the beautiful blank blank,” let’s say, “the beautiful Gloria.” And I was like, huh, that’s interesting. And so I changed her name in my phone. I don’t know if it was a placebo or not, but it was me trying to find ways to be, regardless of what she was doing or regardless of how she felt, to be supportive. So when she said she was going to go back to school, I was like, “alright cool, what do you need me to do?” If she was having a bad day, I was still going, I was still going to try to show up not as a friend, but as a person who cares about another human being. So being like, you look like you’re stressed, do you need me to take Lilah for a couple of days? Or do you need me to pick up some food? Alright cool, like, it was me trying to do and be present regardless of what the situation was.
NBW: Without the expectation that you’re gonna get your emotional needs met by that person because you know you’re not. So it sort of clears you up to just be supportive, right?
NBW: Are you friends now or is it the same as it was when it shifted?
JL: No, we’re actually great friends.
NBW: That’s fascinating.
JL: And I think part of that is, the secret sauce in this for me was. I recognized again, like, how can I show up and be responsible in the ways that I know I can. And how can I be supportive, like, this person is not going anywhere.
NBW: Right. This is all so interesting to me because one of the things I know about you is your TED talk about co-parenting. And like, earlier you told me that when you first got into this situation, there were no books or anything to help you. So in a way, you kind of filled the void.
JL: Right. Right.
NBW: And often I actually, to be honest, one aspect of the way I see the world in a spiritual way is that I see how often I feel like God uses us to offer something later in our life to somebody that we didn’t have but we needed. Do you know what I’m saying?
NBW: There’s a middle aged gay couple at church who they always they always chaperone queer prom here in Denver. There’s like a prom for all the queer kids. You know why? There was no queer prom for their asses when they were growing up. Do you know what I’m saying, like, they needed that shit. And it was not there.
NBW: And one of the ways we heal ourselves is through providing for other people the thing that we desperately needed and no one was there to give us.
JL: And thank you for framing that so beautifully, Nadia. I think it speaks to the work that you do. And I think it speaks to the work I hope that I do as a creative and as a healer. Right. Whether it’s like the affirmations that I post on my social feeds or like some of the stuff I’ve incorporated in, like, the books I had published. It was about me giving myself the things that I wish I would have heard and the work that I had done to get to a place where I could maybe proffer some level of wisdom or guidance for those who maybe didn’t have the things that I was looking for.
NBW: What part of you is being healed through your own fathering?
JL: There’s a new found love and grace and respect I have for my father. Like, we don’t, my father and I don’t really have a relationship, you know. And my father is, he’s in a nursing home. He’s suffering from dementia. And the last time I physically saw my father was at the nursing home about, I want to say three and a half years ago. And before that, several years prior to it, the last time I saw him was when I visited him in the psych ward. And I think there was a lot of unhealed frustration and anger I had. And I don’t even know if it was at him because my father wasn’t around long enough, honestly, for me to have, like, real anger to a certain degree, like I was embarrassed by my father more than anything, and I was scared of him. But I was never angry at him because my mother did such an excellent job. My dad would show up, he’d be drunk, you know, like he’d hit me sometimes or, you know, he, there were a lot of things that he was that, A, I didn’t know were connected to, like, the sexual trauma that he had experienced growing up, that he was a decorated Vietnam veteran. and a black man serving in Vietnam, like, that in and of itself has its own story.
NBW: Sure it does, yeah.
JL: And like the reception that he received or rather didn’t receive when he came home, the lack of work opportunities, the way the government treated him, my father’s drinking, like, there are so many things that are attributed to how my father could not show up. And I get to sit from this level of privilege because I have the language, I have access to the tools in a way that my father never did.
JL: I think about sometimes what it would have been like for him to have the opportunity to have the tools, to have the access that I have. So that’s the reason why I write the way that I do. That’s a reason why I think I father the way I do, because my father didn’t get the opportunity to do that.
JL: You know, like it was taken from him.
NBW: So you have compassion instead of just saying, here’s all of his faults and here’s all the harm that his faults caused in my mother’s life and in my life, you can go, oh, my God, well of course, he didn’t know how else to be, you know?
NBW: It’s I would say the foundational thing that comes up in this podcast all the time is the idea that that, like, we can call a thing what it is, tell the truth about the harm, and also have compassion for how that came about. What were the factors involved to where that was the choice that person felt like they had? You know, and have compassion for that.
JL: Yes. Yes. My tag line, as of late, Nadia, has been empathy does not mean lack of accountability.
NBW: Do you have compassion for yourself? Can you watch yourself in that scene and have some have the kind of compassion that you’re now for instance, extending to your own father?
JL: Right now, no. If I can be honest with you, like, I was having a conversation with my therapist and, like, I was talking about all these other things and she’s like, “You know, I’m feeling like there’s shame here.” And I was like, get the fuck out, yeah, you’re right. There’s, like, not even about this situation specifically, but how much shame has shown itself in so many different scenarios in my life. Yeah, like shame about weight, shame about my abilities as, like, my view of myself as a man and masculine what that means.
JL: All of these other things. And so I’m working through it.
NBW: Yeah, I get that. Just this week when I realized I was feeling shame about something, I felt ashamed that I was feeling shame! I wrote a fucking book called Shameless, like my company is Shameless Media. Right. And so like I have shame when I realize, oh, I think that thing was shame. And yet, it’s so universally shared. And it really, I mean, you know, sunlight’s the great disinfectant. It just is when it comes to this stuff. And so I love what you put out on social media. You’re honestly one of my favorite follows on Twitter.
JL: Ah Nadia thank you so much.
NBW: You do not compromise the truth, and yet you still have so much grace and compassion. And I’m such a sucker for that combination. So thank you for who you are in the world and what you’re putting out. And thanks for stepping in The Confessional. I’m really grateful.
JL: I mean, Nadia it is my absolute pleasure. Like, I was hoping I was waiting for the moment. I didn’t want to have to email you, like, hey yo, so listen I would love to be on the show. You know what I’m saying I’m feeling mad pride, pride right. Like, this feels mad corny.
NBW: I’m sorry, but other people want to talk about their new book on Fresh Air. But you’re like, when do I get to talk about my fucked up shit on The Confessional?
JL: Yeah, let’s talk about let’s talk about the dirty shit that nobody wants to talk about. Like all the dirty laundry, let’s just air it out. Like that’s where, that’s where the work is, man. Like, let’s unpack this shit. And like,
NBW: That’s where the freedom is.
JL: That’s where the freedom is.
NBW: All right, friend thank you so much.
JL: Thank you. Thank you Nadia.
NBW: A blessing for Joel,
I hear a lot about the kind of masculinity that should be avoided and very little about the kind of masculinity that should be aspired to. And every man in my life seems to struggle to know if they are man enough, without having a clear idea of what that even means, which feels unfair.
So for the purpose of this blessing, I want to name a few things, like the part of you that – despite not having a father to model it, despite not having the living situation and income to make it easy – insisted you be an excellent father to a child you never planned with a woman you never planned on parenting with. So, Joel, I am naming that part of you: a gorgeous masculinity.
So I bless the thing in you that so desperately wants to tuck your own child in bed that after a full day’s work, you’d spend 90 minutes on a 6 train in rush hour traffic to do so. And I call that thing what it is: legit masculinity.
I bless the thing in you that made you name your child’s mother “beautiful” even though you are not her lover. And I call that thing what it is: a sweet masculinity.
I bless that thing in you that felt regret for how you acted one night when the pressure of it all was not enough to keep angry words from escaping your mouth – the thing in you that then worked so hard to make the mother of your child feel safe and cared for again. And I name that thing what it is: an unthreatenable masculinity.
I bless that thing in you that loves yourself enough to have compassion and forgiveness for your own father. And I name it what it is: a self-respecting masculinity.
So Joel, as you continue to father your children so strongly, beautifully and fiercely – may you know this: you have been man enough for the task all along.
Next time on The Confessional…
Jonathan: So what I ended up doing was being an incredible dick to my father. That’s what I ended up doing.
NBW: The Confessional is produced by House of Pod and Shameless Media, with support and spiritual guidance from The Moth and PRX. Our original music is by Antwan Banks Williams.