Our 416th Dad in the Limelight is Don Blackwell. I want to thank Don for being a part of this series. It has been great getting connected with him and now sharing him with all of you.
(1) Tell me about yourself
I am a 55-year-old trial attorney in Miami, Florida. I attended the University Of Virginia School Of Law and received my undergraduate degree in English (magna cum laude) from Spring Hill College. At various times, I’ve also has been a husband, a brother, a son, a poet, a youth league baseball coach, a law school professor (at Southern Methodist University and St. Thomas University), a college disc jockey, a charity golf tournament organizer and fundraiser (for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation), the new kid in town, a problem-solver, a shoulder to cry on, a featured presenter at local, regional and national legal and medical seminars, and a peace-seeker – to name just a few of my roles. Most importantly, however, I am and for the past 28 years have been a “dad” of a 28 year old son and a 26 year old daughter.
As a writer, I have authored several peereviewed feature articles that have been published in the Florida Bar Journal, Florida’s leading legal publication, one of which, “The Burden of Truth – Have Florida Courts Gone Far Enough in Addressing the Problem of Juror Misconduct” (May, 2007) was selected by the Journal’s Editorial Board for the “Excellence in Writing Award” as the best feature article in 2007. In addition, I’ve published several articles in nationally-distributed eating disorder journals and newsletters. Along the way, I’ve authored and self-published two children’s books, The Bunt (1995) and Rounding Third (1997), and I recently completed work on a third, Todd’s Story (2011). My most recent book, “Dear Ashley . . .” – A Father’s Letters and Reflections to His Daughter on Life, Love and Hope, was published in early 2013 by Imbue Press, an imprint of Morgan James Publishing in New York.
The publication of “Dear Ashley.” (www.dearashleythebook.com) led me to start a blog (www.donblackwell.wordpress.com). It also was a catalyst for my becoming much more actively involved in efforts to provide inspiration, hope and healing to those suffering from eating disorders and their loved ones. Those efforts now include my serving as a member of the Parents, Family and Friends Steering Committee of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), my participation as a speaker/panelist on several national webinars benefiting fathers of those suffering from eating disorders and, more recently, my work as the “architect” of The Dad Initiative – Committed to Healing, United in Hope, a national grass roots campaign aimed at fostering healthier father/daughter relationships and empowering, educating and encouraging dads to be more visible and active participants in all aspects of their daughters’ eating disorder treatment and recovery programs.
(2) Tell me about your family
My wife, Cyndy and I have been married for the past 33 years. We have two children, Greg and Ashley. Greg is 28 years old, is married and is living in Manhattan, Kansas, where is completing his degree in Accounting at Kansas State University. Greg returned to school after spending several years pursuing a career in professional golf on various mini/developmental tours around the country. Ashley is 26 years old and is a recent graduate of the University of Miami, where she earned a degree in Psychology with a minor in Critical Film Studies. She recently applied to graduate and hopes to one day teach film at the college level. Cyndy originally worked as a legal secretary and later as a paralegal, before taking a break to be a stay at home mom. Now that our kids are grown, she plans to return to the workforce.
(3) What has been the largest challenge you have had in being a father?
Without question, my biggest challenge as a dad was sharing in my daughter’s life-and-death battle with anorexia nervosa that began shortly after her freshman year of college and lasted nearly 5 years. Her courage in the face of that insidious and powerful disease was taught me what it truly means to be a father, to love unconditionally and to have courage. In fact, I learned more about life, love and hope in those 5 years than I did in my first 50! Her battle (and my journey through her suffering) is what inspired me to write “Dear Ashley . . .”- a collection of 21 life lessons told through letters that I wrote to my daughter during the course of her illness and recovery. The book is intended to be a source of hope, inspiration and healing to those afflicted with eating disorders and other addictive illnesses and their loved ones. It also is intended to provide insight to millions of unafflicted parents and young adults who are struggling with issues of lack of self-worth, perfectionism, fear (in all of its manifestations) and alienation before they result in a crisis.
(4) What advice would you give to other fathers?
Don’t be afraid to be emotional in front of your children – that goes especially for dads! This does a number of positive things. First, it lets your children know that you’re human and imperfect – that you cry when you hurt, that you bang on the desk once in a while when you’re frustrated, that you sometimes yell when you’re angry, that there are times when you just want to be quiet and left alone, that you understand the importance of empathy, etc. Second, seeing a parent express (and work through) the full range of their emotions openly (and in healthy ways) is the surest way to give your children the freedom they need to do the same, without feeling that they will be judged or dismissed or, worse yet, criticized for doing so. It also will help to dispel the notion that “negative” feelings are equated with guilt or shame and should be hidden from view and, instead, encourage the healthy expression of emotions.
Use words to communicate. Children are constantly searching their fathers’ faces and interpreting their body language for some clue as to what we’re thinking or feeling about them at a particular moment in time. Don’t force them to depend on non-verbal “clues” (e.g., silence, distancing, facial expressions, slamming doors, etc.) to convey what you’re thinking or feeling. Express yourself and your feelings in words and encourage your children to do the same. It’s critically important that everyone in the family live out loud!
Let your children know, by your words and your actions, that both your love and your support for them are and always will be UNCONDITIONAL (i.e., that they are not dependent on them looking or acting a certain way or to what they achieve or do not achieve in school, in sports, etc.).
Listen to and validate your children’s words – even when you disagree with them. Don’t belittle or dismiss their point of view because it happens to be contrary to your own. Teach them the value of and importance of working through differences of opinion in a healthy non-demeaning, non-judgmental way.
Make it a point to spend quality, one-on-one time with your children doing something they enjoy (e.g., going on a walk, to the movies, to the beach or a dad/daughter/son lunch or dinner date) and make it a point to talk about things that they’re interested in and value – and to LISTEN!
When you are with your children be FULLY PRESENT. Let them know, by turning off your cell phones, iPads, etc. that you value your time with them above all else that, during your time together, they have and are deserving of your complete attention and respectfully ask for theirs in return.
Be proactive in checking in with your children, especially as they get older. Don’t wait for them to come to you, especially daughters. Take the time to ask “how they’re doing” and be genuinely interested in their response. “Remind” them that you’re there for them and willing to make whatever time is needed to get together to chat or brainstorm or help them problem solve.
Be attentive to “road signs” that may signal an oncoming freight train – perfectionism, isolation, extended periods of sadness, bullying, etc. – and don’t brush them off as a passing phase or something every child/teenager needs to learn to deal with.
Consider making “Heart Talks” a family tradition. Gather around a table with a heart shaped object in the middle once a week/month. Whoever wants to speak simply picks up the heart and begins. While speaking, the person holding the heart is not to be interrupted. When they’re done another family member may pick up the heart and take their turn.
(5) How have you come to balance parenthood and outside life?
I’m probably the wrong person to ask this question to. If the question is balancing work and family, I believe it’s essential to prioritize family whenever possible, especially when it comes to ensuring that you are “present” at important activities in a child’s life (e.g., youth sporting events, recitals, plays, teacher conferences, etc.). Generally, with careful planning of work schedules, you can make that happen. As for life in general, for me being a dad to two very active and engaged kids was my “outside life” when they were growing up – and I wouldn’t change that for anything.
(6) What have you learned from the fathers that you have interacted with?
Sometimes I don’t think dads fully appreciate the critically important role they play in their children’s lives, especially where daughters are concerned. We assume, without asking, that mom is the person our daughters want/need for all those “girl (and boyfriend) things” and that our daughters will let us know if/when we’re needed in their life, if at all, and how we can help. Between her mom and her friends (who begin to take on an increasingly important role in our daughters’ lives), our perception is that they’re doing “just fine” without us and growing more independent (and less in need of us) with each passing day. We convince ourselves that we’re content to take up our seat in the cheering section and watch our daughters grow. Regrettably, daughters often interpret our stepping back and/or silence (or awkwardness) in the face of life circumstances that demand (or would greatly benefit from) a heightened degree of dad involvement and/or vulnerability to mean that we’re disinterested in them, lack empathy or, worse yet, are simply insensitive to their needs. It’s important to realize that our daughters want us to be and stay involved.
(7) What have been the most memorable experiences that you have had thus far as a parent?
My memorable experience, where both my son and daughter, are concerned was the day they were born. There’s nothing quite like being a dad – and certainly nothing as challenging! As for other “memorable experiences,” many are collected in my blog (www.donblackwell.wordpress.com) in the hope that will help other young dads learn from my successes and mistakes!
If you have any questions for Don, please leave a comment here and I will make sure that he gets them so that he may be able to respond!