At first glance, you might wonder why Christian Long, a man with multiple fathers, would be featured in a series on fatherlessness. Good question. It’s true that Christian has a biological father, but he was out of the picture before Christian was three years old and only emerged again when Christian was 25. Christian also had three stepfathers (and three different last names.) Thanks to his wife, he has a father-in-law… So there is no shortage of fathers in his life.
What’s missing, though, was a dad – a safe, constant male figure in his life.
The story of Christian’s father-void is still not over. At age 50, he’s still processing how his experience of fatherlessness has affected his temperament, his fears, and his relationships – especially his relationship with his own children.
As he reflects, a deep, raw honesty emerges. It’s real. It’s is a place of acceptance. And it’s hopeful.
By the way, here's a link to Christian's poem, "Imagining," that we discuss in the story.
Hey there, welcome to Season 3 of Belly of the Beast Life Stories. I’m David All.
It’s another season of life here at the podcast. This third season is a very rare collection of stories by men who share the golden thread of growing up with an absent biological father and broke the pattern to be a good man. I’ll be sharing my own Belly story later this season. And let me tell you that a year ago, when we launched this show, I didn’t realize this was my Belly story.
Wisdom for our Soul -- Courage for your Journey. Extraordinary life stories illustrate the nature of personal transformation. A change that forced us down into the dark, gooey stage of life where we found our purpose and climbed up a new person.
Our podcast has a purpose — a mission to heal, inspire and shape lives with extraordinary life stories. Stand with us — Visit BellyStory.com to share your story, listen and subscribe, sign-up for episode updates and chip-in, and enable our mission.
- Christian reflects on having multiple fathers -- stepfathers and a biological father –- yet he had a dad-void.
- Christian’s childhood memories of his biological father are so few, whatever in-person memories exist happened at or before the age of two.
- Christian’s first stepfather insisted on adopting him. Years later, Christian realized the adoption was not based on love for him as a child; it was nothing more than a negotiation, a poker move of sorts.
- Once a year, Christian visited his paternal grandparents, and once while he was there, he spoke with his father on the phone, though at the time, he didn’t know who he was.
- Anger, often suppressed or masquerading as sarcasm, has been a constant companion of Christian’s.
- The threat of violence from his stepfather left Christian on edge, scared, and looking for outlets away from home.
- Christian describes a difficult time in his marriage when he moved out for a couple of months and how the responsibility he felt as a father helped pull him back home.
- Christian shares why he believes his children are what held his marriage together through a rocky time.
- Christian reflects on the lines of a poem he wrote for his daughter, Berkeley.
- Christian articulates why feeling love is so difficult.
- Christian describes the work of healing from being fatherless.
- Christian describes his online community of men who choose to be honest and vulnerable with one another.
- In some ways, Christina feels like he’s just beginning -- just beginning to discover himself, to feel. It’s never too late to start.
“The first thing that Christian said to me about his story was that it might not be a good fit for this season, because he still feels the deep wound of fatherlessness.”
“The idea of thinking of who was my dad in an intimate, emotional, close way is a moving target for me.”
“I was in a constant state of discomfort and also trying to protect my mother but doing it through sarcasm or one-liners.”
“While I didn't take that violence out on people I cared about, that violence becomes passive but just as detrimental in other ways.”
“My kids were my salvation. When I wasn't sure about me and I wasn't sure about my career, my skills, I wasn't sure about my marriage, whether I was lovable or could love in return, my kids, even at a young age, were my salvation.”
“if there hadn't been kids, I don't think there would have been a way back. I don't think, for my wife, I would have been enough to bring back, and I don't think I would have felt there was a place to go back to.”
“What I felt deep, deep, deep is that those kids were the way back, that my wife and I, our relationship was possible because those kids would bring us back together as a family.”
“It was like I didn't know how to exist until they arrived.”
“I have spent a lot of my life assuming and feeling that the people that I was meant to love or I was meant to feel their love were going to disappear.”
“I look at the kids and I'm still in awe that my daughter really deeply loves me. And I'm still super intimidated and feel a pain, like a breaking, when my son doesn't need his dad.”
“That just to be in a space where good human beings will talk deeply about what guides them and what they're challenged by... It's also just a helluva lot less lonely. You're not stuck in your lane. So I keep showing up. I keep welcoming them back.”
“This is the moment. The past story doesn't have to be the next story.”
“Identity, I think it's out in front of me. It's time to go lay claim. It's time to feel good. It's time to say this is the life that was meant to happen.”
LEARN MORE ABOUT OUR GUEST
-"Imagining" poem by Christian Long discussed in story
- Founder / Host of the "Oh, Sh*t" Sessions: a virtual gathering of 'good men' from around the world who come together each month to explore the "Oh, Sh*t" moments in their life -- now and in the past -- as well as to define the ways they are seeking to make a purposeful impact in their future. Interested to learn more / participate? Reach out directly via: email@example.com
- TEDx Indianapolis talk -- "Wonder, By Design": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5R68Yhd--RY
- We Are Unusual talk -- "Creating the Conditions for Wonder": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZsA6LZpoJ3w
- The WONDER Project (work) website: https://www.wonderproject.org/
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/christianadamslong/
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/christianlong/
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David: Hey there. Welcome back to Belly of the Beast Life Stories. I’m David All.
We kicked off our third season with my first solo episode. In Beyond the Belly episode number 4, I examined Joe Biden’s personal life and the luck he had growing up with a responsible biological father. That pattern of father-fullness is so obvious in Joe's story. It continues through the life of his boys and now on to their boys.
I wasn’t so lucky, and neither were the men that are a part of this Season of life, FATHERLESSNESS. Stay tuned for my personal Belly story later on this season.
Now, let’s get on with it. Christian Long has an extraordinary life story that you need to hear.
Wisdom for our Soul — Courage for your Journey. This is a podcast on personal life stories, extraordinary life stories that illustrate the nature of personal transformation, a totally normal but scary and lonely stage of life.
There was a change that forced us into the dark, gooey stage of life where we found our purpose. Our golden thred unraveled at our feet, and we climbed up a new person, stitching a new story. This podcast has a clear purpose. We are on a mission to heal, inspire, and shape lives with extraordinary life stories. Stand with me today.
Visit BellyStory.com to share your story and become an enabler to keep the show 100% sacred, free of advertising and outside influence.
This second episode, this extraordinary life story lived by Christian Long has been a gift of wisdom and courage for me as I'm looking at myself in the mirror and seeing an even deeper reflection. Let me introduction you to my friend Christian Long.
The first thing that Christian said to me about has story was that it might not be a good fit for this season because he still feels the deep wound of fatherlessness. He's still working through it, noticing grief, questioning whether he can grieve at all. Hmm... I can relate.
Christian's story really is an example of the tumble cycle that a young boy and man can go through in this insatiable hunger for fathering. His biological father was out of the picture by the time he was just two years old. A stepfather adopted him at the age of three, and Christian took his last name. He carried that name with him until the age of 30 when he went through a legal adult adoption with his mother's third father. He once again changed his last name, right down to the birth certificate, which he still uses today.
Childhood with an adopted stepdad was confused by moments of behind-the-back connection to his biological side of the family and even a phone call with a man that would end up being his biological father. He never knew that he was talking to his dad, a wound that may have been avoidable with some honesty instead of a need to protect a son from the truth of his father's existence.
In his early 20s and 40s, Christian's experience would involve a third and fourth stepfather and, in between, a reconnection to his biological who had been simultaneously diagnosed with a
life-threatening disease. Christian's quick forgiveness at the age of 25 has haunted him as both the right thing to do and also something too quickly rushed without proper reflection. There has been an unsettling ever since.
Now a husband and fulfilling his own lifelong quest as a father to two children, Christian faced his own insecurities of abandonment and has come to realize that the pattern of fatherless must end. This is an extraordinary life story that you need to hear. Christian Long, welcome to Belly of the Beast Life Stories.
Christian: I'm honored to be here with you, David,
David: Christian, I'm interested in something that you've labeled “a void” in your life, something that you recognized early on when it comes to fathering and your life. You talk about the fact that you've had an abundance of fathers on one hand. You actually say that technically, you have five fathers. You've been adopted multiple times. You're even reconnecting with your biological father. But there is a void in the sense of not having a dad in your life. Can you talk about that for us?
Christian: Yeah, the idea of a void feels fairly recent. I'm 50 now, and both my children are middle-school age, and so I think a lot about my relationship with them and the privilege and the unknowing of being a dad and, at the same time, in the last year or two, I've really begun — and I mean really begun — to think through what my assumptions are about fatherhood.
The word "dad" is a strange one to me. It's the word my kids use, but it's a difficult word for me to use about the relationship of who raised me. I think it's only recently that I'm trying to sense-make what that could mean or what it might allow.
You mentioned the technical idea of having five fathers. The privileges of that is one of them is my father-in-law, my wife's father. While I don't think of him as a dad, I certainly think of him as central to my life and our life.
I think growing up, my second father, I used the word “dad” in reference to him. "Hey, dad," and would refer to him to other people as dad. But the idea of “daddy” or “dad” seems incredibly intimate to me, and that's not how I felt growing up.
I don't know if I used that word with him or if he... In short, I used the word “dad.” I suppose on one level, the idea of father makes sense to me, and stepfather makes sense to me, and even being adopted twice sort of makes sense to me, but the idea of thinking of who was my dad in an intimate, emotional, close way is a moving target for me. And I think at certain times, it's felt close, within reach. But it's never really felt consistently true.
David: I wonder how many of these men call you their son? You've been legally adopted by a few of them. You've changed your name to take their name in some cases.
Christian: Yeah, I don't know. My biological father, I was aware of him until about the age of two, and I only have maybe two memories that I can see in my eyes. I don't have a photograph of he and I when I was a baby or a toddler. But I have one or two images where I'm pretty sure we were in the same space together.
When we met when I was 25, from that moment on, I always refer to him, when we're together, by his first name. And I never, when I refer to him in a separate conversation, ever use "dad" or "father." It's always been "my biological father." It's almost as if the phrase can't come out unless I add the word "biological" because, in some respects, it's the way that my instincts have kind of processed... He fits into "biological father," but he's not a dad.
I've become very close with his family, which is now, obviously, my family. I've become incredibly close to a couple of members in his family, so I feel attachment and I feel connection, and I feel a sense of deep care and love. But it's almost as if the way I would feel love for a brother-in-law or an uncle. It's like he fits more into an uncle role even though he wasn't an uncle.
As I think through, it's not within reach for him to fit into the category of dad or that more intimate side, that child-parent role.
My second father, who I was with from the age of three until 21, I put the phone down. I hung up on a conversation with him and haven't spoken to him since. So it's been nearly 30 years. The 30-year anniversary of putting the phone down is coming up.
He was, growing up, what I assumed "dad" meant. But what I didn't really understand until I had distance was that it was a broken relationship. He was not a healthy man. He demanded the adoption when he married my mother. I was maybe two and a half at that time, three-ish, and he had demanded. He wouldn't get married unless he could adopt me.
For a number of years, I carried that story with pride, that he wouldn't even marry my mother if he couldn't adopt me.
What I learned later is that it was a negotiation. It was a hard play. It was a poker move. It was "I don't want his father in the picture."
And so for a while, even though the relationship wasn't healthy, he was the only thing I understood in terms of a dad. And because he had adopted me and I was there at the wedding, and I could picture as a three-year-old, and I didn't have another example, like day-to-day practice, so I didn't know what love or safety or any of that. I just assumed his behavior was normal.
At some point in time, it became to dawn on me that he didn't adopt me because he was in love with this child. He adopted me to win in the relationship, to prevent my biological father from being there. And this was years and years and years before I actually met my biological father.
It was more of like there was somebody way in the back of my mind, but it wasn't like as I came to realize that about my second father who I referred to as dad — I had his last name. My birth certificate had been changed. I grew up with him. Everybody that knew me knew him as my father... But I didn't connect the dots back to my biological dad. Those were very different stories, different paths, different lives, and it wasn't until much, much later that I could connect those in some way.
David: Christian, one of the events in your childhood that you raised with me as being very confusing to you was at one point, your mom was taking you to your biological father's parents' house, your grandparents. You were having a relationship with them, and even at one point, they put you on the phone with a man, a stranger, and you would later find out it was your biological father, but you said, "I wasn't told it was my dad, so I just answered like an innocent kid rather than a son." Can you talk to us about how folks trying to protect you led to this confusion down the road?
Christian: About once a year, I would get into the car with my mother. I'm going to guess I was probably five-ish, four-ish when this began and went on for five or six years. We would drive from Portland, Maine where I spent most of my childhood in that area to Brunswick. Brunswick was about half an hour away, so not a very long drive.
I always had a feeling it sort of happened around the time we had to go grocery shopping or something. My mother made it very clear to me that I wasn't to share this trip when we got home, that my dad was not to know that we went. She wasn't stern, but I could read her. I could tell whatever was going to happen, I wasn't going to talk about it. It didn't happen that often, once a year or so.
We would end up at this modest house next to a high school football field. My mother and I would arrive, and we'd get out of the car, and this older couple would come out on this house, come down these concrete steps, across a small yard and to the chainlink fence gate. It was very kind and very welcoming.
There would be small-talk. I think, to a kid, it felt forever, but probably just a couple of minutes. At some point in time, the older woman who I called Mamae would invite me in. The gentleman, I would refer to him as Papae. My mother would get ready to get in the car. "I'll be back in an hour or three," whatever she was would say. He would kind of shut the gate behind. I would be inside the house.
As soon as I arrived, every time, there were fresh cookies. I think they were always chocolate chip. It makes sense because I think they wanted to make sure I had something I would feel good about. I would sit at the kitchen table, a small little kitchen table, Formica, a classic 1960s kind of kitchen table, and eat cookies.
This woman was wonderful to me, kind. She had an apron on — always had an apron on — and older white hair, kind of curly and soft. And she would always just make me feel as welcome as could be.
I don't remember what we talked about, but I remember that she felt safe.
I would spend time in the house. There might have been a puzzle, but I don't remember any toys. We might have watched TV on occasion, but it wasn't a showy thing. It was more just like holding space. Like she would hold space for me. It wasn't long conversations. I was too young, probably, to be in one. And she was a pretty humble, kind of old-school grandmother.
What I didn't know at the time was that she was my biological grandmother. Not only was Mamae my grandmother, but Papae out in the yard was my grandfather. And every once in a while, I would go out and rake leaves with him.
He wasn't a hugging, cuddle, put-me-on-his-lap kind of guy. He was more utilitarian, worked-with-his-hands kind of guy, a man of few words. But I still enjoyed being around him. I felt safe around him. He was a big man with strong hands. But I would spend most of the time inside.
There was one time, I must have been watching TV, and I was asked to come to the kitchen. Their phone had rang. I didn't pay attention to the phone ringing, per se, but I was asked to come in, and the phone was handed to me. It was one of those old phones with the long cord attached to the wall, and I would sit down at the table.
A gentleman, a man's voice, said hello and "Is this Christian?"
I said yes, and then we were on the phone for a couple of minutes. I don't remember all the questions, but I feel like they were the kind of questions you would ask an 8-year old. "What's your favorite TV show? Do you like pizza?" Simple things. I don't know that I answered much, but I remember trying to be polite and trying to answer the questions.
I didn't know who I was talking to. It sort of felt like family, like a distant cousin or uncle, but I had so idea it was family. I just remember my grandmother standing against the kitchen counter and just kind of watching, and then she left the room, and I think she just wanted to give us space.
What I didn't know at that point was that that was my father. That was my biological father, Jerry. As far as I know, it's the one time we spoke from... Gosh, I must have been about two, two and a half when he moved out of the house and my mother was in a new relationship and getting engaged, and the adoption took place within the next year as they were married.
So it was from the one time I heard his voice from the age of two-ish till I was 25 when I met him again, and we were reunited, obviously, quite a long time afterwards.
David: You talk about anger. One of your quotes was, "Anger has been a constant ally my entire life. It may have come through a sarcasm or a competition, sadness or loss, but it came out as anger." Can you talk to us about your relationship with anger as it relates to fatherlessness?
Christian: I think my second father made it very clear at a young age that I was always a comment away from being in trouble. And trouble could be just sternness and letting him down. There was always this... He was very clear, "You've disappointed me."
But right behind that was the threat of violence. It was would start with "You've disappointed me." And even though he was my legal father, he had adopted me, and it was the only dad-figure I could picture, it was always this sense of being on edge.
It took me a long time to realize that alcohol was a big part of that. I don't know much about his childhood, but I think he was always on the edge of violence. And the way that I navigated that growing up was to placate, I think. Part of my, as an only child in that house, was to make sure my mother was safe and to placate him.
The way that I would deal with emotion, I think sarcasm became, for me, the only way that I could push back. So I learned to be very sarcastic. He was an incredibly sarcastic guy, so I think I modeled after him. It was also the way that I dodged how he would physically react. I could use sarcasm somehow, but I couldn't talk back. And there was a fine line between that and...
What I've come to appreciate about that kid, that teenager, that young man is he was scared to death. I was petrified. I was scared at two in the morning because of what I heard in my parents' bedroom, and I wanted so desperately to stop what was going on and protect my mother, but I was scared to death to leave the room. Scared to death.
And I was scared of what he would do. He had a pretty clever thing that he did at the dining room table. We always had formal dinners. I think they did that to give the appearance of elegance and being refined.
We'd sit at the dinner table, even on school nights, late 8:30, 9:00, 9:30 at night on school nights, and he had this habit of hitting my knuckles under the table of the handle of a knife. So not the blade side but the big heavy part you would grip. And he would just strike my knuckles under the table and smile up above the table. That, for him, was a very normal act, and it sort of borders on not a big deal because I wasn't wearing bruises, but on the other hand, it was just constantly in that situation.
What I didn't recognize when I hit being a teenager in high school and started to drink and just looking for outlets the way any young person is but also, at that time, really wanting to get out of that house. Any chance I could to spend the night at a friend's house, I did. Any party that I could go to... Anything I could do.
And what I didn't realize is I had this combination of being incredibly scared — really, really felt like things could go bad — and at the same time, I was developing an intense anger and intense violence.
I got to college, and all of a sudden, my physical manhood caught up. I was slow to develop. I was 5'3" as a junior in school and overnight was 6' by the end of that school year. So I went from being not even in puberty yet as a junior and being small and being frightened of my classmates and kind of learning to be cocky and sarcastic, and I was a good athlete, so I could sort of cover on that side, and then all of a sudden, I had a physical body. I had a grown man's body. I was taller by several inches than my dad.
But I still was scared to death. I was in a constant state of discomfort and also trying to protect my mother but doing it through sarcasm or one-liners. It sounds simplistic now that I say it out loud, but I think that's where I operated.
I got to college, and the combination of being out of the house and then in college in a fraternity, working at bars, there was a real violence in me. No fear of being hurt. For the first time in my life, I wanted to get hit. I wanted to engage.
I remember a guy in college. We ended up in basically a street fight, and he pulled a gun on me. Instead of panicking and running, I ran at him. Does that say if you're 21 years old and you're in a situation where you're causing a street fight and somebody pulls on handgun on you and your first instinct is to run at him... That is insane. And yet through a big chunk of my life, that was a very logical reaction. There was an intense anger.
As I've gotten older and married and in a career and raising kiddos and just trying to navigate, I think that anger and intensity was always below the surface, and my girlfriend or my wife, my children were never at risk, but that anger plays out in other ways.
It plays out in a willingness to burn the house down. I don't mean physically, but everything could be lost in the blink of an eye, and all you do is just move on. Whether it be a friendship or a working relationship or, at different times with my wife, would we be able to thrive and grow and stay together, I think that anger and near violence just simmered under the surface and played out in some ways that I learned to mask but was incredibly detrimental to not only what a normal, healthy response would be in an argument or a situation of stress, but also inside, it just became a really... It wasn't a place of growth for me. It was a place of being stuck.
While I didn't take that violence out on people I cared about, that violence becomes passive but just as detrimental in other ways.
David: I'd like for you to carry that thought through to a specific experience that you described to me as a rock-bottom moment when you moved out of the house when you were reconsidering your marriage and you said that it was the most isolated that you had ever felt. It wasn't so much a concern around divorce. You just said burning down the house and getting out of a relationship is not hard for you to do, but it was more a pain of your children not needing you. And it was the responsible father in you that pulled you back in.
Christian: Yeah, that's a difficult time to fully feel and know. There is part of me that can quickly categorize it in the same way that I can count the number of marriages my mother had or count the number of fathers. So I can count that as a difficult moment.
Moving out was, in the moment, a defensive posture. We were in a really difficult situation as husband and wife. I'm certain, in hindsight, there were a lot of ways for that moment to unfold. But for me, it was an all-or-nothing. There wasn't gray.
I think in terms of self-preservation, when I moved out, it was a preparing to walk away forever for everything. And so my kiddos were — I don't know — four and six? Five and seven? Young enough to not get what marriage is, old enough to recognize that dad was out of the house. And I lived six blocks away. I had an apartment.
For a couple of days, the energy, the anger, the self-preservation, the embarrassment, the fear, all of those emotions provided enough insulation and enough energy that was it like "F*ck it. Just going to move forward.”
I'm sure that's pretty typical. You're in a tough situation. You've got to make the next move, get up the next day and go to work, that kind of thing. But there was a real belief that there was a hard line in the sand, and there was no going back.
I think my wife and I, I came back a couple of months later, and we began to heal, not fully heal but began to heal and made a choice to come back together and restart our marriage. And I'm incredibly grateful that we did.
I don't know what would have happened if there weren't kids. I'm not sure I would have thought that I deserved to move back in or that she needed me or that my pride and ego would settle back down to ask to come back.
The really, really primal experience that I had during that time — it was complicated by being a male and my career and my sense of how I was perceived — I was feeling that being with somebody else was the right answer. And so all that was muddied. None of it I'm proud of now, but at the time, these felt like logical things to be dealing with.
The two primal things was this deep, deep fear, I would never see them again. I would never see them again. And the other side of it was utter loneliness. I had prepared my whole life to be alone. We had moved a lot, so I was often the new kid and didn't assume there would be friends at the next school. I had been pretty nomadic as a young adult. I felt on one level that intellectually, that I could go out on my own, but deep, deep down, sitting in that apartment for a couple of months, it was as close to breaking as I've ever felt.
And it was complicated because my pride and ego were sending messages like “You can handle this," or "You're not totally in the wrong."
But inside was a fear. I think the connection for me is that my kids were my salvation. When I wasn't sure about me and I wasn't sure about my career, my skills, I wasn't sure about my marriage, whether I was lovable or could love in return, my kids, even at a young age, were my salvation. Being a father, being a dad, being papa... I used to refer to myself as "Papa" and that's what they used to call me when they were little guys. But that was like the one bit of daylight.
And when I moved out of the house and I began to really wrestle with the choices I had made and wrestle with choices my wife and I had made together, coming home, I think without it being depression, like a medical designation, it was being as close to darkness as there was.
And the impossible thing was that coming home didn't mean that they or my wife would be there. Time could pass, and they could move on. Even if I'm in the house, it doesn't necessarily mean that I was deserving of being in the house. And so it was a frightening, cold, hard-to-name place. And I think had I not been a father, I don't know that my wife would have brought me back. I don't know that I would have sought to go back.
And I also think that I wouldn't have begun to understand what fatherhood meant to me if it hadn't been for that moment because I think I could have easily seen being a dad, a papa, my kiddos as just being this beautiful part of life. But I wouldn't have understood that it was connected to something that was going to take decades after that, years after that, to start to make sense of. That was, as painful as it was, probably the beginning of starting to make sense of why is this relationship with my kids so confusing and so beautiful and so complicated and so deep.
I think at the time I just thought that's what dads are supposed to feel like, even though my fathers weren't that way. But I felt like that's what you were supposed to feel like. And I think the truth was my kids became for me the path to understand what I didn't have words for, even in my 30’s, even in my early 40’s.
David: Christian, let's take a break and come right back.
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David: We're back with Christian Long. Christian's story of fatherlessness is one of having an abundance of fathers — stepfathers and fathers-in-law, biological father…but not dads. And we were just talking to you. We ended with you telling us about how this moment with your own family helped you start to realize that fatherlessness, this void, had been the root cause of so much of your challenges in your life.
One of the quotes is you say, "I made a choice to come back." The desire to be a father to the kids was what saved you from living.
You also talk about surrendering in waves. Can you tell us about that?
Christian: Yeah, my wife and I were talking this week about that moment. We were sitting in a car even years later, still trying to make sense of that moment for both of us. I continue to try to sense-make the choices we made and what it was like to move out of the house, what it was like to know my kids were a couple of blocks away, but I wasn't around, and to imagine the possibility of not living in the same house as either of them.
My wife and I made the decision to come back together. It was risky, I think, for both of us. She was going to have to have some faith that she could trust. I was going to have to have some faith that we were meant to work this out together.
But what I was also feeling and what you referenced is this core, core belief that if there hadn't been kids, I don't think there would have been a way back. I don't think, for my wife, I would have been enough to bring back, and I don't think I would have felt there was a place to go back to.
The kids, for me, were a lifeline. They were a salvation. They were young enough to not really know what was going on. So when I saw them and put them to bed a couple of months later, was now living back in the house, I didn't have the sense that they knew the weight of what was going on.
At the same time, they were old enough to be aware. Dad traveled a lot for work. Dad was suddenly living down the street. They were visiting, spending the night on occasion. And so it was a raw period because I didn't know what they would remember. I didn't know if anything had been lost. But what I felt deep, deep, deep is that those kids were the way back, that my wife and I, our relationship was possible because those kids would bring us back together as a family.
At the time, I saw that more on the surface — emotion and love and missing and depression and stress and all of that. But I wasn't connecting that to my experience as a kid growing up or me as a papa, as a dad, as a father. I wasn't connecting that to what I felt as a child and an adult child to somebody called father.
In the last couple of years, I can't unthink those connections.
I think my willingness to take very seriously the possibility of not continuing in this marriage was certainly related to choices my wife and I were making and how we were feeling about one another. But I think part of it was a sense that marriage isn't meant to last and families aren't meant to stay together and who you grew up with isn't necessarily who you return and visit over the holidays years later. Even names, my last name had changed multiple times over the course of my life, and I sort of took all that for granted.
But I hadn't done any work to make sense of why I thought that was normal. And my kids, both in simple and profound ways, gave me something that would have been impossible otherwise, and that is a difficult... It isn't a natural state. I mean that in the sense of difficult — but gave me and still gives me a sense that if I keep coming back, they will be here. And if I keep coming back and they continue to be here, then my wife and I can continue to come back, and we will both be here.
At some point down the line, I suppose we'll all be here.
David: You wrote a series of poems around the birth of your daughter, Berkeley, who is 11 years old now. You call her Burkes. One of the poems that I particularly liked — and I'm going to link it up in the episode notes — it's called "Imagining." You wrote it on February 19th, 2009. I'd like to read the last few sentences of that, the last few lines of prose.
Yes, little one.
Will you always go with me, imagining?
Yes, little one. Always.
Can you put that into context for us of what you just talked about, of making this choice to come back to fatherhood, of your role as a father and even thinking about your own children today?
Christian: You know that feeling right before you cry that you can feel in your chest? You were in the second line of that, and I started to feel my chest.
I wrote that, I don't know if she was just about ready to be born or had been around for a week or two, but it was right in that early stage. And I wrote it because I think I thought that's what it's supposed to be.
And when I think about that poem now, I think it's even bigger than that for me. I thought I wrote it for her, that one day she would find it, and she would know that I was there for her. But I think I was writing it because I needed to know that I would be. That I would be in that relationship. It was like I needed this little one who was either not quite born or a couple of weeks old, I needed her to give me a place to come into.
And I already had a boy, my son, at the time. So I already had a feeling of what it meant to be a papa, what it meant to hold him, what it meant to watch him grow up and watch my wife going through pregnancy for the second time, and I could tell but...
It was like I didn't know how to exist until they arrived. And I still didn't know, even after my son arrived — and I was so close to me — and after my daughter arrived, and she was real, and I think I was a good dad. I think I did a lot of dad things really well, intuitively. But when I hear those words, I think I'm asking her to give me life, but I'm framing it as if I'm going to be there when she needs me.
David: You really boiled it down for me on the phone. You said, "It comes down to starting to let love replace the pain."
Christian: That word is still really hard for me. No, that's not true. The word is easy. The feeling of it is hard. And I think I have spent a lot of my life assuming and feeling that the people that I was meant to love or I was meant to feel their love were going to disappear. On one level, it's kind of irrational because my mom, even though I had been adopted twice through marriage, she's been there from the very beginning — I'm an only child — so I’ve got a really core part of me, that relationship has always been there.
I've been married now almost 20 years. My kids are teenagers. So more examples of people that have stayed around even when family can be difficult at times. But the idea of feeling love is really, really confusing to me. Really confusing.
I look at the kids and I'm still in awe that my daughter really deeply loves me. And I'm still super intimidated and feel a pain, like a breaking, when my son doesn't need his dad. Totally healthy. Just an adolescent, a young man who needs space. But it starts pulling at the threads. And it's because the feeling of needing and wanting and trusting in that relationship is so raw and so hard. And when it feels amazing, it still feels like a layer away. It's like it's just within reach. But it's not pervasive.
And so I feel this intensity for my kids, and I want to feel that intensity for family — my wife and my half-brother and others. But I sit here at 50 now and I'm thinking, dammit, it's really a fundamentally difficult thing to feel — not to know, not to be intellectual about... The words come out, but there is a gap there.
And my kids, when I feel it the least, I keep going back to my kids. In them is the way. I don't want them to feel the weight of their dad needing them in that way because I don't want them to be burdened by that, but I'm convinced that they are the reminder, and they are the permission.
David: Healing takes time. You talk about giving yourself grace and acknowledging that. You say, "I imagine the years I've been silently swallowing the sense of being fatherless will demand as much time to heal."
Christian: Yeah, it does feel like it's going to take time. The progress that I've made, I think, on some level, is just showing up. I think that's part of it. And right next to that, maybe the only progress I've really made is I'm starting to acknowledge that it's not a point of trivia the way I refer to my fathers. It's a thing that demands work to understand and let go of. And I feel like it's just beginning.
I don't know what 50 to 60, or 50 to 70, or 50 to whatever is going to allow, but I feel like the work begins now.
David: Part of that work for you is convening a group of men around the United States and the world that meet vitually — of course, given the coronavirus — to explore what it means to be a man in this day and age, how these moments of not knowing and five moments of uncertainty. How does that work help you understand your own story better?
Christian: I have the privilege of sitting down virtually with this group of really remarkable guys from all over — mid-20s to in their 70s. And it was would be so easy for it to be a conversation of what we do for a living or opinions about the world. But conversation after conversation, it's about really good men choosing to speak truth about what matters to them, about what deeply matters to them.
So on a regular basis, I am learning from really smart, awful, but incredibly unique men who are willing to be honest. They're willing to name the things they want to face or they want to take time understanding.
And so the privilege of hosting or gathering them together, on one level, it's just affirming that they keep showing up. But what they provide for me over and over and over again is a reminder that this work is not even done, that being a grandfather is a whole different expedition that, as I hear other men enter a marriage in their mid-20s and how they are trying to understand that privilege and the unknown of that.
And we talk a lot about the relationships that we want to put good into, and the legacy, the question of legacy. It helps me not get stuck in the story I've been telling myself for decades. It helps me start to imagine a new way of putting things in place or making sense. Making sense in terms of being a dad, making sense in terms of my responsibility in my community, making sense of how to really honor my wife, to what it means to ask a guy to tell a story and not try to conveniently fit it into mind but just really try to understand how he sees the world around him. And the people in my life, it's not an all-or-nothing, but it is an enormous privilege and opportunity to be in their life and to have them in my life.
I think that's what I find. That just to be in a space where good human beings will talk deeply about what guides them and what they're challenged by... It's also just a helluva lot less lonely. You're not stuck in your lane.
So I keep showing up. I keep welcoming them back.
David: Christian, let's take a break, and we'll come back for some closing thoughts.
David: Thanks to the enablers for this show, we're able to use our breaks in the show to share poems and something that inspires me with our listeners. Enablers are folks chipping in a few bucks a month at BellyStory.com to be a part of this thing.
I want to dedicate this poem by Langston Hughes to my friend James Short who is an enabler to our show. He's a movie producer in Los Angeles telling meaningful stories through his work. Langston Hughes was really the first poet I remember learning about, all the way back in 4th Grade in Mr. Kingsbourough's class. And now, for the first time living on the Sol Duc River in Washington, this poem sinks even deeper, speaking an ancient language to my soul. May it find yours as well.
"The Negro Speaks of Rivers" by Langston Hughes.
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
David: We're back with Christian Long with a complex story of fatherlessness with a man who is contemplating what it will mean to be a grandfather in his own life.
Christian, I would like you to take this idea of identity head-on for us as you're thinking about who you are today in this moment as a man, as a father, as someone who stood by his son, his daughter, and his wife, who made that choice.
I would like you to discuss your identity, not about your last name, but tell me who you are today.
Christian: I feel like a kid. I think if I'm really conscious, I still feel like a kid. I don't look like a kid, but I feel like it.
It's a strange feeling. I'm in my 50s now, and I feel like I'm supposed to have so much of it sorted out. I don't know if that's embarrassing or awkward, but that's part of the answer.
And the other side is I feel like I've been gifted this moment to begin. I've been sober for over ten months now, and what it has done for me is give me a chance to realize how long I've been medicating, how long I have not wanted to feel. And so I feel like I'm just beginning to feel, and I wish I had started earlier because I think my sense of being a dad would be more developed. I think I would have asked my birth father, I would have actually asked him questions when we met. But for 25 years, I really haven't asked him anything.
I think if I had been able to ask him questions earlier, I would have a greater sense of who I am, that identity question you asked.
But I think today I feel really, really fortunate that I've begun, that I'm not meditating, that I'm proud of the man that my daughter and son get to see, even when they make fun of me, even when they tease me, even when they kind of roll their eyes. I'm proud that they're rolling their eyes at me, and I feel like my wife and I have 20 years, and we're beginning together. And part of that is possible because I'm beginning to finally acknowledge that I've hit pause on a lot of what it meant to grow, what it meant to trust, what it meant to go all-in.
I feel like now at this literal moment in time of 2020 and COVID, of all times, I feel like it's like, f*ck. This is the moment. This is the moment. The past story doesn't have to be the next story.
I don't know. Identity, I think it's out in front of me. I think that's what this moment represents for me. It's time to go lay claim. It's time to feel good. It's time to say this is the life that was meant to happen.
David: Breaking the pattern is a very difficult thing to do. It's certainly honorable. It's certainly noble. I recognize it. It's what these stories, this collection of stories of men, it's why they're so rare, because men are expected to be something, and it's difficult to be that if you don't really know what that is.
Your story, it's really moved me. It, of course, has given me this dimension, this perspective into my own life story that I can only get when I'm listening to you tell yours. I'm sure a lot of other men feel the same way, a lot of mothers and grandmothers and grandfathers and siblings, sons and daughters.
Thank you so much for sharing your story with us.
Christian: Appreciate you asking the questions, David. Appreciate you holding this space.
David: You know, it is true. I know these rivers. I see the creek on our ranch flowing into the Sol Duc River, and I've gone to witness that Sol Duc merging into other rivers as it barrels with great purpose to our one ocean.
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