Redefining Family: Regina King On Getting Past The Pain With Her Ex-Husband and Putting Co-Parenting First
Courtesy Of Regina King
This essay appears in He Never Came Home: Interviews, Stories, and Essays from Daughters on Life Without Their Fathers by Regina R. Robertson
Not long after my divorce was finalized, I spotted my ex-husband at one of our son’s basketball games. He’d always been a present father, so it wasn’t unusual for him to come out and show his support. I can’t say that I was happy about him being there, though. Actually, I was still pissed about some of the messiness that had gone down during our breakup, so I really wasn’t in the mood to see him at all, anywhere. Then something clicked.
At one point, I looked up and across the stands and realized that I was sitting on one side and he was all the way on the other. Damn. On an occasion when we should have been united, we were miles apart, which was not cool. I caught myself repeating a familiar pattern, and I should have known better. Because of our issues, Ian was becoming the kid whose parents were so disconnected that they couldn’t even sit next to each other, let alone have a civilized conversation. I had been that kid once and it wasn’t fun.
As soon as the game was over, I found my ex in the crowd and asked if he had a few minutes to talk. I really wanted to tell him how I was feeling, right in the moment. I wanted us to at least start the conversation, face-to-face.
“You know what? This is not good for Ian,” I said. “Let’s put this shit behind us, because it has nothing to do with how much we both love him.”
He heard me out and after taking a deep breath, he agreed. I think we both were relieved to be taking the first step toward releasing the heaviness we’d been carrying around. That was our turning point.
It wasn’t easy, but we started putting in the work it took to find our way back to a friendship. But even if we hadn’t come back together—as friends or as parents—I never had any doubt about his role as a father. As he’d demonstrated at that basketball game and in so many other ways, he was front and center for Ian, who was in seventh grade then. That’s the kind of father he’d always been. Unfortunately, my father wasn’t that way.
I was only eight when my parents got divorced, but I don’t remember their split being such a surprise. I never knew what went wrong, but after seven years, their relationship had reached a level where they were constantly arguing. Like, every day. There was a lot of door-slamming going on, too, and it was hard not to notice my dad sleeping in the living room. I remember him lying on the floor every night, for months, because the couch was too soft for his back. The tension was thick, and I was so embarrassed by the thought of everybody in the neighborhood knowing, or at least hearing, what was going on in our house. Although I wanted things to be different, my dad’s leaving the house was not the change I was hoping for.
There are moments that play back in my mind like a scene from a movie, and the day he told me and my sister, Reina, about the divorce is one of them. I can still see him sitting on the couch, picking us up, one by one, and placing us on either side of his lap. She and I were facing each other, looking up at him, as he began to explain why he was moving out. Reina is four years younger than me, so I doubt that she understood what he was saying, but I did. Well, I thought I did. He assured us that it wasn’t such a big deal, that everything was going to be okay. I was relieved when he said his presence in our lives wouldn’t change and that he’d still be around for us. Because of what he said that day, I figured that whatever was happening was just between my parents.
The word “divorce” wasn’t foreign to me. As a child of the 1970s, I grew up as part of a generation of kids whose parents got divorced, and it wasn’t seen as this terrible thing. Maybe that’s why I believed what my father told me and Reina that day, that everything would be okay. But it wasn’t. My parents’ conduct during and after their divorce—from the constant fighting to their eventual estrangement— was very disappointing and hurtful to me. I was more disappointed and even more hurt when my father seemed to just drift out of our lives. I only realized much later that the divorce really had little to do with that. It had more to do with who he was as a man.
I’ve held on to the good memories I have of my dad. He’d take me and Reina to the drive-in movie, which we loved, and I remember him being the “fun dad” on our street. He was strong and lean back then; all of the kids thought they could outrun Mr. King, but they never could. He got a kick out of that. My dad was a handsome man and I always thought he had the most beautiful hands. As a mechanical engineer, he used his hands for work, but because he had two older daughters from his first marriage, he really knew how to comb hair, too! Whenever he did my hair, I just thought it was the coolest thing. I also remember the cross he wore around his neck. He wore it so much that I can still see the emerald stone that was in the center of it. That all feels like a lifetime ago.
After my dad moved out, Reina and I saw him pretty regularly. He lived in an apartment not too far from our house and we’d stay with him every other weekend. I don’t remember the specifics about those weekends, but there were times when I played with a couple of kids who lived in his building. Their father was kind of mean and nasty, and I used to think, Oh man, I’m so glad I have an awesome dad. I felt lucky.
He never said anything about my mom and she didn’t speak badly about him. It was only once I got older that she told me about him being late with child support or not paying any at all. Back then, though, the only thing she said was how our clothes smelled like cigarettes when we came back from visiting him. She’d quit smoking, but he hadn’t yet, so she’d make us hang our clothes outside to get rid of the smell. But really, neither of them said much about the other, and when I think about it now, I wonder if they ever really spoke to each other much after the divorce. I’m sure they must have talked about when to pick us up and drop us off on those weekends, but that was probably about it.
Then there was a shift. I can’t pinpoint when or how it started, but somewhere along the way, my dad just drifted away. Those every-other-weekend visits slowed down, too, but I didn’t notice it right away because life was getting really busy at our house. Reina and I had been taking acting classes for a few years and by the time I was thirteen, we were both working on television. It was an exciting time for us, but our dad wasn’t around very much. I can count on one hand the number of times he came to any of our tapings. That was definitely upsetting, but I never spoke up about it. I guess I just hoped things would somehow get better.
I credit my former costar Hal Williams with being a wonderful influence. He played my father on 227, which aired for six seasons, and also became a father figure for me when the cameras stopped rolling. He’d let me sit up under him and talk about teenage stuff and just be, which was something I no longer did with my dad. Hal is a warm, loving person and I really appreciate him for being there for me. Around that time, I also had to deal with the fact that my dad married a woman who was barely five years older than me. At seventeen, that was a lot for me to process because, more than anything, I just wanted to be closer to him.
A lot of people think that girls need their mothers and boys need their fathers, but kids need both of their parents. Girls need their dads in their lives for so many reasons. There are certain things about life and relationships that only a father can teach his daughter. When he’s not available to her, she ends up learning by trial and error. Tradition suggests that men are the “chasers,” but that’s only half of the story. We, as women, are the “choosers.” We are the ones who get to say “yay” or “nay” to our suitors, but if a father, or another male figure, is not there to be an example for a young girl, how does she learn and sharpen her choosing skills? Many of us learn the hard way. I know I did.
Sometimes it’s just about knowing that your father has your back, even if he doesn’t speak a word. I remember being so hurt and upset when I broke up with my first boyfriend. That first real heartbreak is always painful, and the fact that I questioned myself so much made it even worse. Was it me? Would he have been more interested if I looked like this or that? Did I say or do something to make him turn away? Thankfully, Hal was able to console me, so I wasn’t really thinking about my dad too much during that emotional time. Although I was long past the point of voluntarily sharing something so personal with him, in hindsight, I wonder if that experience might have settled differently if he’d been there supporting me. I doubt if I would have been sitting on those negative feelings about myself if he’d been there to just hug me and tell me I was going to be okay. Maybe I would have made different choices later on, too, but I’ll never know.
Just as the details of the day he told us about the divorce are etched in my mind, so is the day my dad told me, Reina, and our older sister Pat about his Parkinson’s diagnosis. We went to his house, and once we all sat down, he started to explain some of the strange things that had been going on. He told us about the time he stepped off of a curb and the edge of the pavement looked like it was ten feet tall. Then he told us about trying to walk through doorways and how everything would get warped and distorted. At first, he’d tried to brush those things off as signs of aging, but his friends urged him to go to the doctor. My sisters and I sat there in shock, looking back and forth at him and each other. We didn’t know what to think or what to say.
I was completely in the dark about Parkinson’s disease. I didn’t know what it was or how it would affect his life, but just the thought of him facing a serious health issue was heartbreaking to me. And things only got worse. He deteriorated more and more, year after year. By the time the disease really began to take over his mind and body, he was living in Panola County, Texas, with his fourth wife. I was pregnant when my husband and I went to visit him, and I was devastated by what I saw. The house was so unkempt and seeing my dad living in those conditions made me even more emotional than I already was. My husband didn’t want me to be in that environment, nor did he like seeing me so upset, so he made up an excuse for us to cut the trip short. I couldn’t get that whole scene out of my head, though, and once I learned that my dad’s son-in-law had stolen a lot of his money, I knew something had to change. That’s when Pat and I started planning to bring him back home to Los Angeles.
Pat did the physical part of taking care of him and I handled the financial end. It wasn’t easy for any of us; again, my emotions were all over the place. I loved my dad and did all that I could to make sure he had the best care, but I also felt some resentment about the situation. There were times when I thought, You weren’t there for me for so long and now I’ve got to take care of you? Then, on the flip side, I felt guilty about being resentful toward someone who was suffering so much.
While we were caring for him, Pat and I really had a chance to talk, and I was surprised to hear that my dad hadn’t been there for her or our other sister, LaVelle, in the ways that I’d always imagined. Ironically, both of us had believed that the other sisters had it better, but that wasn’t necessarily the case. It was during one of our talks that Pat offered her perspective on my dad. She wondered if he was just old-school in his thinking, like maybe he believed that once kids got to a certain age, they were on their own and did their own thing. Her explanation was interesting. It also made me think that my father sort of placed a tattoo over each tattoo and just moved on. Perhaps that’s just how he lived and who he was—for better or worse.
Although by this point he was not able to speak well or express his feelings, I sensed that he felt guilty about how things had turned out. I’m sure he had regrets about the past. I could see it on his face. I had regrets, too. I regretted the number of years that had passed without us having a better relationship. I regretted that he wasn’t able to share in the special moments like my wedding, where my grandfather walked me down the aisle, or the birth of my son or any of my professional achievements. I also wished Ian could have had the opportunity to really know him. Sometimes he’d come with me to visit my dad, and I could tell that he didn’t really know what to say. My mom had since remarried and it would be my stepfather who assumed the role of Ian’s grandfather. I never got over the pain of my dad’s departure from my life, but once the disease took over, I had no choice but to accept that he just couldn’t be there for me—or any of us.
I was married for nine years before my husband and I separated and eventually divorced. Just as I’d watched my parents arguing and fighting, my son watched his parents arguing and fighting. It was like history repeating itself, and I felt terrible about him having to witness that. It was such a stressful time in my life, and although I was thankful to have my mother by my side, I also wished that I could have been able to pick up the phone and talk to my dad. He was just too ill by then, though. When I needed an ear, I talked to my girlfriends, many of whom had gone through divorces, too. Some of them even told me about how their fathers had helped them through and I realized, again, just how much I’d missed out on. I was a grown woman, yet I was still wishing my dad could be there for me, just as I had when I was a teenager.
He was eighty years old when he lost his battle with Parkinson’s and I think about him often, especially when I hear a Michael Jackson song. They died during the same summer, in 2009, just months apart. My father is still so much a part of me—from my physique and fast metabolism, which I’m so thankful for now, to my sense of connection to the universe. As an adult, I found out that he’d introduced my mom to Religious Science all those years ago. We’d always gone to church with her, so I had no idea that he was the one who’d lead us down that path. That was a good feeling. I’ll never know what my life would have been like if he’d been more available when I was growing up, but I don’t feel any bitterness. Instead, I find myself still thinking about the would-haves, could-haves, and what-ifs.
It’s kind of crazy to think that I’ve now been divorced longer than I was married, but I appreciate the journey, because it brought my ex and I back to a friendship that helped us become great co-parents. Ian’s in college now and I know how much he appreciates us for making the effort, because he remembers when things were not so good. I’m just glad that we all made it to the other side. We’ve redefined what it means to be a family, our family, and we’re all better for it.
As much as I always wished my dad had stuck around, it’s such a blessing to see that Ian has a father who is there for him, no matter what. Sometimes when I catch him doing or saying something that reminds me of his dad, my heart just smiles because I know that he’ll never feel disconnected from his father as I did with mine. That makes it all worth it.
REGINA KING is an Emmy Award–winning actress whose credits span over three decades. In addition to her film and television roles in Jerry Maguire, Ray, The Boondocks, 24, and American Crime, she has added director and producer to her resume. To date, King has directed episodes of Scandal and Being Mary Jane, as well as Southland, on which she starred for five seasons She also helms the production company Royal Ties with her sister, Reina.